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Keston Sutherland on how (not) to translate Marx

English poet Keston Sutherland argues the ability of Marx to “speak in different voices” is often missed in translation.

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When Marx’s work was poorly translated, his friend Engels came to his defence. Photo: IMAGO / Jürgen Ritter

One of the first people to attempt a partial translation of Das Kapital was an English socialist named Henry Mayers Hyndman, who in 1881 published a short book England for All in which he reproduced parts of Marx’s work. It didn’t go down well. Upon hearing of its publication Marx was furious, accusing Hyndman of plagiarism.

Engels soon defended his friend with a text of his own, succinctly titled How Not to Translate Marx:

“Marx is one of the most vigorous and concise writers of the age. To render him adequately, a man must be a master, not only of German, but of English too…. Powerful German requires powerful English.”

What Engels objected to most of all was the fact that Hyndman, who had been educated at Eton, attempted to lend Marx’s German a pleasant ease in English. This easiness did not suit Marx, who deliberately allowed the language of dry factory reports to clash with his own vivid imagery, philosophical inquiry, and acerbic satire. Hyndman attempted to smooth over these rough edges. Smoothness, Engels wanted to make clear, was not what Marx was about.

the bourgeois consumer has no scruples about exploitation but can only be affected through the stomach

Marx wrote in French, spoke English, knew Latin and Greek, and read most European languages – he even studied Russian in his later years. His reading not only encompassed works of science, political economy and philosophy, but literature and poetry. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the first volume of his life-long, composite work Das Kapital.

“Capital is polyglot. Marx was at work on it for decades. His research comprised thousands of pages,” says Keston Sutherland, an English poet currently working on a book called The Poetics of Capital. “Different parts are bolted together under all different sorts of time constraints and pressures.”

Too often, Sutherland believes, what is missed in translation is the diversity of Marx’s language, his ability to reappropriate a concept from poetry, science, or economics and give it new life through its recontextualisation.

“Marx was a supremely literary individual. Late into his life he could quote from memory vast tracts of poetry across a dozen different languages. He inserted into his text lots of words that he took directly from poets that he liked, notably the poet Heinrich Heine. The word Lumpenproletariat for example is adapted from Heine. I think it’s important not only that he repossessed these words, but that they come with their roots still dangling. The poetical provenance of his language was still visible to his readers. That’s something which has been obliterated in the transmission into English.”

According to Sutherland, there is one concept that remains misunderstood to this day. Capital explains how, when we exchange goods, we are actually exchanging other people’s labour in a different, reduced form. The brains, muscles, and nerves of the worker are expended to create value for the capitalist. But when Marx writes about “bloße Gallerte unterschiedsloser menschlicher Arbeit”, he does not refer to “congealed quantities of human labour”, as most English versions translate. He refers to a concrete staple of German food: Gallerte. But what is Gallerte?

The 1888 Meyers Konversations-Lexicon (a popular encyclopaedia for which Marx himself wrote from time to time when he was undertaking hack work for easy money) describes Gallerte as:

“The semisolid, tremulous mass gained from cooling a concentrated glue solution. All animal substances that yield glue when boiled can be used in the production of gallerte, that is to say, meat, bone, connective tissue, isinglass, stag horns etc.”

Gallerte, then, is a sort of edible glue or jelly. “It was made from the off-cuts and the discarded bits of animals from early industrial slaughter processes. It was the stuff the bourgeoisie wouldn’t want to eat in its natural form, but which could be boiled down and turned into this great mush and then used in breakfast condiments or cosmetics. Gelatine would be the closest thing we would have to it today,” Sutherland explains.

So why is it important that when we translate Gallerte, we maintain the sense of a physical commodity? Because, Sutherland thinks, Marx’s aim was not simply to educate his readers, but to disgust them.

“The fact it was a commodity was important for the argument that Marx is implicitly making in Capital. How stuff you absolutely wouldn’t want to eat, like animal hooves and horns and bits of teeth, end up being transformed into something that you unthinkingly consume.

“It’s a bit like those news stories that come up now and then in the national press about how traces of horse meat have been discovered in a Tesco value burger. That’s the same thing Marx was trying to show: that the bourgeois consumer has no scruples about exploitation but can only be affected through the stomach.”

Sutherland thinks that many translations try to create a “purer” Marx, streamlining Das Kapital into a more scientific and theoretical book that is easier to grasp and whose concepts are less strange, not demanding the same stretches of the imagination. But it is precisely these unwieldy concepts which contain Marx’s power and originality, he explains:

“Your life should be harder after reading Capital. It was intended to be harsh on the ears, harsh on the conceptual imagination. In some ways, Marx is already a translation. He is taking these soberly conceived categories of political economics – like labour power, wages and so on – and translating them into this other nightmarish idiolect.”

Bio: Keston Sutherland is currently working on an analysis of Marx’s language, The Poetics of Capital. Known for his dramatic YouTube readings of his poems including Hot White Andy and Odes to TL61P, his most recent book of poetry, Scherzos Benjyosos (2020), is published by The Last Books.