The textual issues around Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’

what is an author While it is somewhat outside the time period I am currently working on, Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’ lecture is interesting because it is one of the few instances for which there is a textual record of an engagement between Foucault and Lacan.

The lecture was first delivered at the Société française de philosophie at the Collège de France on 22 February 1969. In March 1970 Foucault gave a version at SUNY Buffalo. Foucault’s visit was to the French department, and at this time he either lectured in French or with an interpreter.

The original lecture was published in the Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie in 1969 (63e annee, No 3, pp. 73-104); the Buffalo lecture was published in the 1970s. While Dits et écrits provides a number to both texts in its chronology, it only prints one version (#69) and the other (#258) simply points to the first. Text #69 is a critical composite edition, based on the 1969 lecture, with the passages cut from the 1970 version enclosed in brackets, and a few notes indicating other variations. [Not all the changes are marked.] Daniel Defert translates back into French one long variant passage only said in the US. The text printed in Dits et écrits therefore allows a reader to reconstruct what was said in both Paris and in Buffalo.

The two texts are translated separately in English.

Most of the Paris text (missing pp. 73-75 and discussion from foot of pp. 95-104) can be found in Donald Bouchard (ed.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977, pp. 113-38, translated by Bouchard and Sherry Simon. It is reprinted in Donald Preziosi (ed.), The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 299-314, with notes on pp. 547-48. This is a strikingly lazy reprint, which does not mention the Bouchard source, and even includes a note ‘See above, ‘Language to Infinity’, p. 58’ which refers to another essay in the Bouchard collection, not the anthology itself.

Richard Lynch’s Bibliography of Foucault’s shorter works in translation led me an earlier translation of the Paris lecture in Partisan Review, Vol 42 No 4, 1975, pp. 603-14, translated by James Venit. It is slightly abridged, and again misses the opening pages and the discussion. As far as I can tell, this has not been reprinted.

The Buffalo text is translated as “What is an Author?” in J.V. Harari (ed.), Textual Strategies, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979, pp. 141-60. The Buffalo text is the one reprinted in The Foucault Reader and in Essential Works Vol II.

In Paris, there was a discussion that followed the lecture (pp. 95-104). It is not translated in any of the above versions, but some parts can be found in Screen, Vol 20 No 1, 1979, pp. 29-33, translated by Kari Hanet.

Essential Works was supposed to be a translation of Dits et écrits, but the version found there does not correspond to a text found in Dits et écrits. It reprints the translation from Textual Strategies, and suggests that it has been ‘slightly modified’. It claims that “this essay is the text of a lecture presented to the Société Française de philosophie on 22 February 1969 (Foucault gave a modified form of the lecture in the United States in 1970)”. Actually, this is almost the reverse: the essay in Essential Works is the US version, of which there was an earlier variant form in Paris. To do justice to the text, what should have been provided was a translation of Dits et écrits #69, with the variants between Paris and Buffalo noted, and probably also the discussion. The French editors had already done the hard work; this text could have simply used the Bouchard version to fill in the missing parts. The preface and discussion does not appear at all. Once again, the English reader is short-changed by this very partial collection, with a reprint of a text which was itself already truncated.

So the text has been translated three times – by Venit, Bouchard & Simon and Harari. The others are reprints. The three translations are of the two different versions, though there is Paris material untranslated in any version. It is worth underlining that the reprints with widest circulation – The Foucault Reader and Essential Works – are of the shorter, US version of the lecture. The discussion has never been translated in full.

Finally, it is worth noting that in Lacan’s contribution to the discussion, he first says that he received the invitation very late – the implication is that he has missed at least part of the lecture – and then refers to the text of the invitation before elaborating a comment based on it. I wondered where that invitation might be. It is actually in the Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie and in Dit et écrits, though not marked as such. These versions include the text of the invitation, followed by Jean Wahl’s introduction, and then some opening words by Foucault (two paragraphs worth) before the opening line: “The subject which I have chosen – ‘What is an Author?’ – obviously requires some justification”. As far as I am aware, these opening parts have never been translated.

There are certainly ironies here, given Foucault’s topic and the English variations of the text. Any additions or corrections to the above are most welcome.

[August 2021: a little minor updating of this post]

[October 2021: on further research, I now do not think the version in Textual Strategies is actually the Buffalo lecture. Rather I think it is a different translation of the Paris lecture, slightly cut and amended to make it closer to themes Foucault discussed in Buffalo. Since this is the version most reprinted in English, this is significant. A fuller discussion is here. This has also been updated in November 2021 now I have seen a transcript of the actual Buffalo lecture.]

(This post is part of the Foucault Resources part of this site, which also includes bibliographies, links to audio and video recordings, some textual comparisons, a few brief translations, and some other pieces.)

This entry was posted in Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, The Early Foucault, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The textual issues around Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’

  1. Pingback: The Early Foucault update 6: Foucault’s teachers, and returning to his work on Binswanger | Progressive Geographies

  2. Pingback: Return to Foucault’s “What is an Author” – Gordon Hull at New APPS, plus a link on variant forms of this text | Progressive Geographies

  3. Pingback: 1969 : Michel Foucault et la question de l’auteur. Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur ? (2019) | Progressive Geographies

  4. Pingback: The Archaeology of Foucault update 3: Early versions of some texts, the Port-Royal Grammar, Foucault’s work on literature, Bataille and Nietzsche, and a writing break in Wales | Progressive Geographies

  5. Pingback: The Archaeology of Foucault update 8: a nearly complete draft of the chapter on art, and progress with literature and linguistics | Progressive Geographies

  6. Pingback: The Archaeology of Foucault update 9: further work on linguistics, Roussel and the 1970 visits to Buffalo and Japan | Progressive Geographies

  7. Felix De Backer says:

    Thank you for this post! I was looking for an English translation of the full version in Dits & Ecrits and this gave me some clarity. Although unfortunately it is the insight that such a thing dus not exist as such. Also a shame that a project which supposed to be a translation of Dits & Ecrits wasn’t that, because D & E is such an amazing resource. Thanks again!

    • stuartelden says:

      Yes, I agree that it’s a real shame that Dits et écrits was only partially translated in Essential Works. It’s worse when texts in EW are not actually translations of the ones in DE. There is a lot to translate still, and as I’ve said before it’s rather unfortunate that things Foucault himself published are untranslated, when things he didn’t publish are translated almost immediately. I’m pleased that they are, of course, but not at the expense of the other work. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s