Notes on translation in Part One of Capital.

I’m re-reading Kapital volume 1 by comparing Fowkes and Ehbar’s translation. The Fowkes translation is the standard translation and is miles better than any of the other published English translations. It is also the book that Harvey uses in his lectures on Kapital. Yet, the Fowkes’ translation makes several mistakes, that I think are not made in Ehrbar’s free online translation. I also think that some of the wording Fowkes uses give a different bent to Marx’s description of value qua the important issues of embodiment, apppearance and things.

One important mistake I noticed is how Fowkes titles part two of chapter one. This is because Fowkes translates erscheinin as ’embodied.’ The section is entitled ‘THE DUAL CHARACTER OF THE LABOUR EMBODIED IN COMMODITIES’ instead of the way Ehrbar translates it as ‘The Dual Character of Labour Represented in Commodities.’ Although Marx is inconsistent in the way he vacillates between substantialist and monetary theories in this section — as Heinrich points out — I think that whilst it is easy to quibble with Fowkes’ word usage, it seems to me that the use of ’embody’ contributes to a substantialist interpretation of Marx’s theory of value by blurring or obviating the monetary strand. Furthermore, choosing ’embody’ here also makes it interchangeable with passages elsewhere where Marx uses embody (enthalten) such as the ‘the magnitude of the value of a commodity represents nothing but the quantity of labor embodied in it.’ (note here value is not substantialist but representative of abstract labour, the substance of value, or as Marx writes later ‘Human labor-power in its fluid state, or human labor, creates value, but is not itself value.’)

Also tied to this difficult to translate word erscheinen are the places where Fowkes translates it as appearance. Like ’embody’, this blurs the difference between appearance in the sense of what something like like or functions as and appearance in the sense of erschein in the sense of necessary appearance and exchange-value of the necessary appearance of value. One notable place this occurs is the first sentence of Kapital.  Fowkes translates both erscheint and einzelne as ‘appear’  —

The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’; the· individual commodity appears as its elementary form.

which Ehrbar does a better job of differentiating by using presents for erscheint and appears for erscheint:

The wealth of those societies, in which the capitalist mode of production reigns, presents itself as an “immense heap of commodities.” The single commodity appears as the elementary form of this wealth.

In other words, whilst Fowkes’ translation might lead you think to think that the commodity only appears as the elementary form of wealth, Ehrbar’s distinction shows that the commodity is the elementary form of the historically specific way that wealth manifests itself in capitalism. (There is another place where this translation of appearance causes problems, but I lost the note)

I think both of these issues raise problems for Fowkes translation of the value-form section. They not only skew the important issue of value’s necessary appearance, they underplay how Marx’s says value appears. Take for instance, the important discussion of  the relative form of value. It seems to me that Fowkes use of ’embodiment’ here diminished the specificty of how and the way in which value is expressed in the value-relation, whilst Ehrbar is more specific. For whilst Fowkes only states that ‘the coat counts as the form of existence of value, as the material embodiment of value’ Ehrbar specifies that ‘the coat counts as the form of existence of value, as a thing representing value.’ To me it seems that Fowkes contributes to a more traditional reading where value is simply seen as the embodied labour and the appearance of this labour as value is of secondary importance to Marx’s analysis, whilst Ehrbar points to the way that value is necessarily represented in things and Marx’s monetary theory of value as the unity of production and circulation.  This is not to say that Ehrbar’s translation is perfect, but I think it offers important distinctions and specificity that is crucial to this difficult section of Kapital.






About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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6 Responses to Notes on translation in Part One of Capital.

    • HR says:

      Yes! that’s perfect! I was just looking around for something similar to post. Since I couldn’t find anything I posted my drivel. Someone should really do a page akin to marx myths and legends about marx mistranslations.

  1. Jura says:

    It’s nearing its end, finally. Right now I’m in the “why did I even bother, it’s useless” phase :).

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