Friday, May 21, 2010

Mistranslating Lacan

Well, one might as well inaugurate this blog this way... by carping.

I have had little justification to call myself a Lacanian for well over a decade. Lacan's work was most important to me during my early years in grad school (which I began in 1990), but by the time I was writing my dissertation, I began moving away from psychoanalysis as an interpretive framework. Nevertheless, when I cared about him more, I found myself dissatisfied with the English versions I had, so I got the French originals to compare. The first revelation was that the Sheridan translations of the major texts ("Ecrits" and "The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis") were abysmal. Because of a very recent discussion about Zizek and his fidelity to Lacan that I have been having on Facebook with Caroline Small, I pulled off the shelf all the Lacan books that I haven't opened in years; as it turns out, I had anally marked up the first half of "The Four Fundamental Concepts" with all the translation problems. Judging simply by the density of my annotations, and leaving out all the not-particularly-faithful-but-correct-enough passages, I would say there are on average two to three mistranslations per page, ranging from slight inexactitudes to howlers that go completely against the meaning of the original.

(Here is a not atypical double-page spread from my copy.)

A few examples: According to Sheridan's version, Lacan, when referring to his earlier response to Jacques-Alain Miller, who had questioned him “as to [his] ontology,” says: “I was able only to answer him within the limits imposed on dialogue by the time-table.” (Ch. 3, sec. 1; Norton, 1981, p. 29) In the original, however, Lacan (as edited by Miller himself) wrote: “Je n’ai pas pu lui repondre dans les limites qui sont imparties au dialogue par l’horaire” (edition in Collection Points, p. 37), that is, "I was not able to answer him within the limits..." This change seems utterly arbitrary; admittedly, in the overall scheme of things, it does little harm to the English reader's understanding of Lacan's theories, but why change it at all when the literal version is as good, if not better, English as the published translation?

Other changes are less innocuous. In chapter 2 section 3 of "The Four Fundamental Concepts," for example, Lacan discusses discontinuity as the "essential form in which the unconscious first appears as a phenomenon," and asks against what background are we to place--and read--this manifestation. In Sheridan's version, Lacan then asks: “Where is the background? Is it absent? No.” (p. 26) However, the French original reads: “Oú est le fond? Est-ce l’absence ? Non pas.” (Points p. 34) Not "is the background absent?" (as in, missing), but "is it absence?" That's a pretty significant difference there.

The last example I'll give appears in the conclusion to the famous story (well, that's what Sheridan calls it--"I will now tell you a little story" [p. 95]; Lacan says "je vais vous raconter maintenant un petit apologue" [Points p. 109], which is certainly more evocative as well as more exact) of the sardine can. In Sheridan's version, Lacan's commentary reads: “The picture, certainly, is in my eye. But I am not in the picture.” (Chapter 7, section 1, p 96). Again, here is the French original: “Le tableau, certes, est dans mon oeil. Mais moi, je suis dans le tableau.” (Points, p. 111) "But me, I am in the picture." NOT "I am not." "I am."

What this basically amounts to is that if you've read Lacan in Sheridan's versions, you really haven't read Lacan at all. In the mid-90s, when I discovered this, I tried to militate a bit about it, letting people know that they should demand better translations. After a while though, as I mentioned, I largely lost interest in Lacan and let the matter drop. Which brings me to the recent incident that precipitated this post. I still cared enough about Lacan that in 2006, when the paperback edition of Bruce Fink's complete translation of "Ecrits" came out, I picked it up, though it ended up just sitting on my shelf unread and largely unopened. Nevertheless, given Fink's reputation, I assumed that his version had to be a definite improvement over Sheridan's.

My discussion with Caroline led me finally to take it off the shelf, and in order to refresh my memory I began reading one of my favorite essays in the book, "La Chose Freudienne," or "The Freudian Thing." I largely skimmed its introductory first section, but as soon as I got into the meat of the matter, in the first named section, "The Adversary," I was stopped in my tracks by this passage:

“If Freud contributed nothing more to the knowledge of man than the verity that there is something veritable, there is no Freudian discovery. Freud simply belongs then to a line of moralists in whom a tradition of humanistic analysis is embodied, a milky way in the heavenly vault of European culture in which Balthazar Gracian and la Rochefoucauld are among the brightest stars, and Nietzsche is a nova as dazzling as it is short-lived. The latest to join them—and spurred on, like them, no doubt by a characteristically Christian concern for the stirrings of the soul—Freud was able to precipitate a whole casuistry into a map of Tendre, in which one couldn’t care less about an orientation for the offices for which it was intended.” (pp. 406-407 in the marginal page numbers, which refer to the pagination of the original 1966 French edition)

What really struck me was the last sentence, about which I told myself there was no way it was correctly translated. However, going back to the French original, I found problems even before getting to that crux. For example, Fink added "simply" in the second sentence out of nowhere, and for no reason that I can fathom turned Lacan's simple "ciel" into "heavenly vault," completely falsifying the tone of the passage. (There's also the description of Nietzsche, which in the original reads “nova aussi fulgurante que vite rentrée dans les ténèbres”--but I can't keep carping about every single point.)

In any case, here is the original of that last sentence I quoted: “Freud a su précipiter toute une casuistique en une carte du Tendre ou l’on n’a que faire d’une orientation pour les offices auxquels on la destine.” Let's skip the fact that "casuistique" in French does not have quite the same pejorative overtones as "casuistry" in English (from which point of view Sheridan's translation of it as "casuistics" is better). But what is the English reader to make of this "map of Tendre, in which one couldn’t care less about an orientation for the offices for which it was intended”?

Well, let me just say, to begin with, that this Tendre will not appear on any actual map. At least the Sheridan translation annotates and explains it, which Fink does not. Here is Sheridan: "The Pays du Tendre was an allegorical country in which love was the sole preoccupation. It was the creation of Mlle de Scudéry and other novelists of the seventeenth century." (Ecrits, Sheridan translation, Norton 1977 p. 145 fn. 3) (See more here.) Without this--still incomplete--explanation, a reader of the Fink version who is unaware of Précieux discourse during the French classical age has no way of relating, for example, Freud's mapping of the unconscious to the mapping of the stations of love in the allegorical Tendre. (By the way, do keep in mind that in this paragraph Lacan is actually paraphrasing the views of psychoanalysts and commentators on Freud he disagrees with; yet, even so, this notion of a map not needing an orientation--that is, only concerned with the connections and paths between the locations it indicates, but not with their geographical placement--uncannily prefigures Lacan's later interest in topology.)

Is this it? No, it gets worse. Both Sheridan and Fink translate the French word "offices" as, well, "offices," leaving us with the image of an accountant, perhaps, or a secretary in a war office, hanging a map on their wall without knowing or caring which way is up. Unfortunately, however, the French "office" only translates into the English "office" in the very limited sense of "administrative post"--the office of the president, for example--or the administrative branch organized under that administrative post, for example in the "office du tourisme." "Office" in French does not mean "a place of business." So what did Lacan mean? Was he using the term to mean administrative post"? Highly unlikely. Rather, it seems clear to me, he was using it to mean "service," as in "religious service," or "ritual." This connects directly to the allegorical language of the Précieuses , who used religious metaphors to refer to the, ahem, sacraments of love. Furthermore, this also connects to Lacan's view (or, rather, the view he paraphrases) of the psychoanalytic situation itself as a set ritual. Indeed, the passage continues: “Its [actually, this probably should be "his," as in "Freud's"] objectivity is, in fact, strictly tied to the analytic situation, which, within the four walls that limit its field, can do very well without people knowing which way is north since they confuse north with the long axis of the couch, assumed to point in the direction of the analyst.”

The explanation of "carte du Tendre" and the correct translation of "offices" makes the imagery in this entire paragraph clearer and more coherent. As both Fink and Sheridan failed to make any of this explicit, I really wonder what they saw their purpose as translators to be. I am especially disappointed that Fink fell in the same trap as Sheridan in translating "offices" by its false English correlative, "offices." This is translation on auto-pilot, sleepwalking translation. Lacan deserves better. And English-language Lacan readers, beware.


  1. Fantastic, Andrei! You really should write your own translations (as someone over on Facebook suggested). :)

    I have to say, though, that I automatically thought of religious offices reading the passage from Fink: it seems clear to me from context it is not meant to refer to administrative offices. It would have been even clearer in the French with "ciel" and "tenebres" (can I do accents in comments) which are, of course, the language of the Passion.

    I'm not sure though -- I am not where I can go look at the passage in context -- what you are saying is lost overall by replacing the religious metaphor with the much weaker astronomical one? Is it that it makes it harder for people to wrap their brains around the very structuralist notion of mapping and orientation that follows?

    I think this is one of the reasons why it's so helpful in learning Lacan to learn as an apprentice -- the way the analysts do it -- I was blessedly well-prepared to understand "map without orientation" because the syllabus I followed put Kojeve and Mauss and Levi-Strauss (etc.) on the schedule prior to the primary Lacanian sources, taking the approach of "read what Lacan read first, then read Lacan."

    I think it matters tremendously that Lacan was giving seminars, not writing books, and courses generally have prerequisites.

    All that being said, doesn't Fink consider himself a bit of an authority on the close reading of Lacan? You should try to get him to come defend himself!

  2. Didn't think to say: Isn't this an odd sentence vis-a-vis Derrida?: "What this basically amounts to is that if you've read Lacan in Sheridan's versions, you really haven't read Lacan at all."

    I mean, when do you you ever read the original when you read the translation, right? Hence "Lacanglais" (or "Lack-Anglais")?

    In Lacan's case in particular, almost all the puns are lost even in the best translation, and the puns are essential! (And a huge part of the style even when they aren't particularly meaningful.)

  3. Andrei (unable to log in)May 22, 2010 at 1:29 AM


    if you automatically thought of "religious offices," I am greatly impressed, but I still suspect most readers would not make that immediate connection. Admittedly, when I described the narrow area of overlap b/n the meanings of "office" in English and French I completely forgot about religious office, but in my experience that is not a very commonly used phrase anymore (I asked my wife too who, as opposed to me, is a native English speaker, and she agreed). I tend to think of it rather in connection to, I don't know, medieval terminology? But maybe in certain denominations they still say "office" instead of "service," you may know better. I still don't see anything in that paragraph in translation that would allow this to be the first meaning that pops up.

    I don't think at any point I mentioned "replacing the religious metaphor with the much weaker astronomical one." Those relate to two different sentences, and I don't see an astronomical metaphor being made stronger in the English version than the French. But to answer your question more generally--what is lost? Well, most obviously Lacan's overall meaning and the coherence of the paragraph. Basically, I think "in which one couldn’t care less about an orientation for the offices for which it was intended" becomes nonsense, like you get from translator bots on the web. Overall, the last sentence, after the dash, should read--as best I can see it: "Freud managed to transform an entire casuistics into a *carte du Tendre*, the orientation of which is immaterial for the rituals to which it is intended." I.e, in the view that Lacan is paraphrasing, Freud turned a discourse into a topology, topology which does not need to have a pre-existing orientation because it receives that sense, that meaning--that path that helps you traverse it--only in the analytic situation. I don't think any of this is clear at all in either Sheridan's or Fink's version.

    More generally--I wonder if when you ask "what is lost" you mean that Lacan's overall theory nevertheless still comes through. What is lost, for me, is the style, the embodiment of that theory in language, and I don't think that Lacan can be treated as simply a theorist, whose theories can wear any word-costume they choose as long as the meaning comes through... Rather, he is as much of a writer, in the full sense of the word, as Barthes--or as Mallarme. And keep in mind that this passage we are discussing is not from the seminars, but from "Ecrits," and it was given as a talk in Vienna to a general audience, with no preequisites.

    As for Derrida--well, to begin with, we weren't talking about him, but even when taking him into consideration, no, I don't think it's an odd sentence at all. If I have made a point in conversations about D. over and over again, it's that you cannot use Derrida and deconstruction as an excuse for sloppiness, or for a willful relativism that reads into a text whatever it pleases. (I don't mean that's what you are saying, but I think that might be the "strong version," or the logical conclusion, of your question.) Derrida always emphasized the importance of scholarly rigor and responsibility *before* taking the plunge into a further, unwarranted, "deconstructive" reading. This is his entire point in "The exorbitant. Question of method" in OG. Because if you take that step into the deconstructive abyss before having fulfilled the demands of scholarly responsibility, you end up falling back into a subject-centered simplistic metaphysics.

  4. Extrapolating from that, there is such a thing as a translator's responsibility--which is a kind of scholarly responsibility. Yes, in a general sense, you don't ever read the original when you read the translation. But that's a tautology, and it's hard to go anywhere from there. But to even attempt a translation is to believe in the possibility of communication across languages, and at that point there are degrees to which a translator has fulfilled his or her brief. (Sorry if I overexplain, this sounds totally obvious to me, but you asked!) A correct translation of the actual meaning--or, at the very least, not making the translation say the exact opposite of what the original said!--seems to me the minimum requirement for a responsible translation. So, if there were such a thing as a fully responsible translation, I would say that yes, you have read Lacan even though you read him in English or Mandarin or Catalan. But when the translation contains such obvious mistakes, Lacan's meaning never comes through. So the least I can say is that Lacan's English reader never was allowed to find out what Lacan actually meant.

    Now, of course, I know that above I said that Lacan's texts are more than their meaning, they are the way that meaning is embodied in words, etc... This, however, does not disqualify them from ever being translated--it does not make communication impossible. The texts, I would say, began life with the possibility of translation already inscribed in them (keep in mind that Lacan is most often commenting on Freud, who wrote in German, and is trying to finally get his meaning right: so, in a way, everything that Lacan wrote is itself an act of translation, an act that believes in the possibility of communication across languages). I would see as "having read Lacan in English" to have read a responsible translation that does the following things: tries for as much accuracy as possible without attempting to bend the English language into the syntax of the French; attempts to find an equivalent for the style of the original in the new language, perhaps via something like an (intuitive) structural analysis of how the writer's language stretches and transforms the structure of the language he is writing in; is done by a translator or a translator and a group of advisors with enough of a background to catch and, if necessary, explain all references and allusions; shows awareness of all plays on words, puns, etc., and explains them in footnotes if an exact English equivalent cannot be found. (Forced, awkward puns in English attempting to translate unforced puns in the original language are the worst!) There may be other criteria I will think of later, but that's it for now.

    And please, let's not bring up Benjamin. More crappy, hobbled translations have been produced in his name than in anyone else's.

    Now, if you want to criticize my own work, here is a translation of Mallarme that I published a while ago: Scroll down to the third piece. I should add that my criteria for a good translation of poetry are very different from those for a good translation of a scholarly work--but, you know; mutatis mutandis, see what you think of it.

  5. Hm. It probably is denominational: "office" is all over the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer. But that might be more obviously relevant if you had quoted Sheridan; does he translate it the same?

    Yes, I was thinking about whether the theory was lost too, along with the style. I doubt any serious reader of Lacan in English would dispute that you often bang up against some phrasing that you can tell is important but that makes absolutely no sense. Reading Lacan in translation as a native English speaker with school French is a process of “Read passage. Say ‘that makes no sense.’ Look up passage in annotated guide to seminar. Drink martini. Read passage in French. Grapple with obscure French idiom. Puzzle over pun. Swallow aspirin. Look up phrase you think is reference you’re probably missing. Call native-French-speaking friend. Scribble in margin. Drink more gin.”

    It is interesting, though, that you find the close-read meaning lost in the Fink translation, because he has built his reputation on being a close reader of Lacan. “Lacan to the Letter” is specifically about Ecrits: I don’t have it but does he address this issue there? If the “Reading Seminar Whatever” books are comparable, he’s probably got the footnoes in there. I’m wondering whether the issue here is as much mercenary book marketing (buy two books to make sense of one!) as bad translation…

    The loss of style and the bad choices/errors is just indisputable, especially in the face of your evidence. But is the loss of style actually avoidable? This is to your point about the usually failed “translated” puns: it’s not just that they’re unforced in the original; it’s that by virtue of being unforced they have connotations and a field of associated meaning in the original language that can only ever be explained, not replicated. You can leave the allusion "carte de Tendres" untranslated and italicize it (or use quotes as you did) to preserve the reference precisely intact -- but what you lose then is the sense of ordinary syntax, because the phrase becomes marked. One thing that marking costs you is precisely the casual “plagiarism” that Borch-Jacobsen says is the most essential element of Lacan’s style. And you still don't translate the double meaning. You can’t retain the full field of the original except as a hint or a trace.

    And that "trace" is of course why I brought up Derrida: it seems like what you’re saying is a mixture of “bad translations weaken the ability of English speakers to readily learn and accurately gauge Lacanian theory” with “reading Lacan in English is so different from reading Lacan in French that the experience of reading is always already a failure.” The former I couldn’t disagree with if I wanted to, but the latter made me think of this quote: "In the limits to which it is possible or at least appears possible, translation practices the difference between signifier and signified. But if this difference is never pure, no more so is translation, and for the notion of translation we would have to substitute a notion of transformation, a regulated transformation of one language by another, of one text by another." I guess I’m just comfortable with the idea that the English is and will always be a transformation of the French in that specific Derridean sense, that I’ll never get a truly similar experience of Lacan that a native French speaker has. I think that that stylistic, immersive, “enlightening” experience Lacan intended for readers of the Ecrits to have (insofar as that oft-quoted quip is earnest) consequently just isn’t possible for a reader in translation, but the experience of reading Lacan in translation is its own thing, worthy in its own different way.

    (Of course, that quote is a translation of a paraphrase, from The Ear of the Other, which I only have in English -- so who knows what it actually originally said! Perhaps the translation merely justifies its own existence...)

  6. This last bit wouldn't fit in the word limit...

    It wasn’t what I was thinking of yesterday but Derrida's also the one who pointed out that Freud's usage of the term "translation" is largely metaphorical and that Lacan misunderstands this: Derrida critiques Lacan for misappropriating Freud’s notion of translation, while at the same time as you point out, letting a "translation" of Freud underly and inform his whole project.

    Derrida’s critique feels like a flattening of Lacan to me, though, in the same way maybe that Zizek feels like a flattening of Lacan to you, which may speak to our different readings here. This is one of the things I think Zizek makes more plain, since the Symbolic in Zizek is so much more the semiotic field, linguistic and otherwise, than it is the "unconscious structured like a language." I take the latter, perhaps mistakenly, to be the crux of Derrida's critique...

  7. Just one response, because it's very late--I never said, nor do I believe, that “reading Lacan in English is so different from reading Lacan in French that the experience of reading is always already a failure.” Quite the opposite--please re-read my 1:37 AM reply. So I don't disagree with you at all there.

    As for your point that in translation the quoted phrase becomes "marked"--in one way or another, most phrases are always marked. If you're a French speaker but don't get the reference, then I suppose it will be as unmarked as if you were an English speaker who read a translation without quotes or footnotes. But the moment you "get" it, the passage stands out, it gains a different status than the rest of the text. It is marked. Similarly, it's a matter of editions--so, for example, if you read a French classic, say Stendhal or Flaubert, in a modern French edition, it will be "marked" by explanatory footnotes throughout (one of the things, admittedly, that drives me crazy about most Livre de Poche and Folio editions). The same will be very true, I'm sure, of future French editions of Lacan. So the opposition marked/unmarked really does not map itself comfortably onto the translation/original one. Ultimately, this depends so much on what the individual reader brings to the reading experience, that except in very specific cases I don't see it as particularly operative to distinguish a translated reading from one in the original language.

    And I have "Reading Seminar XI," and no, Fink does not address anything of the kind there, as far as I can tell (I just flipped through it). Those books are actually records of seminars that took place in Paris where a number of Lacanians got together to discuss this or that book of the seminars. They're less strict and systematic than might seem at first glance.

    Ok, so three responses. That should be enough.

  8. Caro--to elaborate on my first paragraph above--when I wrote in the OP "if you've read Lacan in Sheridan's versions, you really haven't read Lacan at all," that was in no way meant to imply "if you've read Lacan in English you haven't read Lacan at all." Quite the opposite. Criticizing Sheridan (and Fink) implies the belief that such a thing as a responsible (and think of this term also with the Bakhtinian spin on it) translation *can* and *should* exist. I guess I'm insisting on this because the sentiment that "“reading Lacan in English is so different from reading Lacan in French that the experience of reading is always already a failure" is so utterly alien to me that I simply can't comprehend where I may have suggested that. I live in between the language in which I grew up, Romanian, the language in which I live now, English, the language on which I often write, French (and which I learned from my mother, who taught it in high school), and the language of some of my most important philosophical influences, German. My whole life is translation!