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American Imago 58.4 (2001) 837-840

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Freud and Translation

Patrick J. Mahony

The subject of Freud and translation can be treated in three parts: Freud as theorist of translation, Freud as translator, and the translations of Freud's own works.

Freud merits to be classed among the principal theorists and innovators of translation, for he gives it a scope and depth unprecedented in history. Freud made translation a unified field concept that encompasses the interaction of intrasystemic, intersystemic, and interpsychic phenomena. More specifically, Freud deemed the following to be translations: dreams; generalized hysterical, obsessive, and phobic symptomatology; parapraxes; fetishes; the choice of suicidal means; and the analyst's interpretations.

Informing Freud's conception of the analyst's interpretations is the secondary use of the German word übersetzung (translation) to mean transposition. Thus, in two 1896 letters to Fliess (1985, 187-90, 207-14), Freud portrayed the individual as a series of "successive registrations" representing "the psychic achievement of successive epochs of life. At the boundary between two such epochs a translation of the psychic material must take place." But a pathological reaction, Freud continues, may interfere with this psychic development; such a reaction constitutes "a failure of translation--this is what is clinically known as 'repression.' The motive for it is always a release of the unpleasure that would be generated by a translation; it is as though this unpleasure provokes a disturbance of thought that does not permit the work of translation."

In sum, if the patient may be psychically conceived as an accumulation of translations--as when the hysteric turns into an obsessional and thus becomes a bilingual document (Freud 1913, 319)--the analyst assumes the complementary role of a translator. By means of translations the analyst effects a transposition [End Page 837] of what is unconscious into consciousness (Freud 1915, 166; 1916-17, 435; 1940, 159, 186).

As translator, Freud singlehandedly rendered five complete books into German: the twelfth volume of John Stuart Mill's works, which appeared in Vienna in 1880; the third volume of Charcot's Leçons sur les maladies du système nerveux (1886) and Leçons du Mardi à la Salpêtrière (1887-88); and Bernheim's De la suggestion et de ses applications à la thérapeutique (1886) and Hypnotisme, suggestion et psychothérapie (1892). He also translated the section on Samuel Butler in Israel Levine's The Unconscious (1923; the German text appearing in the Internationale Psychoanalytische Bibliothek, 20[1926]); and, with his daughter Anna, he translated Marie Bonaparte's Topsy (1937). As Jones (1953) reports, Freud translated rapidly, using his photographic memory: "Instead of laboriously translating from the foreign language, idioms and all, he would read a passage, close the book, and consider how a German writer would have clothed the same thoughts" (55).

The question of translating Freud involves the following three issues: the textual status of the primary sources in German; Freud's magisterial use of the native language; and the nature of the extant and ideal translations of his works. With respect to the first issue, Grubrich-Simitis (1993) has made a vast survey of the primary sources in notes and fair copies; in addition, she has discussed the history and textual accuracy of Freud's printed texts and outlined a plan for a future historical-critical edition of his works.

Linguistically, Freud is one of the greatest prose writers and rhetoricians in German literature. He shows his mastery of so many expository factors--modulated ironies, wide-ranging analogies, evocativeness, subtle use of deictics, and dialectical techniques of familiarization and defamiliarization (Mahony 1987, 1989). Partly overlapping with the preceding list is Freud's remarkably creative exploitation of the polysemous and other expressive potentials of his native German language (Ornston 1982; Altounian 1983; Pollak-Cornillot 1986; Bourguignon et al. 1989; Laplanche et al. 1992).

The latter point chiefly informs the polemical discussions concerning extant and ideal translations of Freud's works. Historically, the greatest attention has been given to the [End Page 838] English-language version commonly called the Standard Edition. Strachey, moreover, is frequently referred to as its sole translator, although he...


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