Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents Freud in Translation and Available Editions of Freud's Works

Among scholars of Freud, the question of translation is a perennial subject of debate. Freud's language has tended to be translated into English as more "clinical" and scientific-sounding than the original German. A famous example can be found in Freud's model of the self. In German, this model is divided into the "Ich" ("I"), the "Es" ("It") and the "Uber-Ich" ("Over-I"). Nearly all translations of Freud, however, translate these three terms as the Ego, the Id and the Super-Ego. This removes the concepts from our everyday experience: we often talk about what "I" did today, but never about what "Ego" did today.

Similarly, Freud's concepts and metaphors have often been tweaked in translation. To take the most obvious example from Civilization and Its Discontents, consider the title. In German, the work was published as Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, which translates as "The Uneasiness (or, the Malaise) in Culture." By swapping those two key terms, Civilization for Culture and Discontents for Uneasiness, the English translation seems to lend the work a sense of refinement and delicacy that is not present in the original German. In general, English translators have tended to soften and censor the Freudian original, substituting clinical abstractions for Freud's bodily images. Indeed, they seem to enact the Freudian role of the Super-Ego, rendering the original more acceptable for the English-speaking audience.

To a great degree, this effect of translating Freud is the result of the "Standard Edition" edited by James Strachey. This edition, which is indisputably excellent in terms of the care and scholarship that went into the program (and which, in fact, bears the recommendation of Freud himself), "standardized" the language of Freud from a practicing clinician's perspective. Thus, many of the scientific, clinical translation choices that Strachey made have entered our English vocabulary, perhaps for good. It would take a brave translator indeed to replace the Strachey "Id" with the (perhaps) Freudian "It."

Nevertheless, in recent years, Penguin has mounted an effort to re-translate the works of Freud, emphasizing the original, bodily nature of his terms. They have also recollected Freud's essays, most of which were collected separately in the Standard Edition, in an effort to emphasize their thematic coherence. Freud's diverse writings on aesthetics, for instance, are collected in a volume entitled The Uncanny. Civilization and Its Discontents is available from Penguin in a recent translation, published in 2002.

Thus, with the recent entry of Penguin on the scene, the student of Freud is faced with a welcome choice of approaches. While no one expects Penguin's edition to replace Strachey's among scholars, it inevitably provides a valuable contrast for readers and students of Freud's thought.

Three Recommended Translations

The Standard Edition, translated by James Strachey. This is, for most purposes, still the definitive translation of Freud. Keep in mind the above caveats, however; Strachey tends to prefer the more abstract word - for instance, "civilization" instead of "culture."

The Penguin Edition, translated by David McClintock. This translation offers an attractive, "earthier" (and perhaps more accurate) alternative to the Standard Edition.

The Dover Edition, translated by Joan Riviere. This translation originally appeared in 1930 when it was published by The Hogarth Press (Virginia and Leonard Woolf's press). It is an attractive version and it's available at a very inexpensive price.