Stimulating Monday 1: translation

Lunch with Gavin and we got on to questions of translation. He’s working on Dickens and was trying to figure out the influence on Hard Times of Engels’ work on Manchester in The Condition of the Working Class in England. Hard Times had appeared in the 1860s sometime and Engels in 1849 so surely, Gav thought, Dickens must have read it.  Eventually he found out that the book Engels wrote in German (and which still reads as a book for a German audience, he thinks) and published in 1849 did not appear in English until AFTER Dickens had written Hard Times.  Extraordinary. Why?

Somehow that got us on to problems of words in Marx, and how maybe the material originating in German had become more difficult in English. (This started with his query about the ellipse in Vol 1 of Capital. The ellipse is used as an illustration/metaphor of how contradictory forces can both push and pull…  but it’s (in English) not terribly illuminating. You need to have done some physics or astronomy.  I said we should sometime talk to Irving Dworetsky, retired prof of German in UCL, the Ancient Mariner of the staff common room.  He knows his Marx in both languages…

My related question was about whether the famous distinctions in Capital (between value and price, between exchange value and use value) might be rather different in the original german.

(I’m doing this idle doodle on Eurostar, after finishing some real work. Suitable eh?)

Then I explained my line on why “The Right to the City” commands more support in the USA than here.  And both are different from France. It goes like this:
The phrase comes from Henri Lefebvre’s Le Droit à la Ville. It got translated into English (by Elizabeth Lebas and others) as The Right to the City. In France le droit denotes both what the English call law (the subject, the profession, the body of statute) and what we call rights. La Ville is a word  with a wide span denoting settlements – from a big village through to the Ville de Paris.  If there is a French word like ‘city’ it’s surely Cité which is hardly ever used, a bit archaic (Isle de la Cité) or a specialised neighbourhood label (Cité Universitaire, Cité Scientfique);  never for our English idea of city.  Most French people surely live in ‘la ville’ or very near one.

The USA has a very very heavy load of meaning and history about rights:  bill of rights, civil rights…  really central elements of the political history of the country. There is no equivalent in England at all, is there? We hardly have rights, except recently, and have mostly been ‘subjects’ although Edward Thompson always emphasised the rights our ancestors did struggle for, and get.  But the concept surely doesn’t loom as large as in France or the  USA…  More people now (mostly younger than me, and with legal and greenish orientations) do talk a lot about environmental rights, human rights and so on.  But some of that is wishful thinking, or part of asserting and claiming…   (Amateurish, that bit, I know.)

City in the USA is also a distinctive usage. Isn’t it a very formal, constitutional concept? Localities – which can be quite small – were able to incorporate themselves as cities. As you drive along through continuous suburb you find signs saying which city you are leaving, which you are entering.  Have I got that right?  My impression is that most US people who live in urban places might respond to the word city.

And then there is city in English usage.  We do have some – London, Manchster, Bristol and so on.  It goes with having a bishop, I was always told.  But surely most people here don’t identify strongly with being in a city.  Town perhaps. Mostly real or ersatz villages or suburbs. If you go to the centre you surely go ‘into town’.

So the burden of all that is that I’m not surprised that RTTC, the Right to the City, fails to resonate very well in England.  It clearly does in the USA, as we see from the network of campaigns under that banner [link].  Any comment? I’ll try and ask Elisabeth Lebas to comment.

And don’t let’s start on how to explain amènagement du territoire.

Stimulating lunch. Now off to prepare for a Just Space meeting in the evening.

For a trivial continuation, scroll down to the Italian menu translated by (?) Google.

Author: Editors


4 thoughts on “Stimulating Monday 1: translation”

  1. That’s very nice Mike.

    I’ve looked up the dates:

    1845 ‘Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England’, Leipzig

    1854 publication of Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’

    1870 Death of Dickens

    1887 ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, New York

    1891 ditto, London

    1895 Death of Engels

    I think people are being constantly misled about the significance of texts by the convention of referring to them by their English translations. I guess it would be hopelessly pretentious and pedantic always to use their original titles; but at least there there should be a standard way of signalling the issue.
    See you soon.


    and then, next day added: The ‘Rights’ story is puzzling. After all, Paine’s Rights of Man was the single most influential radical tract in late 18th and early 19th century Britain. But that was a time (certainly in the 1790s) when there were close links between reformers in Britain, France and America (Paine himself being a principal link).

    I remember when the SWP set up their anti-cuts Right to Work campaign one of the objections to the name was that in the USA this is a well-known right-wing (anti trade union) slogan.
    See you


  2. I have used Lefebvre in my work for a long time now, and what I was trying to say there was a critique of unthinking application of his (or anybody’s) work as an easy point of reference, to the extent that many people who refer to him also subscribe to concepts that he tries hard to reject. Of course, Lefebvre himself mixes a lot of things: Marx, Hegel, Heidegger, Surrealism, critique of structuralist linguistics etc, but he hopes to create an integrated perspective.

    Perhaps one of the reasons for the widespread reference to the idea of right to the city in the US is the more intense process of gentrification there, facilitated through the HOPE VI programme and the like, the ever-present racial tensions involved in this process, and the rise in confrontational politics that has dominated the country for a while. In France, the postwar urban development in Paris was largely an act of gentrification through the relocation of a lot of people out of the centre and the development of the segregated banlieu, the context of Lefebvre’s critique.

    All the best


  3. Much later (2012). I was talking about Lefebvre with Christian Schmid at Inura, who is a real L expert (and multi-lingual in a Swiss way). He said he thought it was extraordinarily hard to understand Lefebvre and any writer who uses concept of dialiectics unless you have studied in german.


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