Orders of translation

In his comments on the Sloterdijk review, Peter Gratton ends by suggesting:

It might have done Sloterdijk a favor to publish this work after the forthcoming English translations of the three volumes of Spheres.

In this he’s absolutely right. To be honest, I doubt anyone is going to get why Sloterdijk is worthwhile, and why it’s worth putting up with the problems and politics, until that is accessible. (They still may not, of course.) Or perhaps his book on globalisation, which takes a chunk of Spheres II and develops it. Both are coming out in English, but with Semiotext(e) for Spheres and Polity for The Inner-world of Capital. And that’s the problem that I think part explains the order of translation – different publishers get rights to different books, and they come out in slightly odd order. Polity and Semiotext(e) both tested the water with shorter works first; as far as I know Columbia University Press who published Rage and Time just got the rights to that – I will be happily corrected. His earlier books on cynical reason and Nietzsche were both with University of Minnesota Press. I know Continuum were trying to get some rights, but have been unsuccesful as far as I know. And then Springer published that little pamphlet on the theory of the post-war period.

It got me thinking about translations of other thinkers, and whether the order they appeared was helpful to the author or their reception. I’ll take the three I know best. Foucault was translated pretty much in the order they came out in French, with some slightly out of sequence and a few years delay, although anglophone readers had to put up with Madness and Civilisation for years until History of Madness finally came out. The lecture courses have come out in pretty much the same order too more recently. Of course, we still don’t have a translation of Dits et écrits in its entirety. The laughably named Essential Works is a poor substitute. And there are some co-authored, or edited works that are not in English.

Lefebvre was, and is, poorly served. Rather peripheral works such as Dialectical Materialism and The Sociology of Marx, or his reflections on May 68 or on The Survival of Capitalism were the only ones out in his lifetime. He died at the age of 90 in 1991, the year that Critique of Everyday Life I and The Production of Space came out. The resurgence of interest in him dates from around that time, and those are surely much more representative works that show both his strengths and weaknesses. When I was working on Lefebvre in around 2002, I found a letter from Lefebvre’s friend, co-writer and sometime translator Norbert Guterman, proposing a collection of Lefebvre’s urban writings in 1977. It really would be interesting to think about what kind of an impact that would have had at the time – for two reasons: first, the impact Lefebvre’s urban and spatial writings had when they were translated; and second, that figures like Manuel Castells and David Harvey were discussing Lefebvre in the 1970s, but unless people read French they were hearing his ideas second-hand, and from people who were critiquing him. And Lefebvre’s philosophical works – such as Métaphilosophie and Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche are probably the best – are not available in English other than in short pieces in Key Writings. And there are many more books of his unlikely ever to come out in English – in some cases probably just as well, but there are some that it would be great to have available.

And Heidegger. There can’t be many people still active in Heidegger scholarship who were working on him in English before Being and Time came out in 1962, but that was 35 years after the German original, and before that there were only a few shorter pieces and that odd Existence and Being collection that pairs two essays on Hölderlin with ‘What is Metaphysics?’ and ‘On the Essence of Truth’, if I remember right. The Question of Being – actually a piece on Ernst Jünger – was also early. So even in the late 50s a reader without German would have had a very skewed sense of what that particular thinker was concerned with and what there was a fuss about…

This entry was posted in David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Peter Gratton, Peter Sloterdijk, Publishing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Orders of translation

  1. Pingback: Links and Such « PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR

  2. Marc says:

    I believe Columbia UP has acquired the rights to Suspended in Thought, so they will be following Rage and Time with something. It is also my understanding that the English rights to all of Sloterdijk’s books have been sold at this point, so the English landscape of his work should be looking very different in about five years. But you’re absolutely right on this matter. There are also cases in which translations exceed (a lot of “French theory,” which got more attention in English than in French) or precede the author’s original language (Semiotext(e)’s recent Negri and Berardi titles, for instance, which I think have yet to appear in Italian). And the translation of culture, which sometimes is in addition to language (Virilio’s strange influence on the Italian autonomists in the 1970s, for instance). That is all separate from the issue of “order” you’re discussing, though, which is an interesting one. Few authors and thinkers send big waves from the get-go (though Sloterdijk is an odd case in that he did with his first book, but then ebbed for a span of time before reemerging, I guess from his engagement with Osho?), so translation on a broader scale is often an exercise in “working backward”: common in literature, but tricky in theory/philosophy, where everything is a continual development, rethinking thinking, etc., making translation of this development often something of a “forensic evolution.”

    • stuartelden says:

      I didn’t realise Scheintod im Denken was coming out with Columbia UP, but yes, I am not surprised that the rights to all have been sold. There was a sudden upturn of interest a couple of years ago and the actual translations are only slowly catching up with this. Thanks for the information.

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