Adventures in Translation: Besetzung

The issues around Strachey’s Standard Edition of Freud’s works are much discussed–Besetzung being an exemplary case. It was rendered “cathexis.” This has several disadvantages, not least of which that most people have no idea what it means. However, finding a suitable alternative is not as simple as pulling out one’s Oxford-Duden. Our reading group is working through Formulierungen über die zwei Pinzipien des psychischen Geschehens and here is our best attempt to make sense of a particularly difficult passage. I’ve put Besetzung in bold:

“An Stelle der Verdrängung, welche einen Teil der auftauchenden Vorstellungen also unlusterzeugend von der Besetzung ausschloß, trat die unparteiische Urteilsfällung, welche entscheiden sollte, ob eine bestimmte Vorstellung wahr oder falsch, das heißt im Einklang mit der Realität sei oder nicht, und durch Vergleichung mit den Erinnerungsspuren der Realität darüber entschied.”

The standard edition has:
“The place of repression, which excluded from cathexis as productive of unpleasure some of the emerging ideas, was taken by an impartial passing of judgement, which had to decide whether a given idea was true or false – that is, whether it was in agreement with reality or not – the decision being determined by making a comparison with the memory-traces of reality.”

Our translation:
“Repression—which works by excluding certain emerging ideas from occupying [the mind], because they would result in unpleasure—was replaced by an impartial act of judgement, which works instead by deciding whether a particular idea is true or false—that is, whether or not it agrees with reality—a decision made by comparing the idea with the memory-traces of reality.”

I believe that the new Penguin translations use investment, but that doesn’t seem to capture the action that Freud is describing in this paper. The solution here was proposed by Simon. What do you think?

7 thoughts on “Adventures in Translation: Besetzung

  1. The root verb, “setz”, means to put or place. The inseperable prefix, “be-“, is somewhat synonymous with the same archaic English prefix (e.g. to bewail). It has many uses: “be-” can completely change the meaning of a word, can make an intransitive verb transitive, but most likely, in this case, is the use of causing the verb to have mental sense (greifen – grasp; begreifen – to understand).

    At this point in the paper, Freud is tracking the shift from the dominion of the pleasure principle to the dominion of the reality principle. In the former, the ego did not allow unpleasurable stimuli to take up mental space. In the latter, mental space is coordinated according to the subject’s true/false judgments in comparison to memory-traces. Freud, of course, is not implying that we are all purely objective mental scientists under the reality principle–these memory-traces still have a subjective element. However, the mental function that blocked “Besetzung” because those stimuli would produce unpleasure, now judges stimuli according to a standard of true/false.

  2. I’m not entirely sure about your contention that the prefix in this case makes the verb take on a “mental sense.” It’s a verb with a variety of very straightforward meanings in German, including “to occupy,” both in a military sense, and in the sense of filling a professional or bureaucrat post. In this latter sense, it can have a feeling of inevitability, like there’s this post that just has to be occupied, almost as a merely formal matter. I think that over-analyzing the function of the prefix might lead you astray. (Also, as a Germanist I have to make the pedantic point that while the verb root might be “setz-” the “root verb” is “setzen”).

    I think the problem with “occupying [the mind]” is first of all that it sounds colloquial (where the German sounds technical), and almost like a conscious process, or one that one *could* be consciously aware of. Of course, in order to replace the German noun “Beseztung” with the English “occupying” and have the translation make grammatical sense, you have to tack “[the mind]” on the end. “Occupation” is unsatisfactory as well.

    Perhaps “investment” isn’t so terrible? Of course you’d have to change the syntax of your sentence.

  3. In what follows, I outline the thought process that led to the translation choice above.

    Repression here is a solution to a certain problem.

    There are some ideas in the mind, which are expected to result in unpleasure. These need to be dealt with, somehow. However, these ideas are already there. Their existence cannot be undone. How else, then, can they be dealt with?

    Repression provides a solution by dismissing these ideas, much like what a snooze button does. Occurrent ideas now become non-occurrent—or, in other words, latent. Repression works on the time, not on the existence, of ideas. Freud discusses this point explicitly in ‘Einige Bemerkungen über den Begriff des Unbewußten’. I’d like to think of repression as a function which orders ideas according to the amount of pleasure or unpleasure that is expected of them and conceptualises this order as a temporal order. Ideas of higher rank are placed on the occurrent end of that temporal axis, while those of lower rank are placed on the latent end of the same. All ideas, repressed or otherwise, remain there in the mind. But they occupy different places, which are demarcated by time.

    The development that Freud describes in this particular paragraph is the introduction a different solution. This new solution is the act of judgement.

    Like repression, it is a function that orders ideas according to the amount of pleasure or unpleasure that is expected of them. However, unlike repression, it conceptualises this order as an order of reality. Ideas of higher rank are placed on the real (that is, true) end of the reality axis, while those of lower rank are placed on the unreal (that is, false) end of the same. Reality, here, is defined by the memory traces.

    What is also introduced in this development are the two concepts of truth and falsity. These, unlike pleasure and unpleasure, are impartial and need not refer to the subject. Judgements of truth (or, what is the same, reality) obtain independently of the subject or the act of judging. Well, so it seems to the subject. Freud’s description makes it clear that this is an illusion, because it is precisely the act of judging that accords the idea its truth for the first time. In this sense, there is a temporal factor still in play, insofar as the idea’s truth is treated as something that always has been. The idea’s time is an aspect of it that remains unsaid, in both repression and the act of judgement. The latter reinforces this fact, by introducing these two concepts of truth and falsity, which are atemporal.

    As regards your comment, JD, concerning how this talk of occupying makes it sound like a conscious process, I’d say this in response. The act of judgement is a stage in development, which is followed by action, then by thought, and then by phantasy. So, the possibility of being conscious of these processes involved in the act of judgement is ruled out, since that kind of consciousness requires thought. Freud does talk, though, of a different kind of consciousness as already being in play at this stage. This kind of consciousness is attached [geknüpften] to the sense-organs and the qualities of pleasure and unpleasure, where such consciousness is without thought. It’s not an active, but a passive, kind of consciousness.

  4. Simon, thanks for that elegant explanation of the mechanism of repression. I guess my main problem isn’t so much with “occupy” as a verb here as it is with the paranthetical gloss of “the mind” in the English version. To me, in everyday English, something “occupying” someone’s mind always suggests a kind of preoccupation with something that is precisely at the forefront of someone’s thoughts. If there was a way to get occupy to work syntactically without the addtion of “[the mind]” I’d be more inclined to agree with you. I think what Freud means here is probably more akin to a libidinal position taken by the ego. But I haven’t read the entire passage in question, so you may be right!

  5. Hm, how about “positioning”?

    That sounds slightly more technical and it also retains the sense that I’d like to imply—namely, of the mind being a space.

    Thought is a function of elements within that space. What is at the forefront of someone’s thoughts are the elements that are ranked high according to the order that results from this function. I like this talk of ‘forefront’ because it also implies a space, though I’d like to think that thought is more like a line—a line of division—within the space of the mind and not a space of its own. Perhaps “positioning” would make such a view of the mind easier to appreciate.

  6. I appreciate the new translation you’re using however I think you’re losing some of the meaning of the word cathexis. I believe cathexis has to do with processing pain as an adult that you experienced during childhood in some kind of productive way. ie, so that you don’t have to keep going through the same scenario over & over and keep experiencing the same level of pain over and over. cathecting means you cleanse yourself of the pain so that next time it’s easier.

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