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Monday, November 10, 2014


Jerry Fresia raises a very interesting question.  He says "I would imagine too that the various editions of Capital (in languages other than German - and I am assuming this was Marx's essential language for writing) wouldn't carry along the subtlety and nuance from the original German."

Generally speaking, this is always true of translations, but here are some striking counterexamples.  At the very beginning of the crucial chapter on "The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power," in which the secret of profit is finally revealed, Marx writes, "müsste unser Geldbesitzer so glücklich sein etc etc."  The proper translation of this is: "the possessor of money must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value etc etc."

The correct translation of Geldbesitzer is possessor of money.  But in the English translation done by Marx's son-in-law [among others] and overseen by Engels himself, this passage is translated "Moneybags must be so lucky etc etc."  This is, of course, the source of the title of my second book on Capital.  Now Moneybags is a simply perfect translation of Geldbesitzer.  It conjures up those marvelous nineteenth century caricatures of capitalists as fat little men in top hats and tails with dollar or pound signs on their chests [see the old version of the board game Monopoly.]  It exactly renders Marx's mocking tone throughout the opening chapters.  And it references the etymological root of Geldbesitzer as someone sitting on something [a bag of gold.]

Here is another example.  In the famous Chapter One, in which Marx goes on for pages about the relative and equivalent forms of value [see Chapter Three of Moneybags, "Mrs. Feinschmeck's Blintzes, or Notes on the Crackpot Categories of Bourgeois Political Economy"], he speaks of linen exchanging for coats.  He says at one point, as Aveling et al. translated it, "the coat officiates as the form of value."  The German verb is gelten als, which means to be regarded as or to be considered as.  But throughout the chapter, Marx is playing brilliantly with the idea, which is central to his critique, that in a capitalist society people are treated as things and things as people [this is why he was such a fan of Dickens, who does the same thing in his novels.]  Aveling, Moore, and Engels' translation "officiates as" captures this perfectly.  One can just see the coat bowing politely to the linen as they go through their minuet of relative and equivalent value.

As for the French edition, which Marx personally oversaw, I have read a good deal of it [to improve my French -- lots of luck], and found that in French Marx sounds like Descartes.  But then, I have read In Defense of Anarchism in French, and I too sound like Descartes.  It occurred to me that in French, everyone sounds like Descartes.


Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

Speaking of translations I guess my previous reply to "Althusser and Porky Pig" got lost, but I still think its relevant so I reproduce it. I'm just trying to figure out if there are serious methodological issues implied in using the platonic metaphor of the sensible and intelligible when understanding "essence vs appearance" a la Hegel via Plato:

Hi Professor,
I have to say I was completely confused reading your reply. I couldn't get what Rick Wolff and overdetermination had to do with my question. Then I realized you were answering very old email I had sent you. Maybe if I put it in a different way it could clarify things.

First, my German ain't that good, if it exists at all (it doesn't) and I'm no philosopher by training (even though I've become quite interested in philosophy) but the translation of "wesen" is essence, not reality, something I did confirm in the writings of two marxologists, Georg Fromm and Enrique Dussel and with a friend who is studying a PhD in philosophy in Spain.

Now this could simply be a simple case of using synonyms but then the question is: Are Plato's and Hegel's distinction the same? Should Marx be read through Hegel and not Plato? Does it make a difference?

I found this entry from a Soviet Encyclopedia which seems to imply differences do matter:

Again, as a person interested in Marx's method I wonder if by using "reality" instead of "essence" we imply that "appearance" is necessarily "not-real", instead of being merely a transfigured form of the essence. That is why I thought precision with the concepts was important. But again, at a more basic level, Marx seems to use essence, not reality, so why your choice?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ian, now that I am well into re-reading CAPITAL, my sense is confirmed that nothing of any importance hangs on choosing one word rather than another for translating wesen. That kind of sterile dispute leaves me bored. I know what I want to say about the mystifications of capitalism and I can say them using either term. That is all I care about.

as someone who cut his teeth on Kant's CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, by the way, I would be the last person to suppose that something called "appearance" is not real.

By the way, I have not a clue what it means to say that appearance is a "transfigured form of the essence." Other than what I can say much more simply and less obscurely.

Aldo Antonelli said...

Well, you know what they say: nothing is funnier in German.

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

Thanks Professor for your answer. If I understood you clearly, then whatever difference there might be between Plato and Hegel's rendition of the "essence vs appearance" does not make much of a difference towards understanding Marx's analysis of the mystifications that capitalist social relations bring about. I just wanted to be clear about that.

Again, you might find this boring, but it matters. The example I gave before was pretty straightforward: if one doesn't understand what "abstract" in the technical sense means then reading the German Ideology and seeing Marx talk about empiricists being too abstract won't make sense. So I just wondered if the same preoccupation might apply to the whole "essence/appearance". But i see you don't think its a big issue-you are the philosopher, I am not, so I will follow your intuition about this. Thanks again for the clarification.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ian, it is more complicated than that. For someone, the distinction may be a way of saying something absolutely crucial that he or she wants to say, in which case it will make a big difference. For someone else [like me] it won't matter. but the importance does not reside in the words or the translation; it resides in what you are trying to say.

And I might have a way of saying without the distinction the exact same thing you are saying with the aid of the distinction, in which case all that matters is that we are clear.