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.