A minor note on the two versions of Foucault’s ‘This is Not a Pipe’, and the problems of the translation in Essential Works

Foucault’s text on René Magritte, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, was published first in French in 1968 (reprinted in Dits et écrits as text 53), and then in a revised and expanded form as a book in 1973. The 1973 book was translated as This is not a Pipe by James Harkness in 1981. When the Essential Works collection translated selections from Dits et écrits in volume 2, the Harkness text was used as the basis, even though it was a translation of the 1968 version. This made sense – the texts were similar enough. But the Essential Works translation follows the Harkness too closely, and while it recognises the major edits, it misses several smaller points where the two French texts differ.

It is perhaps especially problematic when the revised text changes some instances of similitude to ressemblance, or vice versa, with Foucault writing a new paragraph which explains how he differentiates the terms (in the book French p. 61; English p. 44). But the English translation of the 1968 text does not always recognise what Foucault originally wrote, which leads to a confusing read.

For most readers, the 1973 text, either in French or English, should be the reference, since this was the expanded and revised version. But an anglophone reader wanting to see what Foucault published in 1968 cannot rely on Essential Works.

The order I’ve presented these examples follows the order the texts were written/translated. But note Essential Works is supposed to be a translation of the 1968 text; while Harkness translates the 1973 book.

Example 1

1968 article: Sept discours dans un seul énoncé. Mais il n’en fallait pas moins pour abattre la fortresse où la ressemblance était prisonnière de l’affirmation (Dits et écrits I, 648).

1973 book: Sept discours dans un seul énoncé. Mais il n’en fallait pas moins pour abattre la fortresse où la similitude était prisonière de l’assertion de ressemblance (Ceci n’est pas une pipe, 71).

Harkness translation: Seven discourses in a single statement – more than enough to demolish the fortress where similitude was held prisoner to the assertion of resemblance (This is Not a Pipe, 49).

Essential Works: Seven discourses in a single statement – more than enough to demolish the fortress where similitude was the prisoner of the assertion of resemblance (Essential Works II, 200).

Essential Works clearly follows Harkness, with a minor amendment, which means its translation is partly of the 1973 sentence, even though it is supposed to be a translation of the 1968 text. What Foucault actually said in 1968:

Seven discourses in a single statement [énoncé] – more than enough to demolish the fortress where resemblance was the prisoner of the affirmation.

Example 2

1968 article: Le second principe pose l’équivalence entre le fait de la similitude et l’affirmation d’un lien représentatif (DE I, 643)

1973 book: Le second principe qui a longtemps régi la peinture pose l’équivalence entre le fait de la ressemblance et l’affirmation d’un lien représentatif (42)

Harkness: The second principle that long ruled painting posits an equivalence between the fact of resemblance and the affirmation of a representative bond (34)

Essential Works: The second principle posits an equivalence between the fact of resemblance and the affirmation of a representative bond (EW II, 195)

In other words, Essential Works has recognised the 1973 text added a brief phrase, which it rightly omits, but missed the change of similitude to ressemblance. It is supposed to be a translation of the 1968, and should have ‘similitude’.

Example 3

1968 article: Séparation rigoureuse entre signes linguistiques et éléments plastiques; équivalence de la similitude et de l’affirmation (DE I, 650)

1973 book: Séparation entre signes linguistiques et éléments plastiques; équivalence de la ressemblance et de l’affirmation (77)

Harkness: Separation between linguistic signs and plastic elements; equivalence of resemblance and affirmation (53)

Essential Works: Rigorous separation between linguistic signs and plastic elements: equivalence of resemblance and affirmation (EW II, 201)

Essential Works misses the important change again, even though it recognises that ‘rigorous’ is present in 1968 and not in 1973.

These are far from the only changes between 1968 and 1973. Those changes are very extensive. But these are three important small ones which are unrecognised in Essential Works. There are other more minor examples of things where Essential Works follows the 1973 text (and Harkness’s translation) instead of the 1968 text of which it claims to be a translation.

Update 26 July 2021: There is another translation of Foucault’s text, by Richard Howard, as “Ceci n’est pas une pipe“, October 1, Spring 1976, 6-21. At the time of writing it is open access. This is a translation of the 1968 text, even though it is dated to 1963, and includes the two letters from Magritte, which only appear in the 1973 book version.

There are lots of other resources on this site relating to Foucault – bibliographies, audio and video files, some other textual comparisons, some short translations, etc. They are listed here.

This entry was posted in Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Foucault. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A minor note on the two versions of Foucault’s ‘This is Not a Pipe’, and the problems of the translation in Essential Works

  1. Clare O'Farrell says:

    Reblogged this on Foucault News.

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

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