Sunday, May 2, 2010

Labour Day

Saturday was Labour Day in Spain and most of Europe, as well as many other parts of the world. Such an important event must have some connections with translation, don’t you think?

We don’t have far to look.

We owe Labour Day to the socialist trade union movements of the nineteenth century. One of the most influential documents in that movement was the Communist Manifesto, written in German by Karl Marx and his lifelong friend Friedrich Engels and first published in 1848. To be so influential, it had to be translated into many languages: the Manifesto itself mentions English, French, Italian, Flemish and Danish. I’ll stick to the English translation.

Both Marx and Engels knew English. Marx first went to England in 1845 and moved there permanently in 1849. When I was a student in London a century later, I used to work in the magnificent Reading Room of the British Museum and liked to think that maybe I was sitting in one of the big wooden armchairs that he (or another great socialist writer, Bernard Shaw) had used. Marx had been bilingual from an early age in German and Yiddish and he also knew French. Engels’ father owned a cotton factory in Manchester, where he was sent to work as a young man. Both of them wrote contributions to English-language newspapers. In England, Engels anglicised his name Friedrich to Frederick. However, it’s clear that they thought the Manifesto needed a native English translator.

The first English translation of the Manifesto was in 1850. Not by a Professional Translator but by a fiery socialist journalist, Helen Macfarlane. She had gone to Vienna to learn German, perhaps with the idea of becoming a governess - German was much in demand among the educated class in England - but it led her to German philosophy and to Marxism. She published her translation in a radical periodical, the Red Republican, edited by George Harney. Marx said of her that she was “the only collaborator on his spouting rag who had original ideas - a rare bird, on his paper.” Hers was a remarkable life for a nineteenth-century woman. Like her freethinking contemporary ‘George Eliot’, she found it expedient to write almost entirely under a male pseudonym. She was, thanks to her readings in German and her English journalism, an advanced Native Translator

Much later on, the authors decided that another English translation was needed. Perhaps they were dissatisfied with the Macfarlane translation; perhaps they wanted one that was made under their supervision and of which they would hold the copyright. For it they turned to an old friend and admirer of theirs in Manchester, Samuel Moore. His became the standard version that's still used today. His translation of the famous battle cry Poleterier aller Länder vereinigt euch was Workers of all countries, unite!

Moore too was not a Professional Translator. He was a lawyer and a judge, another Native Translator who was busy elsewhere with his other occupations. However, he had the advantage of close communication with his authors and empathy with their thinking, always advantages for a translator. His work must have been to the satisfaction of Marx and Engels, because they commissioned him to do a much bigger translation, the English version of Das Kapital – but more of that in another post.

We begin to see how the early history of communism was very much bound up with translation.

The British Museum Reading Room.

David Black. Helen Macfarlane: a feminist, revolutionary journalist and philosopher in mid-nineteenth century England. Lanham MD: Lexington Books, 2004. There’s a brief summary at
The book includes Macfarlane’s translation of the Manifesto.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei. London: gedruckt in der Office der "Bildungs-Gesellschaft für Arbeiter" von J. E. Burghard, 1848.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Translated by Samuel Moore. London: William Reeves, 1888. 31 p.
(That same year, Reeves also published another stanard translation – and by a woman translator – Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, translated from German by Florence Kelley Wischnewetzky. She was American, a pioneer of the reform of working conditions in the USA.)


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