Marxism and Translation

One of the aspects of this book which doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves relates to the general question of translation. If we are to talk about the ‘classics’ of Marxism it appears to be that we often forget that, for a reader of English, practically in their entirety we are not reading what the original author wrote, but what the translator(s) of that author wrote, i.e. what the translator thought the author wrote and how that could be best expressed in English (or any other target language). One of the reasons Lih’s book is as long as it is is because of the fact that he (apparently) goes into in some depth the question of how What Is To Be Done? has been translated, discusses Lenin’s original Russian terminology and includes is own retranslation of Lenin. Not having read Lih’s book (and given its ridiculous price I doubt I ever will be able to either) I am unable to judge his arguments, but the central point remains that, when we discuss, say, Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? in English, we are not discussing Lenin’s text but someone (who?) else’s translation of that text, and that translation is never going to be semantically or formally identical to, and even may be semantically and formally quite different from, the original. For the more exegetical among us, who are over fond of quoting the ‘classics’ and splitting terminological hairs in them, this is something worth bearing in mind.

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