Turning Gold into Lead

Turning Gold into Lead

Len Bracken

In 1994, Zone published the authorized translation of Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. Unlike the clarity and ardor of the original that made it a prize-winning classic, the new translation often defies comprehension and weakens the author's forceful prose. Donald Nicholson-Smith is an Englishman, which might explain some of my problems with his translation. But many of my concerns can't be attributed to stylistic differences. Compare two theses in the original with both his translation and mine. I think you'll find that he lost the thread of Debord's meaning.

1. Tout la vie des sociétés dans lesquelles règnent les conditions modernes de production s'annonce comme une immense accumulation de spectacles. Tout ce qui était directement vecu s'est éloigné dans une représentation.

1. The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation. [trans. Nicholson-Smith]

1. All life in societies under the reign of modern conditions of production displays itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was directly lived has distanced itself in representation. [trans. Bracken]

Why the "those" before "sociétés"? Why the distasteful alliteration of p's? Why make the key verb "règnent" a soft word like "prevail"? Why add "once" when the tense makes the place in time clear? Why add "mere" before "representation"? This weakens representation's ability to be perceived as an enemy. How can "s'est éloigné" be translated as "has become"? Debord's propositions are very direct; Nicholson-Smith makes them less so.

2. Les images qui se sont détachées de chaque aspect de la vie fusionnent dans un cours commun, où l'unité de cette vie ne peut plus être rétablie. La réalité considérée partillement se déploie dans sa propre unité générale en tant que pseudo-monde à part, objet de la seule contemplation. La spécialisation des images du monde se retrouve, accomplie, dans le monde de l'image autonomisé, où le mensonger s'est menti à lui-meme. Le spectacle en général, comme inversion concrète de la vie, est le mouvement autonome du non-vivant.

2. Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation. The tendency toward the specialization of images-of-the-world finds its highest expression in the world of the autonomous image, where deceit deceives itself. The spectacle in its generality is a concrete inversion of life, and, as such, the autonomous movement of non-life. [trans. Nicholson-Smith]

2. The images that are detached from every aspect of life flow into a common stream where the unity of life can never be reestablished. Partially considered reality deploys itself in its own general unity as a pseudoworld apart, as an object of contemplation. The specialization of images of the world finds its attainment in the world of the autonomized image where the liar has lied to himself. The spectacle, in general and as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the nonliving. [trans. Bracken]

Why add "former" to "unity of life" in the first line? Given Debord's concern for strategy and warfare, the cognate "deploys itself" should be used for "se déploie," not "unfolds." Where does Nicholson-Smith's "new" come from? and what happened to "unity" Somehow, "se déploie dans sa propre unité générale" becomes "unfolds in a new generality" in Nicholson-Smith's version, which makes no sense at all. This phrase also highlights Nicholson-Smith's tendency to drop the reflexive aspect of Debord's verbs. In the third sentence, where does "tendency" come from? And "highest expression" seems like something lofty in contrast to Debord's "accomplie"—here I would use "attainment." In the last sentence, Nicholson-Smith has "deceit deceives itself" where a literal translation makes a much more striking phrase: "the liar lies to himself." Nicholson-Smith's version of the last sentence uses a noun where Debord has a very specific verb form ("non-life" as opposed to "nonliving" suggested by "non-vivant"). And the way Nicholson-Smith has it, he needs to add "it is" before "the autonomous movement" otherwise it reads very poorly. As you can see, I translated the entire sentence differently.

What makes the incompetent liberties Nicholson-Smith takes with the texts he translates even more troubling, is his arrogance. Those who still doubt that he has defaced the situationist texts that he translated should consider his title to the work chapter of Raoul Vaneigem's Revolution of Everyday Life—instead of The Disgrace of Work (Decheance du travail), Nicholson-Smith comes up with The Decline and Fall of Work. Given Vaneigem's understanding of Roman philology, why alter a word like disgrace that is so etymologically and ethically rich? Nicholson-Smith's arrogance is particularly evident in his original preface to his translation of Vaneigem's book, which he didn't have the sense to correct in the 1993 edition. Read the last sentence (prior to the dedication), and marvel at the pomposity and glaring grammatical errors.

It is nonetheless my earnest hope that this new edition of Vaneigem's book will serve both to enlighten another 'younger generation' and, by increasing the work's warts-and-all accessibility to English-language readers, militate against those absurd hagiographical impulses which mystify the Situationist International's doughty contributions instead of rescuing them from the clutches of enemies and pillagers with a shared interest in consigning them to oblivion.

The French in Revolution of Everyday Life is superlative—no need bringing warts into the English version. It's the translator's job to write well. Given the spurious liberties Nicholson-Smith took with the texts, you'd think that he would've taken the liberty to employ literate syntax. For those who don't see anything wrong with his run-on sentence, I'll raise two objections: 1) the "with" in the last phrase should be "who have"—as it is, it reads as if the "rescuing" is done "with a shared interest"; 2) the last "them" is unclear because the closest antecedent is "enemies and pillagers," when he is apparently referring to "doughty contributions." Although the luminous words in the originals still shine here and there like the tracers of light we see in fireworks, the types of errors exhibited in Nicholson-Smith's own prose are so common in the translations that they're often frustrating to read. Like all books, the Black and Red edition of Society of the Spectacle could be improved, for example, by bringing the French further into English by breaking up some of the long sentences and avoiding unclear pronouns by repeating the noun. But this early edition remains vastly superior to Nicholson-Smith's bizarre translation that makes one of France's greatest prose stylists impossible to read.

Previous Page
Translations Epoch Communications Photography Mixt Bio Home Page
Copyright Restrictions Apply
Back to Top
Home Page