Remarks on the Mansfield-Winthrop Translation

Arthur Goldhammer

In the course of preparing a new translation of Democracy in America (to be published by the Library of America), I have had occasion to look closely at the recent translation by the distinguished political scientists Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. The volume begins with a brilliant introductory essay that has to count among the best brief accounts of Tocqueville’s work. Mansfield and Winthrop (hereafter referred to as M&W) then vigorously defend a particular view of translation. Their intent, they say, is to be "as literal and consistent as we can, while still readable." They also seek to be "modest, cautious, and faithful." They are critical of the work of their predecessors Henry Reeve and George Lawrence on the grounds that these "literary persons," not being students of the text in the sense that "philosophers" are students of texts,

presume to know the meaning of the author. That, they believe, is no more difficult to acquire than by looking in a dictionary, or by experience not needing to look in a dictionary. … Neither translator had in mind the need to study the book.

Precisely what M&W intend by this admonition to "study the book" calls for additional comment. They seem to regard literary persons as bemused lovers, entranced by superficial beauties of the beloved text to the point where they are willing to "overlook small departures from what they expect." Like all lovers, these literary persons are willfully blind: "When the disharmonies—nay contradictions—in the text are too obvious to be missed, they harmonize them, which is to say they cover them over." By contrast, philosophical readers are like depth psychologists, seizing on such small departures and contradictions to lay bare latent meaning. Hence it is better to "leave the difficulty to be seen by the reader," for otherwise one "deprives him of a discovery that might force him to think."

Implicit in M&W’s characterization of the art of translation, and even more, as we shall see, in their performance, is a certain view of language. Although they profess respect, indeed awe, for Tocqueville’s "perfect style," their utmost respect is reserved not for his style but for his thought: "The reason, we believe, for the defects in [previous] translations … is underestimation of Tocqueville. The translators do not believe Tocqueville was a deep thinker; we do." As we have seen, however, M&W maintain that his deep thought, armored though it is in his "perfect style," does not leap from his brow in fully accessible form. His contradictions and hesitations encode a deeper meaning, which the translator had best not disturb, for decoding the meaning of a text is an arduous business—work for philosophers. The translator should therefore view his task as akin to that of a cryptographic clerk transcribing a code from one cipher to another. Any disturbance in the pattern of signs may disrupt the ultimate task of decipherment. Hence M&W can endorse Leo Strauss’s view that "the perfect translator is either one who understands nothing of what he translates and never presumes that he does, or one who understands everything in the text and knows what he is doing."

Let us turn, therefore, to the text of M&W’s translation with these criteria in mind. I shall cite a series of passages from the French text followed by what M&W believe to be literal translations and ask whether they have left the pattern of Tocqueville’s signs undisturbed in a way that serves the student of the text, or, rather, whether they have unwittingly introduced distortions whose effect will be to baffle or complicate subsequent study, be it by "philosophers," "literary persons," or ordinary readers.

Celui qui recherche dans les faits l’influence réelle qu’exercent les lois sur le sort de l’humanité, est exposé à de grandes méprises, car il n’y a rien de si difficile à apprécier qu’un fait. [244]

Whoever searches the facts for the real influence that laws exert on the lot of humanity is exposed to great scorn, for there is nothing so difficult to appreciate as a fact. [205]

Note the confusion of la méprise, mistake or misapprehension, with le mépris, scorn.

En Amérique … les riches se trouvent dans une position analogue à celle des pauvres en Europe: ce sont eux qui souvent se défient de la loi. [276]

In America … the rich are found in a position analogous to that of the poor in Europe; it is they who often defy the law. [230]

Note the confusion of se défier de, to mistrust, to be wary of, with défier, to defy.

Il arrive [aux Américains] de déplorer le vice des lois … [297]

They come to deplore the viciousness of the laws … [247]

Note the translation of vice, "flawed or defective character," as "viciousness." While it is true that "viciousness" can mean "the quality of being faulty, imperfect, or otherwise impaired by defects," that meaning is remote from ordinary usage, whereas in French the sense of vice as "flaw or defect" is common in such formulas as vice de forme (a court case can be dismissed for a vice de forme, or as we would say, "on a technicality"). Translation should be careful, whenever possible, to avoid altering the implications of a passage by using seemingly cognate terms whose "semantic fields" are in fact quite different.

Tous les souverains qui ont voulu puiser en eux-mêmes les sources de leur puissance, et diriger la société au lieu de se laisser diriger par elle … [314]

All sovereigns who have wanted to draw the sources of their power from themselves, and to direct society instead of allowing it to be directed by itself … [261]

Note the misconstruction of se laisser diriger: the translation should read "instead of allowing themselves to be directed by it."

Le Massachusetts est le pays le plus peuplé de l’Union; on y compte quatre-vingts habitants par mille carré … [324]

Massachusetts is the most populous region of the Union; they have eighty-four inhabitants per square mile there … [269]

The translation imputes to Tocqueville the incorrect statement that Massachusetts is the most populous state in the Union. Although peuplé can mean "populous," Tocqueville uses it here and elsewhere in the text to mean "densely populated." Note that the figure he gives in support of his statement is a population density. (Note, too, that a slip of the pen has turned quatre-vingts into "eighty-four.")

Si elle [leur éducation] se poursuit au-delà, elle ne se dirige plus que vers une matière spéciale et lucrative. [57]

If it is pursued beyond this, it is only directed more toward a special and lucrative matter. [51]

The phrase ne se dirige plus que is misconstrued. The translation should read "is henceforth directed only toward."

Chez les Américains, la force qui administre l’Etat est bien moins réglée … [102]

Among the Americans, the force that the state administers … [87]

M&W, thinking they know what Tocqueville must have meant, have translated la force qui administre l’Etat as "the force that the state administers" rather than the admittedly more puzzling but also more faithful "force that administers the state." But this smoothing of difficulties in a text is, on their own account, the besetting sin of translation.

De plus, on comprend sans peine qu’en chargeant l’intérêt particulier de provoquer la censure des lois, en liant intimement le procès fait à la loi au procès fait à un homme, on s’assure que la législation ne sera pas légèrement attaquée. [114]

Furthermore, one understands without difficulty that in charging a particular interest with provoking the censure of laws, in intimately binding the case made for the law with the case made for one man, one is assured that legislation will not be attacked lightly. [97]

Faire procès à means to make a case against, not for, someone or something.

… je me console aisément d’un mal qui est compensé par tant de bien. [103 n]

… I easily console myself with an evil that is compensated by so much good. [88 n]

Se consoler de is misinterpreted: "I am easily consoled for an evil," not with an evil.

Au milieu du mouvement universel de la société, ce point immobile choque ses regards, et il veut voir s’il ne parviendra pas à le mettre en branle comme le reste. [200]

In the midst of the universal movement of society, the sight of this unmovable point shocks them, and they want to see if they cannot get it to shake like the rest. [170]

Mettre qch. en branle means "to set something moving."

Dans les villes, on ne peut guère empêcher les hommes de se concerter, de s’échauffer en commun, de prendre des résolutions subites et passionnées. [320]

In towns, men can scarcely be prevented from concerting with each other, from becoming heated up in common, from taking sudden and passionate resolves. [266]

S’échauffer in this context means "to become excited, stirred up, warmly passionate."

Cette influence destructive qu’exercent les peuples très civilisés sur ceux qui le sont moins se fait remarquer chez les Européens eux-mêmes. [386n]

This destructive influence that very civilized peoples exert on those who are less so is remarked by the Europeans themselves. [319n]

The translation misconstrues se faire remarquer. The sentence states that the destructive influence in question "can be seen among Europeans themselves." The remainder of the passage goes on to give an instance of such destructive influence among Europeans.

C’est ainsi qu’en Europe on voit souvent les laquais des grands seigneurs trancher du noble avec le peuple. [414]

Thus in Europe one often sees the lackeys of great lords split off with the noble from the people. [342]

The translation misconstrues the idiom trancher du, which Le Dictionnaire Robert tags as "old or literary." A quotation from the dictionary will make clear what has gone wrong with the translation:

(v. 1475). Vx. ou littér. Trancher du, trancher de la: prendre d’une manière absolue, prétentieuse, les manières, le personnage de … Trancher du seigneur, de l’important, affecter un tel personnage. "Il recevait grandement … il tranchait du prince." (Balz.)

Hence the translation should read "one sees the lackeys of great lords ape the manners of the noble with the people," or, more idiomatically perhaps, "the lackeys of great lords lord it over the people." Here, M&W have clearly made short shrift of a linguistic difficulty that did not yield immediately to their need. Evidently they do not feel that linguistic cruxes deserve the same close attention and careful study as philosophical ones.

Partis de cette région, [les principaux fleuves] se font jour à travers le rempart qui semblait devoir les rejeter à l’Occident … [431]

Departing from that region, [the principal rivers] come to light across the rampart that seemed bound to throw them back to the West … [356]

If the idea of major rivers "coming to light" had struck M&W’s ear as rather odd, they might have glanced at Robert’s Dictionnaire des expressions et locutions, which would have taught them that "au XVIIe siècle, se faire jour s’emploie au sens de ‘voir clair,’ puis ‘se frayer un passage.’" Clearly the latter sense is intended.

… le temps a fait justice d’une foule de préjugés provinciaux qui d’abord militaient contre [l’Union]. [447]

… time has done justice to a host of provincial prejudices that at first militated against it. [369]

… l’opinion acheva de faire justice de la mesure [503]

… opinion succeeded in doing justice to the measure [696]

In both examples 15 and 16, the phrase faire justice de qch., "to refute or challenge something," is confused with faire justice à qch., "to do justice to something."

La cupidité y est toujours en haleine … [545]

Cupidity is always out of breath there … [429]

The difficulty here is that en haleine is not the same thing as hors d’haleine. To be out of breath is to breathe hard after strenuous exertion, whereas tenir qn en haleine is "to hold someone spellbound," "to take someone’s breath away." Hence the sentence means that in the United States "greed is always spellbound," or, more freely but perhaps more perspicuously, "greed is always confronted with a breathtaking array of possibilities." M&W’s translation arrives at something close to the opposite of the intended meaning: greed—or cupidity, as they insist—is alleged to be worn out and close to exhaustion.

… on se fait généralement des idées très vastes de la dignité … [555]

… one generally gets used to very vast ideas … [436]

The translation confuses se faire with se faire à. It is fortunate that this particular contresens was not visited upon the opening sentence of General de Gaulle’s memoirs: "Je me suis toujours fait une certaine idée de la France."

parmi tant de nations lettrées que tourmente incessamment l’ardeur de l’industrie … [556]

among so many literate nations that incessantly stir the ardor of industry … [437]

Note that que tourmente is misread as qui tourmente: it is the ardor of industry that is stirring the literate nations rather than the other way around.

Quand il s’agit de faire régler les affaires particulières d’un canton par les hommes qui l’habitent, les mêmes individus sont toujours en contact, et ils sont … forcés de se connaître et de se complaire [618]

When it is a question of having the particular affairs of a district regulated by the men who inhabit it, the same individuals are always in contact and they are … forced to know each other and to take pleasure in each other. [487]

While it is true that se complaire dans qn. means "to take pleasure in someone," se complaire used absolutely has an older meaning that is nicely captured in the archaic prose of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie:

Complaire. v. n. S’accommoder, se conformer au sentiment, au goust, à l'humeur de quelqu’un pour luy plaire, acquiescer à ce qu’il souhaite.

Thus the sense of Tocqueville’s statement is that when men who live in an area deal with local affairs, they are obliged "to know and accommodate to one another."

Let us turn now to two matters raised by Melvin Richter in his paper, M&W’s use of pronouns and their handling of gendered nouns. It may be useful to add a few additional examples to those cited by Richter:

Quand la statistique n’est pas fondée sur des calculs rigoureusement vrais, elle égare au lieu de diriger. L’esprit se laisse prendre aisément aux faux airs d’exactitude qu’elle conserve jusque dans ses écarts … [249]

When statistics are not grounded on rigorously true calculations, they lead astray instead of directing. The mind easily lets itself take on false airs of exactitude that it keeps even in its lapses … [209]

Here, the translators have lost sight of the fact that elle conserve refers to la statistique, and this leads them to further misconstrue the phrase se laisser prendre à. What Tocqueville says is not that the "mind takes on false airs of exactitude" but that "the mind allows itself to be taken in by the false airs of exactitude which statistics retain even in their aberrations."

L’égalité place les hommes à côté les uns des autres, sans lien commun qui les retienne. Le despotisme élève des barrières entre eux et les sépare. Elle les dispose à ne point songer à leurs semblables et il leur fait une sorte de vertu publique de l’indifférence. [616]

Equality places men beside one another without a common bond to hold them. Despotism raises barriers between them and separates them. It disposes them not to think of those like themselves, and for them it makes a sort of public virtue of indifference. [485]

Note that in the French, elle les dispose refers to the feminine noun l’égalité, whereas il leur fait refers to the masculine noun le despotisme. There is no ambiguity. But the rules of English force one to read the third sentence of the translation incorrectly as though it were despotism rather than equality that disposes men not to think about their fellow men (or "those like themselves" as M&W rather awkwardly insist: because their study of the book has convinced them that the notion of semblables is one of Tocqueville’s novel contributions to political science, they feel they must underscore this by adhering rigorously to the phrase "those like themselves" wherever the term appears in French).

M&W’s reluctance to substitute a clarifying noun for an ambiguous pronoun might almost be justifiable if they were consistent about it, but they are not:

La Constitution donnait au gouvernement fédéral le soin de pourvoir aux intérêts nationaux: on avait pensé que c’était à lui à faire ou à favoriser, dans l’intérieur, les grandes entreprises … [450]

The Constitution gave to the federal government the care of providing for national interests: it was for the federal government, they thought, to make or favor great internal undertakings … [371]

Here they recognize the difficulty created by the pronoun "lui" and resolve the ambiguity by inserting "federal government" in its place. Yet they immediately create another difficulty by translating the impersonal pronoun on as "they," which in English sits oddly because it has no antecedent.

… le pouvoir royal se plaçait … en dehors et au-dessus de la Constitution; mais … il est, de son aveu, créé par elle, et n’est absolument rien sans elle. [500]

… royal power was placed … outside and above the constitution; but … it is, by its own admission, created by the constitution and is absolutely nothing without it. [693]

Here again, they correctly recognize the ambiguity that would have been created by translating créé par elle as "created by it" and wisely substitute the noun. Hence it would appear that they have no reason not to dispel such ambiguities elsewhere in their translation, especially since consistency is second only to literalness among the goals they wish to achieve. Yet in numerous places they allow these unnecessary ambiguities to stand.

Here is another kind of difficulty spuriously introduced by the translation of on:

Une cause assez vaste pour s’appliquer à la fois à des millions d’hommes, et assez forte pour les incliner tous ensemble du même côté, semble aisément irrésistible; après avoir vu qu’on y cédait, on est bien près de croire qu’on ne pouvait y résister. [600]

A cause vast enough to be applied to millions of men at once and strong enough to incline all together in the same direction easily seems irresistible; after having seen that they yield to it, one is quite close to believing that they cannot resist it. [471]

On appears three times in the French. In the English, the word is twice rendered as "they" and once as "one." This would be permissible if "they" referred to "millions of men" and "one" referred to a detached observer concluding that their surrender to the "vast cause" makes it seem irresistible. But Tocqueville’s point is actually more subtle than that. It is that a cause easily comes to seem irresistible to the person who surrenders to it. The observer and the person surrendering are one and the same. The idea that the cause is irresistible serves as an alibi after the fact of one’s surrender. The translation obliterates this subtlety.

I beg the reader’s indulgence for having taken up so much space with examples, but questions of translation must always come down to cases. The high-flown debates between partisans of the "literal" and partisans of the "free" seem to me to beg all the hard questions. I could not agree more with Mansfield and Winthrop that it is essential to "study the book," and the depth of their own study is reflected in their remarkable introduction. But it is also essential, as I think the foregoing examples show, to study the language in which the book is written, and other books written in the same language, and the culture of which that language is an expression. Where I disagree with my distinguished colleagues is in the relation of "the book," in the ideal sense—the message, the content, the ideas—to its material embodiment in language. Because they view the material text as an encoding of a message accessible only after prolonged study, they believe that translation either must be rote transcription—the cryptographic clerk, Strauss’s know-nothing translator—or else must proceed in tandem with decipherment, which is work for the scholar—who in the limit would approach Strauss’s other ideal, he who knows all. I do not deny that access to the "message" involves difficulty, or that the text requires work and study before it can be grasped, however imperfectly; but I see the material embodiment of that message as having more in common with a musical performance than with a cipher.

When Tocqueville wrote in French, he was performing a score that existed only in his head. That score is now lost. All we have today is the record of his performance. Think of it as a piece played by a master of the harpsichord who was also a composer of genius: Bach, say. Now, in Englishing his text, our task is to reproduce Tocqueville’s music, but on a modern piano. Since there is no score, the ideal translator must have a good ear for the piece as played on the harpsichord, and since his instrument is an English piano rather than a French clavecin, he must also fathom the important differences between the two instruments. Naturally this requires study, but not necessarily of the kind M&W recommend (though I would not deny that a musical performer can benefit from the study of music theory, history, and so on). Although it is true that Tocqueville himself regarded "harmony and homogeneity" as mere "secondary beauties of style," I think they are beauties he nonetheless prized, and that a translator might well strive to preserve along with the "clear terms" that he also considered essential to "good language." Excellent performances of different kinds are certainly possible: think of Bach played by Wanda Landowska and Bach played by Glenn Gould. Ripeness is all.