Translations of Capital (fwd)

Jonathan P. Beasley-Murray jpb8 at
Tue Oct 18 22:36:41 MDT 1994

Something I picked up on left-l.  Thought we should know...


Jon Beasley-Murray
Literature Program
Duke University
jpb8 at

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 18 Oct 1994 11:15:04 -0400
From: Justin Schwartz <jschwart at FREENET.COLUMBUS.OH.US>
Subject: Translations of Capital

All and sundry,

If this post is too recondite and scholarly, don't answer and the subject
will die. But I thought I would pass on, for those who do care about
finding out what Marx actually wrote, some bad news about the existent
translations of Capital. There are two of them, one an old one approved by
Engels, done by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, and published by
International, and a more recent one (1976) done by Ben Fowkes and
published by Vintage. Neither of them are very good.

I have learned this in the context of some work I was doing on commodity
fetishism (Capital, vol. I, chap. 1, sec. 4), which has led me to draft a
new translation, with commentary, of that section. My coworker and I will
be seeking a publisher for a monograph which will probably be of
specialist interest since it will have a lot of apparatus (although those
who want to understand this difficult section will, we hope, find it
helpful). Anyway that's aways away.

Both F and M&A give translations of key terms which are misleading or
inaccurate and sometimes just MAKE UP STUFF and attribute it to Marx. One
example from M&A: in the section on fetishism, on p. 79 of the
International edition, the first sentence in the first full paragraph
read, "The religious world is but a reflex of the real world." This is a
pure fabrication. Nothing of the sort occurs in the German text, where
Marx starts with the sentence translated, more less adequately, as the
second sentence in the paragraph.

An example not from the fetishism section but from the section on the
labor process, p 284 in the Vintage edition, 178 in the International
edition, 193 in the German language Marx Engels Werke (Dietz). This is the
famous architect and the bee passage, crucial to Marx's theory of labor
and human activity. F gives for the sentence immediately following that
passage: [Marx is talking about labor when it is not distorted by
exploitation but is freely chosen.]

"Man not only effects a change of form in the materials of nature; he
also realizes [verwirklicht] his own purposes in those materials. And this
is a purpose he is conscious of, it determines the mode of his activity
with the rigidity of a law, and he must subordinate his will to it."

Now this is ugly English. Marx's German--often opaque--is much better than
that here, and M&A give a reading which although somewhat free, gets the
sense of the passage and its feel far better. They give,

"He [the worker] not only effects a change of form in the material on
which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of this own that gives the
law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will."

Still, neither of these are very good. A literal translation (mine) of the
German  goes like this:

"Not only that he [the worker] produces a transformation of form of the
natural [des Natuerlichen], he actualizes in the natural at the same time
his purpose, which he knows, [and] which determines [bestimmt] the type and
mode of his action as (or like) a law [die Art und Weise seines Tuns als
Gesetz] and to which he must subordinate his will."

1. OK, Fowkes, the subject is the worker, not "man"--M&A get that right.

2. There is nothing about "the materials of nature" (F) or "the materials on
which he works" (M&A); no materials at all, in fact. The German just
gives Natuerlichen, a nominalized adjective, the natural.

3. Verwirklicht ought to be read as actualizes, a Hegelian technical term
meaning to bring something into accord with its rational and necessary
concept, and not realizes, for which Marx has the perfectly good term,

4. Fowkes leaves out type (Art) of the worker's action, and

5. Tuns is best read as actions, doings, not activity, for which Marx has

6. M&A give us the Latin modus operandi for type and manner of action,
which is no improvement on Marx's use of ordinary one syllable German

7. And Fowkes simply invents, makes up, "with the rigidity of a law."
There is no rigidity in the German. There is no excuse for that.

I go through this in some detail on an important passage to underline my
point: these translations are not very good. The English Collected Works
is supposed to be coming out with a new translation sometime in the next
few years, but the past translations in the CW have been somewhat spotty
and none of them has been really scientific. Anyway it's not out yet.

If it is important to you to know exactly and in precise detail what Marx
said, at this point you will have to learn German or check the passage you
are interested in with someone who knows German. (I will be willing to
help with specific questions, if any, which people may have on short

Sorry about that. It's a disgrace that these works have never
been translated well. I guess it's because people have tended to use them
for polemical or agitational purposes only and not treated them as worthy
of scholarship. Moore and Aveling were first and the text is hard, so
we can't really blame them. Fowkes has less excuse. The Soviets could have
done it when they were around, they had the money after all. But they
didn't: a minor charge to chalk up their list of (much greater) crimes.

Nothing wrong, of course, with using Marx for agitational purposes ALSO.

--Justin Schwartz


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