[OPE-L:2036] Translator's lot is not a happy one

Alan Freeman (100042.617@compuserve.com)
Mon, 29 Apr 1996 13:46:56 -0700

[ show plain text ]

Re translating p300 of the Penguin edition, p188 (p193 in L/W)
and so on. I'm afraid this is going to be a rant, but having been
on the sharp end of the translating business I'm unhappy.

1) Look, guys, there was a typo. The Penguin edition contains
an extra 'and'. Remove the 'and', and the problem goes. Who knows
if Ben Fowkes (yes, he is a real person) got it wrong? It could be
anyone between the translator, the publisher, the typist, the
copy-editor and just a bad night out for everyone. None of them
get paid and none of them get recognised. In four days of exchanges
you guys managed to write labor-labor instead of labour-power
and get the (for me, it may be different for Amerikans in which
case abasement and apologies) wrong page number for the
L/w edition WRONG and you were only talking about one paragraph.
How the hell do you think one ordinary human being translator
is going to get everything right?

2) The real problem is this: why should Riccardo have to cite
in English at all? Marx wrote in German, he should be cited in
German. And we should *learn* German. It is perhaps difficult
for non-German speakers, but no more difficult than neoclassical
economics for non-economists.

The only reason Riccardo has to ask us about the 'correct'
translation is because of Anglophone cultural imperialism. Full stop.
My advice to Riccardo is, if in doubt, cite the German. This
i say not out of arrogance but simply because I don't accept that
an Italian should be forced to quote a German in English.
It's not right. Also, the German is what Marx actually wrote, in his
crabbed hand on his yellow paper. So it is the closest we will every
get to the poor man's brain.

3) The problem is not that L/W is a 'good' translation and Penguin
is 'bad' or whatever. It's almost next to impossible when you are
working for love and peanuts to get *every* single word just right.
The problem is that people who ought to speak languages other
than English, don't. Just imagine how different this discussion
might be if Riccardo, Mino and Massimo could address us in
Italian, Gerard in French, Chai-on in Korean, Iwao in Japanese,
Costas and Stavros in Greek, and whatever anyone is moved
to speak at the moment that expresses how they feel, best.

4) The way you do umlauts in German is you put in an E. So,
Taegtigkeit, Boehm-Bawerk, etc. The way you do a sharp S is
you put two S's, so, Strasse, usw. This isn't a dig at Jerry, it's
just to point out that the Germans have already faced this problem
and the reason they have had to face this problem is, computers
were put together by English speakers. Jerry just ran up against
a problem which every German, every Greek, every Spaniard, every
French person, etc. runs up against every time they have to use
equipment which the fucking Anglos invented for their own convenience.
Never mind Asian, Slavic or Semitic speakers, for whom the DOS
keyboard is just another world.

5)A perfect translation is *impossible*. It's all full of culture and
things. (anyone read C J Cherryh?) My students have to do it every day,
all the time, for their mothers and fathers. They get it wrong. They
feel embarassed for the mothers and fathers, who don't speak 'good
English'. What an outrage. The truth is, I should take the time to
learn the language of their mothers and fathers instead of *presuming*
they are obliged to speak my language. I should learn Punjabi, Urdu,
Greek, Vietnamese, Somali, Chinese. What law dictates that their labour
time should be spent learning my language instead of my labour time being
spend learning their language? *Only* the law of value. I thought
our role was to overthrow the law of value. There are a hundred and
fifty languages spoken in London and every one has a right to exist.

6)Hegel tried to Germanise philosophy. Many of the obscure
terms we grapple with today are commonplace German expressions, eg
fuer sich, an sich (for itself, in itself). These just don't translate.
There is no way to explain or render into English what a German person
experiences when the words 'fuer sich' arise in a sentence'. But we have
to render it as *something*, so we come up with clumsy absurdities like

7) We are very lucky that Marx was sufficiently
cosmopolitan not to fall into Hegel's almost nationalistic
Germanisation of all things philosophical. But even Marx could
not escape those questions where the German language is simply
*better* than the English to render important and indeed vital
philosophical concepts. Thus he had to use terms such as the
class 'in itself' and the class 'for itself' bcause nothing can
surpass the Germanic expression of these concepts, and if we really
want to understand what they mean we have to learn German, Punkt.

7) Sometimes a brilliant translator can make your hair stand
on end by creating in one language the cultural and linguistic
transliteration of a unique concept in another language, eg
'Abandon hope, all ye who enter' or 'the moving finger writes, and
having writ, moves on' which have almost entered the English
language as phrases. I live to be able to do such a thing.
But who could translate this?:

Die Luft is kuehl und es dunkelt,
Und Ruhig fliesst der Rhein
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
Im Abendsonnenshchein

or even the corny old

Die Gedanken sind frei
Wer kann sie erlassen
Sie fliehen vorbei
wie nachtliche Schatten

It can't be done! This is what Germany was, should have been,
and failed to be. These are the tears of a nation that thought
it could be what it did not come to be, and whose passing
drowned the world. These are Superman's dying Gift. PS what
is Man of Steel in Russian - quiz?

8) There are concepts which, in German, have no *exact* English
equivalent and we have to be careful about them. One of them
is the word 'gleich'. Now, 'gleich' is always translated into
English as 'equal'. But actually, it doesn't quite mean 'equal'.
Etymologically it has the same root as 'Like'. A German has
to choose, when expressing the concept of identity, between
'gleich' which is a word that expresses similarity but has
become stronger than similarity, and 'Derselbe' which expresses
identity or (paradoxically) what would, in mathematical
language, be expressed as equivalence or =- (three strokes
under each other, identity). Gleich is almost always translated
as 'equal' but this isn't really what it means. Now, hey
guys, you want us *translators* to sort out your problems?
This is a political choice! Translate 'gleich' as 'equal'
and you end up on the Skillman/Keen side; translate it as
'similar to' and you end up on the Kliman/Freeman side.

Which is objective? Which is correct? Imagine yourself
as a translator in the Stalin error and ask yourself
'which translation would I have offered?'

My dad once told me the following which illustrates the
margin of Freedom of the Translator: he (not my dad,
the anonymous translator) had to translate 'Applause
from all corners of the hall' and had the guts to render
it as 'applaudissements de tous les cons de la halle.'

There have been not a few debates on this list in which
the issue of value-price *equality* (Gleichheit) has figured.
But as Dan Dare would say, I would bet Mars to a Marble that
when Marx uses the word 'gleich', particularly in that good
old Part One of Volume One, he understands it in the good
old classical Germanic sense of 'like', 'similar to',
'aenlich' and *not* the English sense of 'identically the
same as'.

SO, when an Anglo reads any translation, whether the
authorized L/w or the revisionist Ben Fowkes, s/he finds that
Part I of Volume I talks about the 'equality' of commensurable
things. But for a German, the words of this (rather vital)
section lie halfway in between the Anglo 'equal' and
the Anglo 'similar to'.

Don't shoot the Pianist. Learn to sing.