[OPE-L] The difficulties of translating Marx: report on an excursus in Marxology

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Thu Aug 02 2007 - 14:33:32 EDT

Prof. Perelman wondered about the source of a Marx quote given by Michio
Morishima and George Catephores in their influential "Value, exploitation
and growth: Marx in Light of Modern Economic Theory" (1978). The problem
quote has Marx saying:

"Political Economy, in order to give its laws greater constancy and
determinacy, must present truth as accidental and the abstraction as true."

Intrigued by this,  I thought I would investigate - if Prof. Perelman could
"never find" the source for this, something is really going wrong.

The source turns out to be: Karl Marx [und] Friedrich Engels, Die Heilige
Familie und Schriften von Marx von Anfang 1844 bis anfang 1845. Marx-Engels
Gesamtausgabe, Erste Abteilung Band 3. Berlin: Marx-Engels Verlag Gmbh,
1932. p. 502  (This first attempt at a Marx-Engels collected works edited by
Riazanov/Adoratskii was reprinted in 1970, and Morishima/Catephores cited
the reprint).

With the kind cooperation of the staff at the IISH who trucked out the
Gesamtausgabe, I could establish that specific quote occurs in an 1844 or
1845 conspectus (notes and excerpts) of  David Ricardo's Principles of
Political Economy and Taxation, which Marx probably read for the first time
in his Paris days, as he was beginning to study economics then (Marx used a
1835 French edition with annotations by Jean Baptiste Say).

The literal German original of the quote reads as follows:

"Die Nationaloekonomie, um ihren Gesetzen eine Grossere Konsistenz und
Bestimmtheit zu geben, muss die Wirklichkeit als akzidentell und die
Abstraktion als wirklich unterstellen"

Morishima & Catephores's  English version is thus inaccurate. "Konsistenz"
does not mean constancy, but consistency. "Wirklichkeit" does not mean
truth, but reality. "Unterstellen" does not mean "present" but "assume" or
"suppose".  "Akzidentell" in this case is Marx's German rendering of the
French "accidentelle" used in Ricardo's translated text, but what is really
meant is "incidental".

The translation should thus be as follows:

"To give its laws a greater consistency and determinacy, Political Economy
must assume the reality as incidental, and the abstraction as real". Not
altogether the same thing as that which Morishima/Catephores claim Marx

To understand the significance of the quote, you really need the context of
the whole paragraph, which is a comment on the distinction between natural
prices and current prices. In my own translation:

"On p. 111 Ricardo says, that when he speaks of exchange-value, he always
means the natural price, disregarding the accidents of competition due to
what he calls any momentary or incidental cause. To give its laws a greater
consistency and determinacy, Political Economy must assume the reality as
incidental, and the abstraction as real. Say remarks in this regard in note
1, p. 111-112 that "the natural price... would appear to be... chimerical.
There are only current prices in political economy." This he proves by
saying that labour, capital and land are not determined by any fixed rate of
exchange [lit. festen Taxe, probably Marx germanified the French "taux" and
did not mean "tax"], but according to the relationship between the quantity
supplied and the quantity demanded. When Smith assumed the natural price,
there existed at least the question "What role in production-costs do
labour, capital and land have?". That is a question which, leaving aside
private ownership, makes sense; the natural price consists in the
production-costs. Thus e.g. in the community the question might be, will the
land produce this or that product? Is the business worth the labour and
capital invested? Through the fact that in Political Economy it becomes only
more of an issue about the current price, matters are not considered anymore
in relation to their production costs, and production-costs in relation to
people, but as the total production in relation to the haggling over it."

I did not think to consult the L&W MECW to see if it includes an English
translation of these notes by Marx on Ricardo's Principles, I ran out of

When you consider the relations of communication involved in all this, it's
remarkable. First, the manuscripts were acquired from the estate and Marx's
notoriously terrible handwriting mixing German and French terms had to be
deciphered in the late 1920s. Then missing words had to be interpolated.
Then the text was published, 88 years later, yet a scholar who read it 133
years or so later, used it in another context while mistranslating it in
English, and possibly did not adequately reference it. Then another scholar
wonders 163 years later where the quote really came from, or if Marx really
said it. Then through the cooperation of three people plus Internet
facilities maintained by other people, we find the quote again in August
2007, but we have to retranslate it, so it makes sense in the context it was
originally stated. If Marx had known all this would happen, he'd be amazed.


This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Fri Aug 31 2007 - 00:00:10 EDT