Works of Frederick Engels 1885

How Not To Translate Marx


First Published: The Commonweal, No. 10, November 1885, pp. 97-98. Written in English;
Transcribed: by Zdravko Saveski, 2023.

THE first volume of "Das Kapital" is public property, as far as translation into foreign languages are concerned. Therefore, although it is pretty well known in English Socialist circles that a translation is being prepared and will be published under the responsibility of Marx's literary executors, nobody would have a right to grumble if that translation were anticipated by another, so long as the text was faithfully and equally well rendered.

The first few pages of such a translation by John Broadhouse, are published in the October number of To-Day. I say distinctly that it is very far from being a faithful rendering of the text, and that because Mr. Broadhouse is deficient in every quality required in a translator of Marx.

To translate such a book, a fair knowledge of literary German is not enough. Marx uses freely expressions of everyday life and idioms of provincial dialects; he coins new words, he takes his illustrations from every branch of science, his allusions from the literatures of a dozen languages; to understand him, a man must be a master of German indeed, spoken as well as written, and must know something of German life too.

To use an illustration. When some Oxford Undergraduates rowed in a four-oar boat across the straits of Dover, it was stated in the Press reports that one of them "caught a crab." The London correspondent of the Cologne Gazette took this literally, and faithfully reported to his paper, that "a crab had got entangled in the oar of one of the rowers." If a man who has been living for years in the midst of London is capable of such a ludicrous blunder as soon as he comes across the technical terms of an art unknown to him, what must we expect from a man who with a passable knowledge of mere book-German, undertakes to translate the most untranslateable of German prose writers? And indeed we shall see that Mr. Broadhouse is an excellent hand at "catching crabs."

But there is something more required. Marx is one of the most vigorous and concise writers of the age. To render him adequately, a man must be a master, not only of German, but of English too. Mr. Broadhouse, however, though evidently a man of respectable journalistic accomplishments, commands but that limited range of English used by and for conventional literary respectability. Here lie moves with ease; but this sort of English is not a language into which "Das Kapital" can ever be translated. Powerful German requires powerful English to render it; the best resources of the language have to be drawn upon; new-coined German terms require the coining of corresponding new terms in English. But as soon as Mr. Broadhouse is faced by such a difficulty, not only his resources fail him, but also his courage. The slightest extension of his limited stock-in-trade, the slightest innovation upon the conventional English of everyday literature frightens him, and rather than risk such a heresy, he renders the difficult German word by a more or less indefinite term which does not grate upon his ear but obscures the meaning of the author; or, worse still, he translates it, as it recurs, by a whole series of different terms, forgetting that a technical term has to be rendered always by one and the same equivalent. Thus, in the very heading of the first section, he translates Werthgroesse by "extent of value," ignoring that groesse is a definite mathematical term, equivalent to magnitude, or determined quantity, while extent may mean many things besides. Thus even the simple innovation of "labour-time" for Arbeitszeit, is too much for him ; he renders it by (1) "time-labour," which means, if anything, labour paid by time or labour done by a man "serving" time at hard labour; (2) "time of labour," (3) "labour-time," and (4) "period of labour," by which term (Arbeitsperiode) Marx, in the second volume, means something quite different. Now as is well known, the "category" of labour-time is one of the most fundamental of the whole book, and to translate it by four different terms in less than ten pages is more than unpardonable.

Marx begins with the analysis of what a commodity is. The first aspect under which a commodity presents itself, is that of an object of utility; as such it may be considered with regard either to its quality or its quantity. "Any such thing is a whole in itself, the sum of many qualities or properties, and may therefore be useful in different ways. To discover these different ways and therefore the various uses to which a thing may be put, is the act of history. So, too, is the finding and fixing of socially recognised standards of measure for the quantity of useful things. The diversity of the modes of measuring commodities arises partly from the diversity of the nature of the objects to be measured, partly from convention."

This is rendered by Mr. Broadhouse as follows: "To discover these various ways, and consequently the multifarious modes in which an object may be of use, is a work of time. So, consequently, is the finding of the social measure for the quantity of useful things. The diversity in the bulk of commodities arises partly from the different nature," etc.

With Marx, the finding out of the various utilities of things constitutes an essential part of historic progress; with Mr. Broadhouse, it is merely a work of time. With Marx the same qualification applies to the establishment of recognised common standards of measure. With Mr. B., another "work of time" consists in the "finding of the social measure for the quantity of useful things," about which sort of measure Marx certainly never troubled himself. And then he winds up by mistaking Masse (measures) for Masse (bulk), and thereby saddling Marx with one of the finest crabs that was ever caught.

Further on, Marx says: "Use-values form the material out of which wealth is made up, whatever may be the social form of that wealth" (the specific form of appropriation by which it is held and distributed). Mr. Broadhouse has: "Use values constitute the actual basis of wealth which is always their social form"—which is either a pretentious platitude or sheer nonsense.

The second aspect under which a commodity presents itself, is its exchange-value. That all commodities are exchangeable, in certain varying proportions, one against the other, that they have exchange-values, this fact implies that they contain something which is common to all of them. I pass over the slovenly way in which Mr. Broadhouse here reproduces one of the most delicate analyses in Marx's book, and at once proceed to the passage where Marx says: "This something common to all commodities cannot be a geometrical, physical, chemical or other natural property. In fact their material properties come into consideration only in so far as they make them useful, that is, in so far as they turn them into use-values." And he continues: "But it is the very act of making abstraction from their use-values which evidently is the characteristic point of the exchange-relation of commodities. Within this relation, one use-value is equivalent to any other, so long as it is provided in sufficient proportion."

Now Mr. Broadhouse: "But on the other hand, it is precisely these Use-values in the abstract which apparently characterise the exchange-ratio of the commodities. In itself, one Use-value is worth just as much as another if it exists in the same proportion."

Thus, leaving minor mistakes aside, Mr. Broadhouse makes Marx say the very reverse of what he does say. With Marx, the characteristic of the exchange-relation of commodities is the fact, that total abstraction is made of their use-values, that they are considered as having no use-values at all. His interpreter makes him say, that the characteristic of the exchange ratio (of which there is no question here) is precisely their use-value, only taken "in the abstract"! And then, a few lines further on, he gives the sentence of Marx: "As Use-values, commodities can only be of different quality, as exchange-values they can only be of different quantity, containing not an atom of Use-value," neither abstract nor concrete. We may well ask: "Understandest thou what thou readest?"

To this question it becomes impossible to answer in the affirmative, when we find Mr. Broadhouse repeating the same misconception over and over again. After the sentence just quoted, Marx continues: "Now, if we leave out of consideration" (that is, make abstraction from) "the use-values of the commodities, there remains to them but one property: that of being the products of labour. But even this product of labour has already undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use-value, we also make abstraction from the bodily components and forms which make it into a use-value."

This is Englished by Mr. Broadhouse as follows: "If we separate Use-values from the actual material of the commodities, there remains" (where? with the use-values or with the actual material?) "one property only, that of the product of labour. But the product of labour is already transmuted in our hands. If we abstract from it its use-value, we abstract also the stamina and form which constitute its use-value."

Again, Marx: "In the exchange-relation of commodities, their exchange-value presented itself to us as something perfectly independent of their use-values. Now, if we actually make abstraction from the use-value of the products of labour, we arrive at their value, as previously determined by us." This is made by Mr. Broadhouse to sound as follows: "In the exchange-ratio of commodities their exchange-value appears to us as something altogether independent of their use-value. If we now in effect abstract the use-value from the labour-products, we have their value as it is then determined." There is no doubt of it. Mr. Broadhouse has never heard of any other acts and modes of abstraction but bodily ones, such as the abstraction of money from a till or a safe. To identify abstraction and subtraction, will, however, never do for a translator of Marx.

Another specimen of the turning of German sense into English nonsense. One of the finest researches of Marx is that revealing the duplex character of labour. Labour, considered as a producer of use-value, is of a different character, has different qualifications from the same labour, when considered as a producer of value. The one is labour of a specified kind, spinning, weaving, ploughing, etc.; the other is the general character of human productive activity, common to spinning, weaving, ploughing, etc., which comprises them all under the one common term, labour. The one is labour in the concrete, the other is labour in the abstract. The one is technical labour, the other is economical labour. In short—for the English language has terms for both—the one is work, as distinct from labour; the other is labour, as distinct from work. After this analysis, Marx continues: "Originally a commodity presented itself to us as something duplex: Use-value and Exchange-value. Further on we saw that labour, too, as far as it is expressed in value, does no longer possess the same characteristics which belong to it in its capacity as a creator of use-value." Mr. Broadhouse insists on proving that he has not understood a word of Marx's analysis, and translates the above passage as follows: "We saw the commodity at first as a compound of Use-value and Exchange-value. Then we saw that labour, so far as it is expressed in value, only possesses that character so far as it is a generator of use-value." When Marx says: White, Mr. Broadhouse sees no reason why he should not translate: Black.

But enough of this. Let us turn to something more amusing. Marx says: "In civil society, the fictio juris prevails that everybody, in his capacity as a buyer of commodities, possesses an encyclopaedical knowledge of all such commodities." Now, although the expression, Civil Society, is thoroughly English, and Ferguson's "History of Civil Society" is more than a hundred years old, this term is too much for Mr. Broadhouse. He renders it "amongst ordinary people," and thus turns the sentence into nonsense. For it is exactly "ordinary people who are constantly grumbling at being cheated by retailers, etc., in consequence of their ignorance of the nature and values of the commodities they have to buy.

The production (Herstellung) of a Use-value is rendered by "the establishing of a Use-value." When Marx says "If we succeed in transforming, with little labor, coal into diamonds, their value may fall below that of bricks," Mr. Broadhouse, apparently not aware that diamond is an allotropic form of carbon, turns coal into coke. Similarly he transmutes the "total yield of the Brazilian diamond mines" into "the entire profits of the whole yield." "The primitive communities of India" in his hands become "venerable communities." Marx says: "In the use-value of a commodity is contained" (steckt, which had better be translated: For the production of the use-value of a commodity there has been spent) "a certain productive activity, adapted to the peculiar purpose, or a certain useful labour." Mr. Broadhouse must say: "In the use-value of a commodity is contained a certain quantity of productive power or useful labour," thus turning not only quality into quantity, but productive activity which has been spent, into productive power which is to be spent.

But enough. I could give tenfold this number of instances, to show that Mr. Broadhouse is in every respect not a fit and proper man to translate Marx, and especially so because he seems perfectly ignorant of what is really conscientious scientific work.[1]



[1] From the above it will be evident that "Das Kapital" is not a book the translation of which can be done by contract. The work of translating it is in excellent hands, but the translators cannot devote all their time to it. This is the reason of the delay. But while the precise time of publication cannot as yet be stated, we may safely say that the English edition will be in the hands of the public in the course of next year.