A Note on the Translation Industry

Against my better judgment I am sitting in on a few classes in the Department of Philosophy at DePaul University. I say against my better judgment because I have enough work to stay on top of without adding to it, but I also feel like I can’t pass up an opportunity to study some interesting texts with teachers whom I have and continue to have lots of respect for. Those who know of DePaul’s program will know that it is known for its emphasis on original languages as well as a celebration of translation. It may be one of the few places where, and I could be mistaken about this, but where a translation of a major philosophical book “counts” at the institutional level. I know it at least counts amongst the other faculty here.

I am, of course, also interested in translation, though somewhat as someone who feels more workaday about it than learned. It is an attitude I take towards translation in part because of my redneck past. I just can’t escape the fact that I had a very poor langauge education up through High School and that my comfort with the nuances of language will always be challenged by the fact that I don’t have anything approaching a classical education. I struggle sometimes to remember what an adverb is. But I can read and I can render things into readable English through the power of my labour. That’s something that I’m both proud of and unsure of. And so it is really interesting for me to listen to Michael Naas describe the massive project of translation underway on Derrida’s forty years of lecturing. Listening to him talk about the act of making choices. The difficulties presented by translating Derrida’s early hand-written lectures (he showed us a sample of Derrida’s handwriting which was completely illegible to me). And the use of the archive in working through these translations.

It’s also been interesting to hear grad students talk about translations. It seems that praise of a translation is rare, but everyone is very quick to denigrate a translation. The grave offender that I have heard about the most, owing to a class being taught on Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, is EB Ashton. They are probably right, I wouldn’t know because I don’t read German. To be honest I rarely read the original next to an English translation anyway (the excemption here is I consulted some of Aquinas and Spinoza in Latin, but even that…). It just is not how I do my work, I’m not really interested in history of philosophy where that sort of technique seems very, very important. I’m, again, more of a fraud than that. I’m more workaday, I like to play with concepts, and I believe I have a sufficienty understanding of them through the texts I’ve chosen to read (original or not).

Anyway, with the warnings of these students I mind I began reading my copy of Adorno’s text today, beginning with the “Translator’s Note” of Ashton. While his translation may be poor, he too seems very concerned with the act of translation. He makes a few comments about the untranslatability of Heidegger’s texts and defends his decision not to use the English translations of most of the German philosophers Adorno quotes. For, he writes, “My responsibility, as I saw it, was to put Adorno’s thought into English, not to keep his examples of other philosophers’ thought in line with the English forms lent to them by other translators.” And so the bad translator himself here is seen to be taking a few shots at other translators.

This isn’t uncommon. I’ve always felt talking to other translators a certain antagonism towards others. It’s not universal, but it is very common, this idea that encore un effort if you want to be translators! It was with that in mind that I was struck by a further comment by Ashton:

“I often wonder,” a noted translator and critic wrote to me years ago, “how far writers like Benjamin, Lukács, Adorno, say, are ever going to make much mark in the English-speaking world … as long as translators do not risk their lives and think them into English.”

It’s a striking sentiment if one reads it as a materialist statement and not a rhetorical flourish. For who, in an age when fewer of us are getting academic jobs that supplement any translation work and when fewer and fewer presses are willing to pay the amount of money that a translation truly deserves, who in this age can afford to risk their life and give a translation that much of their labour power?

15 thoughts on “A Note on the Translation Industry

  1. First, let me say that this is a beautiful post. Also, I have always heard the same claims about Ashton’s translation. And, I will shamefully admit to never having looked up the German for this work (I have for other Adorno work, particularly ones not in English at the time). But, I have always enjoyed Ashton’s translation note.

    Also, what is the course you are reading this book in? Negative Dialectics has, for me, always been one of those big books in philosophy that seemed under read, or at least under reread.

  2. Yeah, I tend to only read books in their original if I can’t find them in translation. That’s why I have this crazy inkling to learn Arabic, since there are almost no real translations of Islamic philosophy or theology in English or French. The French have more, but even there it is hard to find the major works of Mulla Sadra (to take on example).

    I’m reading ND for a course entitled, handily enough, “Negative Dialectics”. DePaul often times will have courses that just read one text very slowly and this is one of those courses. It’s supposed to last two quarters and I’m hoping I’ll be able to take the second quarter as well (depends on my teaching schedule). I’ve never really read Adorno, aside from the Dialectic of Enlightenment, and I am taking the course because I was faulted in my thesis defense for not engaging with Jewish strands of philosophy enough (Spinoza and Bergson apparently didn’t count… not German enough!). So far I’m finding him fascinating, though very difficult to read. He does strike me as sharing much in common with the project of Laruelle (or perhaps it is the other way around), but that could just be from being so close to the project of non-philosophy for so long.

  3. Dennis Redmond has a new translation of Negative Dialectics posted on AAAAARG. In the introduction he says that another new translation is underway by someone else and will be published by MN Univ. Press when finished.

    “…the massive project of translation underwear on Derrida’s forty years of lecturing.”

    I highlight the typo out of appreciation. My typos are often the best things I write.

  4. Thomas: Yeah, I often hear new translations of Negative Dialectics on on the horizon. And Redmond’s work has been on his website for a while, and has several resources. http://members.efn.org/~dredmond/ndtrans.html I haven’t looked here in awhile, though. Thanks for reminding me.

    APS: I obviously don’t know enough about Laruelle to comment about its connection with Adorno. And I am glad they/you are just slowing reading it. You hear about this happening all the time with other big books of philosophy (whole graduate seminars on Being and Time, A Thousand Plateaus, etc.). Also, I think that Adorno is undergoing something of a revitalization or reappropriation. For so long he was mostly known for his work on culture and music– the guy who warned us about the culture industry, who said poetry was impossible after Auschwitz, the grumpy guy who thought jazz music was awful and an example of bad pop music–that the rest of his work on metaphysics, violence, animals and the environment, fascism and massification, non-identity, etc., just wasn’t get enough attention. Of course, this could just be the people I have hung out with and read.

    Anyway, keep me/us updated on how the Negative Dialectics go.

  5. Since spending a semester in Cairo and learning some colloquial Egyptian Arabic I also have the desire to become relatively proficient in Arabic (both colloquial Egyptian (amaya) and classical (fussha)). I found that colloquial Arabic and basic letter identification were not too difficult to learn (I think growing up bilingually helped me with this one). Reading and writing, however, are quite complex and therefore quite challenging. Still, it is something I would like to do, so as to be able read Arabic philosophy in its original. There is interesting stuff happening in the Arab world politically, philosophically, theologically, and I think we really need to get in on some of it. There are ideas that just don’t come up in the ways of thinking the English language provides. I think it was Charlemange who once said something to the effect that to learn another language is to learn another way of thinking. We sure could use more/better ways of thinking in the West.

  6. I would love to learn classical Arabic if there were some folks in my area that would like to get a group together, especially since teach the Qur’an often in my classes. Every time I have attempted to take a class on it at a community college the adjunct has found better work elsewhere and it never happened. I am happy for the adjunct, though.

  7. @ Christopher Rodkey: I see you are located in Lebanon, PA. I have relatives near there…but I reside in that mysterious country north of the USA. I have had similar experiences with Arabic classes happening and then not.

  8. My own opinion is that all the flack poor Ashton has been getting for his translation of ND is due to his unfortunate decision to translate ANY word, whatever it might have been, as “unfoldment” in the fourth sentence of Adorno’s Preface. Let this be a lesson to all of us.

  9. I also think that nine times out of ten, complaints about translations are based on at most a handful of isolated words that the reader figured they could do a better job of rendering. I know that this used to be the sort of thing that made me think a translation was lacking somehow, before I started doing the work myself. It’s hard, from the outside, to get a real sense of the sheer density of the web of constraints through which every single choice has to be filtered.

    Of course, there’s also the whole “save the continental philosopher by scapegoating the translator” strategy, which I think even had Rocco Gangle in the crosshairs in the comments to this blog a while back. I was glad to see you put a stop to this.

  10. The last two semesters I am using a Qur’an annotation called The Koran Handbook, which takes the suras out of order and organizes them them thematically and annotates nearly every line and has a good introduction to each sura. In fact, some of the suras are split up between different sections, which is helpful to see the intertextuality of the Qur’an emerge. (I know it’s not technically a Qur’an if this is how it’s presented, but neither is it if it’s in English anyway.)

    @Kampen… didn’t know you had family near here. My family is here, I grew up in Lancaster and my spourse has family in Ephrata, PA. I’ve actually always wanted to take a Pennsylvania Dutch class, as well, as I grew up with some Dutchified English, but the classes never quite work in the schedule. Several folks in my church speak PA Dutch, and it’s part of my background, so I’ve had an interest and I have a couple CDs I listen to in the car. I’d do Arabic first if I had the opportunity.

  11. We should all be reading everything in the original anyway. And we should only read things with the author’s original notes and journal entries from the time he or she was writing it. And we should only venture to comment on a work when we’ve read every book the author read in the lead-up to writing it, in the same order and under the same circumstances.

  12. I suppose particularly with big canonical texts, it can be intimidating to actually critique the author or their argument, so criticizing the translation gives you something to say which sounds smart but is lower risk (that would be one example of something that is a bit of a grad school pathology, I think). I wonder if it works the other way around sometimes, though. Reading La Leçon d’Althusser really cemented my dislike of Rancière, but I’ve often wondered if some of my irritation came from the added hassle of reading it in French; now it’s out in English I should probably put that to the test.

  13. Just a brief note – I love this post, and your discussion of your relationship to translation (working-class folks who have found themselves in x-for-reading grad courses around the world rejoice!); I also thought I’d point towards an interview with Betsy Wing, the translator (and fiction writer) responsible for Eribon’s biography of Foucault, and works by Cixous and Glissant. She shares, despite this impressive track record, a similar workwoman-like relationship to the process. Here’s an excerpt:


    Do you consider yourself bilingual?

    Betsy Wing:

    Absolutely not.


    How did you get into translating?

    Betsy Wing:

    When Feminism began to be a topic people were reading and writing a great deal about (early 70s) I read a wonderful book by two French women, Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement that seemed to me to address the subject very differently from the rather flat-footed manner being employed by most writers in English. I was eager for my American friends to get a taste of what they were saying and could only think of one way to pass the book on to them. Then I sent a bit of the translation off to Cixous who was so complimentary (since she wrote her doctoral thesis on James Joyce I thought she was a good judge of the transition from French to English) that I took a chance and applied for a NEH grant to do the translation. I got the grant and ended up on the list of people asked by presses to do translation.

    Full interview here: http://lbc.typepad.com/blog/2006/08/interview_with__1.html

    – HJM

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