Sunday, October 16, 2005

When Translation Distorts History

Scholars and specialists in a particular subject area always welcome translations of certain texts, important in the history of economic thought. With is in mind I ordered, eagerly even, an English translation of Anne-Robert Turgot’s Réflexions sur la Formation et al Distribution de Riches, 1766, from Othila Press (199), 58a Abindon Road, London, W8 (ISBN 1 90i647 17 X).

The fact that its title page, over the name of Anne-Robert Turgot, carries the title, "The Formation and Distribution of Wealth" (a partially incorrect translation of Turgot’s original title), plus the sub-title "Reflections on Capitalism", should have alerted me, but it didn’t, and I passed on until I read the translator’s 38-page introduction and the last chapter, “Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Capitalism” by Malcolm Hill, at both of which I screamed, ‘no, ‘no’, a thousand times ‘no’!

In place of access to the writings of Turgot, I had to read through opinionated pieces by his translator, Kenneth Jupp, that bandied the word capitalism about as if it emerged from the writings of Turgot (88 years before the word first appeared), and from the book’s title, it suggests it was actually one used by Turgot, which it patently was not. How many purchasers of this book blithely accept their association of Turgot and Smith, as the translator and commentator, do with ‘capitalism, a phenomenon of which neither Turgot nor Smith were remotely aware, and nor was it to appear, unanticipated, until the mid-19th century?


Sir Kenneth Jupp and Malcolm Hill join the list of those who have falsified Adam Smith’s legacy, I hope inadvertently. The translator argues that the "Reflexions are here translated into modern English", to which I must respond: "Fine, as long as by 'modern English' you do not interpolate words from another era and deposit them in a text written in 1766 as if the phenomena of capitalism was an everyday description of the economy of mid-18th century France."

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