Editing Henri Lefebvre’s Metaphilosophy – doing his endnotes properly

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been editing the translation of Lefebvre’s Metaphilosophy for Verso. Despite a very fine translation by David Fernbach, this has still taken some work. First there are the linguistic complications of a three-way language dialogue – Lefebvre wrote in French about German writers such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger, and we’re trying to render this into English. There are are also some Lefebvre-specific terminological issues, but the key work has been, as ever, with the notes. I said something about this before – here and here – when editing the Axelos translation last year. And having done the notes for Lefebvre’s Key WritingsRhythmanalysis (with the help of Gerald Moore), State, Space, World (with Neil Brenner) and the rural essay with Adam David Morton for Antipode, I knew what was to be done, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

With this text, there are a lot of references. It’s one of Lefebvre’s most fully referenced book. Several are notes; some are in text – at the moment we’ve moved them all to notes. If Lefebvre provided consistent references to texts, either original language or in French translation, then it would be a straight-forward, though time-consuming, task of finding the original, comparing to an English translation and noting the corresponding page. But it’s never that simple.

Lefebvre uses lots of old editions of texts, many of which are hard to find. He frequently references texts, but omits the page, or just says the part such as the ‘Introduction’. He doesn’t always specify the edition. He seems to make up a different journal referencing style every chapter. Some of the passages are just not referenced at all. A few references are to things he heard – lectures at societies, for example. But these were usually published subsequently, so references to those go in. He sometimes puts things that are not quotations in quotation marks, and vice versa. One was from Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s, La Vida es sueño [Life is a dream], but despite quite a bit of time searching and reading I’m now convinced the passage in quotation marks is more of a summary of the sentiment of the play than a specific quotation. Another was a characterisation of Weber’s question in The Protestant Ethic, but I don’t think that’s a quotation either.

In addition, many quotes from German sources are in his own, sometimes idiosyncratic translations. He was an important editor and translator of Hegel and Marx in France, along with Norbert Guterman – Guterman did the bulk of the translating; Lefebvre most of the introductions – but doesn’t always even provide a reference to his own editions (all of which I have copies of, and so could use to locate the quotation). He uses Axelos’s French translation of Heraclitus, which matches English translations poorly, but the specific words used are important to his argument. One quotation from Anaximander is a Heideggerian-Axelos inspired version which has important differences from existing English ones.

David did the vast majority of the notes to Marx, turning Lefebvre’s references to ones that consistently referenced the English Collected Works. There were relatively few to add. Some of those Lefebvre is quoting are authors I know quite well, such as Nietzsche or Heidegger. Those took little time – it helps enormously with Heidegger that when Lefebvre was writing (1963-64) there was very little of his work published, even in German, so it substantially narrows the options, especially compared to now. (David had already done a lot of the work here too.) But other authors referenced were ones I’ve read, but don’t know in depth, such as Hegel. And there is a lot of discussion of Hegel in this book – the Science of Logic and the Encyclopedia LogicElements of the Philosophy of RightThe Phenomenology of Spirit, and Philosophy of Nature. Tracking all of these down took quite some time. David did many, but I still had a lot to do. One reference to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy seems to really be a reference to Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. Only one defeated me – despite Lefebvre’s reference that it is in the 1827 Preface to the Encyclopedia, I cannot find it there.

He also has an extended discussion of Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, which was generally referenced correctly to the French 1960 edition. But the English translation breaks paragraphs in different places, and changes the headings and sections, so finding passages could take a while. David already did the majority of these, but a few raised some questions – one was to Vol 1, p. 1326, but that text only runs to 755 pages. There is a passage in the second volume which corresponds exactly, so did Lefebvre use a preliminary page proof before things were cut? Yet the second volume wasn’t published until after Sartre’s death – some twenty years after Lefebvre’s book. We know Sartre and Lefebvre had a long correspondence – one of my book-buying regrets is not paying what for a PhD student was a huge amount of money for a book signed by Lefebvre with a dedication to Sartre – but Lefebvre doesn’t say something like ‘reference to unpublished ms.’ I guessed it might be a typo, and checking the original 1965 edition, instead of the 2001 second edition used as the basis for this translation, proved it: it should be a reference to p. 136. Another page reference to 741 should have been 744 – another error introduced in the second French edition. Checking the original edition of Sartre was also helpful – the 1960 edition doesn’t match the edition used as the basis for the English translation. So the 1960 one helped to fix a reference where the page in the later French text has nothing to do with the topic. But not all the challenges can be put down to editions: at one point Lefebvre makes up a tautology purportedly from Sartre, sticks it in quote marks, and then criticises it.

Most of his references to classical writers used standard conventions, though one reference to Aristotle’s Metaphysics was to the wrong book, but fortunately the right Bekker number. There was one to Augustine with no reference that took a little bit of work. All the other references to Augustine were to the Confessions, so I started and ended there. Another which missed part of the reference was easy to find because he quoted the Latin, which leads to an easy Google search. Google comes in handy for this work, but often only to indicate where to look in an actual copy of a text, and searching for a phrase in French, or in an English translation of that French, for a text originally written in a different language, is of limited use. Worldcat was helpful in completing his frequently incomplete or inaccurate bibliographical references.  He quite often mentions people by surname alone, sometimes misspelt, so working out who he meant can take some time.

Much of this was most efficient for me to do at home, where I have copies of most of the relevant works by Marx, Hegel. Sartre and all of the ones by Lefebvre, Nietzsche and Heidegger. I had to make trips to Warwick library for lots of the French literary references, and because I don’t own Critique de la raison dialectique in French, though even looking at that made me realise I needed to check the 1960 original edition rather than the reprint. I only own a copy of the 2001 edition of the Lefebvre text, so for the 1965 edition, and the 1960 edition of Sartre, I needed to go to the British Library. The BL though doesn’t have the later French edition of Sartre, so I couldn’t compare side-by-side. I had to make some notes and then go to the LSE library to compare. There is definitely a sense of achievement in finding one of the more intractable references, and the detective type approach can be interesting. This kind of work feels finished in a way that writing never does, but seriously, someone really should have sorted these sorts of things out for the 2001 re-edition of the text. (And not introduce other errors!) While it might have been bad, but relatively standard, practice in the mid 1960s, it is intolerable in a book today. And that is why, despite the huge amounts of labour it takes, I feel it is necessary for a translation with which I am associated.

LSE library

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This entry was posted in Adam David Morton, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Henri Lefebvre, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Neil Brenner. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Editing Henri Lefebvre’s Metaphilosophy – doing his endnotes properly

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