Literature Study GuidesCivilization And Its DiscontentsNotes On Translation From German To English

Civilization and Its Discontents | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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Civilization and Its Discontents | Notes on Translation from German to English


Translating a book from one language to another is not a straightforward process. It is never as easy as consulting a dictionary to find the word that fits. Translators must take into account several different shades of meaning and choose the best word to convey the author's meaning. And sometimes a term that exists in one language doesn't exist in another. Thus translating a book is an art, as creative as writing. To do their job well, translators must understand every nuance of the foreign language, grasping its heart and soul. They must also understand the original author's heart and soul, becoming almost psychic in their ability to discern his or her intent in a particular passage.

Joan Riviere and James Strachey, the two translators who brought Civilization and Its Discontents to English readers, may not have been mind readers, but they both had personal contact with Freud. Both also were psychoanalysts and had a deep understanding of Freud's ideas based on their own clinical experience. This background was invaluable to their task.

It is unclear how well they knew Freud's native German. Yet the ways they chose to translate several key terms have indelibly affected English readers' interpretation of Freud's work. One example is the use of the word civilization for what Freud calls Kultur in German. Although culture and civilization are virtually synonymous in English, they are not in German. When Freud used the word Kultur, he was thinking of all those aspects of life that show how humans are different from animals.

Another example from the title is the word discontent. When the book was published, the German title was Das Unbehagen in Der Kultur. But originally Freud called it Das Unglück in der Kultur. The word Unglück literally translates to English as unluck, but in German it can mean several things, including misfortune or unhappiness. Freud later changed the word Unglück to Unbehagen, but that word also proved difficult to translate into English. Translators might choose the word discomfort, dissatisfaction, uneasiness, malaise, or even anxiety. In a letter to translator Riviere, Freud suggested the book be called Man's Discomfort in Civilization.

Eventually Riviere chose the title Civilization and Its Discontents, and it stuck. Still, it is interesting to substitute other possible translations of the original German to gain a deeper appreciation of what Freud meant by his title. The English version makes it sound as if Western civilization is the patient on Freud's analytic couch and its "discomfort" is his primary concern. Indeed Freud is concerned with the structure of society. But he is also vitally concerned with the dissatisfaction, unease, and anxiety Western culture creates in the individual. The translation Freud first suggested, Man's Discomfort in Civilization, helps bring this aspect of his thinking to the forefront.

One final example of the profound effect of translation choice is the term Freud used for the death drive. Strachey translated the word Todestrieb—a combination of the German words for death and drive—as death instinct. But in other places Freud does use the German word Instinkt and clearly means something very different. He uses Instinkt to refer to animal, not human, behavior. Therefore, when Freud uses the word Trieb, it is likely he means life and death drives in humans are psychological rather than biological, something quite different from animal instincts.

Strachey's translation of Civilization and Its Discontents is often called the standard one. But partly for reasons such as those outlined above, this study guide is based on a translation by David McLintock in the Penguin Modern Classics series. McLintock (1930–2003) was a British scholar who focused his career on German translation. Following McLintock's version, the English word instinct is used only a handful of times, when Freud refers to animal behavior and used the German word Instinkt. When referring to Eros and Thanatos, McLintock translated the German word Trieb to drive. Thus Lebenstrieb is referred to as the life drive, and Todestrieb is referred to as the death drive.

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