The sharp-eyed amongst you might’ve noticed that I’ve been quoting from the 2009 translation of Philosophical Investigations, rather than Elizabeth Anscombe’s original 1953 version (the new edition is based on Anscombe’s translation, but amended by Peter Hacker and Joachim Schulte, with the help of the Wittgenstein editorial advisory committee). Actually, the 2009 translation was the catalyst that sparked this blog; I borrowed it from a friend a few weeks back just to see what changes had been made. Then I decided it was about time I read it again; then I decided to read it carefully; then I realised (to my shame) that there were certain fairly key passages I only partly understood; then I realised that correcting this would mean taking notes and working through examples; then I decided that keeping a blog would help spur me on and force me to focus my thoughts; and then… well, here we are knee-deep in language-games and the definition of “definition”.
Anyway, I approached the Hacker/Schulte translation with a certain amount of trepidation. The Investigations is one of those rare philosophical works that is admired not just for its insight, but also for its style. It is gnomic, elliptical, aphoristic, playful, discursive, conversational and yet always (somehow) serious and to the point. Delving into it after reading, say, Descartes’ Meditations or Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, you cannot help but realise that you are meeting a mind that is simply not like that of other philosophers (perhaps only Nietzsche’s works come close in this respect). That it is such a pleasure to read is, for English speakers, due at least in part to Anscombe’s excellent stylistic interpretation. So what changes had been made to this classic? To put it bluntly, had they mucked about with it?
The answer, mostly, is: no. Anscombe’s original words remain largely intact and, so far as I can tell, substantive changes to the text are based on sound methodological reasoning (I should point out that I speak no German, so I’m not qualified to comment on the accuracy of the translation itself). Having said that, I have still found myself balking over small changes to cherished passages. Today, for example, I looked up §371 and was disconcerted to see “Essence is expressed in grammar”. In? In?! How could they change “by” to “in”? It just doesn’t read right!
Of course, a good deal of my grumpiness about this was brought on by nostalgia. The Investigations has been part of my life for over 25 years and so even a change for the better would be a bit like seeing a new wrinkle on the face of an old friend. All the same, it’s sad to see that some of the “flavour” of Anscombe’s prose has been jettisoned in order to bring the text up to date. As the editors remark, “Anscombe’s translation is now more than 50 years old, and English has moved on apace”. Accordingly, they’ve stripped out some of her more archaic usages, such as spelling “show” as “shew” (which Word considers a mistake), her fastidiousness over the use of “shall” and “will”, and the use of words like “queer” (meaning “odd”) and “fishy”.
Personally, I’ve always found such quirks rather charming, but there’s a more important point here that’s not simply a matter of taste. Ascombe’s translation was itself a product of the time and place in which the Investigations was written. She was a pupil and close friend of Wittgenstein’s, and such was his faith in her ability that he asked her to translate his work even before she had learnt German. Her linguistic quirks might not have been the same as his but they were from (roughly) the same milieu, and I can’t help thinking that’s a mark in their favour.
To put things in perspective, imagine how it would sound for a translator of Faust to say, “I’ve updated the verse-style because German has moved on apace since Goethe’s day”. In such a case I think it would be fair to wonder if making things easy for the modern reader was the only valid consideration. Sure, give us the sense of what he wrote, but wouldn’t a suggestion of Goethe’s archaic syntax, spelling and vocabulary also provide us with an insight into his creation?
Now, obviously the Investigations is not a poem, and different priorities are bound to operate when translating philosophy. But how far – even here – should bare ease of reading predominate? This seems a particularly pertinent question in the context of a philosopher who once remarked that a great work of philosophy should also be a work of literature, and whose masterpiece bristles with such a keen sense of the different ways in which language can convey meaning – indeed, the different forms that “meaning” can take.
Furthermore, it’s strange that updating archaic idioms seems more relevant to translations than to original-language texts. Here’s a quote from Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, taken more or less at random: “If we will disbelieve everything, because we cannot certainly know all things; we shall do muchwhat as wisely as he, who would not use his legs, but sit still and perish, because he has no wings to fly” (Book 1, §5, 2004 Penguin edition). I think it’s fair to say that English has certainly “moved on apace” since 1690. Why are we still forcing students to read this stuff? Where are the modern-vernacular editions of Locke, or Berkeley, or Hume?
Well, let’s not get carried away. Over all, the new edition of the Investigations is a fine piece of work. And regarding its style we are, at present, only talking about a few discrete tweaks here and there. All the same, this sets a precedent and I can’t help wondering what the 150th anniversary edition will look like. Wittgenstein considered his writing to be against the spirit of his age, and – precisely for that reason – the Philosophical Investigations is very much a product of that age. To read it outside of its historical context is to miss something of its meaning. Anscombe’s prose helped anchor the translated version firmly in that context. I think it’s a shame the connection has been diluted, and worry about how far the trend may continue. Or maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill? I don’t know.