Strategies of Presentation

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Beneath all the (hopefully useful) chatter, the strategy of interpretation I’m pursuing has three main elaments:

  1. To treat the body of Bakunin’s works as rich and relatively coherent, suffering much more from various kinds of incompleteness than from inconsistency;
  2. To remind ourselves of the long periods during which we, particularly in the English-speaking world, have not always adhered to that kind of strategy; and
  3. To look to Bakunin’s own texts for inspiration when trying to solve the problems posed by their notoriously untidy state.

So what are the consequences of those strategic commitments, when it comes to assembling the Bakunin Library?

Selecting the Texts

By choosing to approach Bakunin’s work not just as a mass of fragments and variants, but as a mass of fragment and variants which might all yield useful insight into Bakunin’s overall project, we throw things wide open with regard to the texts we might include in the edition. That means that a lot of texts need to be considered, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that a lot of texts need to be included. It has always been a part of the plan that this edition not be strictly a scholarly edition. And if it is to be useful to more than just experts, or would-be experts, some restraint is called for, in order to avoid drowning readers in the deep waters of a body of work that is, despite all its potential utility, more than a bit of a mess.

Because the goal is in some sense an anarchist edition, there has been no attempt to deal with the earliest works (although we haven’t ruled out circling back to those at some later date.) But there is no real agreement about the date at which we might call Bakunin an anarchist, so the strategy has been to start early enough in the 1860s that at least some of the texts will appear as a contrast to the later texts, in periods where Bakunin had at least claimed to be an anarchist in some sense.

Because the work of translation is ultimately falling on a fairly small number of shoulders, it has also made sense not to retranslate works like the Confession or Statism and Anarchy, which exist in complete, relatively faithful translations.

There have been several plans for the volumes in the edition, organized chronologically or in relation to Bakunin’s organizational affiliations. They have actually varied less than one might expect, given the range of works to choose from. And this is in part because one of the obvious tasks that needed to be accomplished is the completion of a number of partial translation of key texts. That work alone dictated most of the volumes we have ultimately included in the plan for the edition, with the rest of the contents chosen from related texts, variants and correspondence, in order to complement those familiar, but not fully familiar, writings. Readers who come to the edition with a knowledge of the existing collections will have a familiar place to start and new readers will still cover the familiar ground, if in an enlarged context.

Translating the Texts

Working with texts by Proudhon, Déjacque and others, I’ve developed a strategy for exploratory translation that I usually signal with the label “working translation.” Early in my research on Proudhon, I recognized that there were clarifications in the translation that I was just not yet prepared to make, so the natural strategy was to leave some parts of the translations a bit literal, in the sense that I made some extra effort to preserve patterns of keyword usage. If, for example, it remained a bit of a mystery just what Proudhon was up to when he talked about “property” and “possession,” it was easy enough to at least preserve the patterns. And if things became clearer later, then translations could be adjusted.

The potential complexity of the questions is demonstrated by a problem like the translation of anarchie in Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution. In his translation, Robinson attempted to distinguish between what we might call technical and non-technical uses of the term, translating the terms as anarchy where is seemed to refer to Proudhon’s preferred social arrangements and disorder or chaos where it refers to it did not. That might have been a laudable strategy at the time, were it not for the places where Proudhon himself referred  to “anarchy in all of its senses,” posing questions that the translation leaves us unable to address, since the various senses have been translated differently. But we can certainly think of examples where the clarity would call for an approach like Robinson’s. It is simply a matter of being able to distinguish between instances where there might be some more-or-less technical sense of a term that should be maintained and those where there is nothing of the sort at stake. With large bodies of work, of course, it is necessary to make these calculations on a fairly large scale, so in the case of Proudhon it has been necessary to do a lot of reading and rereading in order to get a general sense of his habits of word-use. But there aren’t many surprises of the sort we find in The General Idea.

Working with Bakunin’s works is rather different than working with Proudhon’s. There is, of course, the unpolished character of much of the work. There is also Bakunin’s tendency, whether from inclination or the demands of writing in languages other than his native tongue, to express himself in fairly plain language. When we consider a case like the passage on “the authority of the bootmaker,” the original French text is no clearer than any of the English translations. In one sentence Bakunin is saying “no authority” (autorité) and in the next he seems to have changed his mind. When we look for clarification about the “rejection” of authority, in both positive and negative cases, we find the same verb (repousser) consistently. It is tempting, when faced with this apparent contradiction, to try to fix it where it occurs, but there is nothing in the language that justifies any clarification in the translation itself. We can footnote the problem, pointing back to the other portions of the text that present possible tools for resolving it. But, in terms of translation, what is important is actually that the problem be clearly marked in the language itself.

The strategy of not just retaining, but even highlighting the problems in the text is simply another part of reducing the amount of work that readers have to do in order to come to terms with the material. One of the things that I want readers to  understand when they engage with the Bakunin Library translations is that they are getting as close to the “whole fragment” as we could manage, so that those with the skills to consult the original, untranslated texts won’t feel that they have to and those without can have some faith that the collaboration and interpretation has been kept to the absolute minimum. Again, a real translation cannot be clearer than the original. So, while attempting to avoid the clumsiness of literal translation and respecting the real wit and power of Bakunin’s more finished prose, it will be necessary to use a version of the “working translations” strategy in the edition. And sometimes the amount of smoothing and clarification that is possible will be limited.

Fortunately, the relative simplicity of Bakunin’s prose means that the instances where things have to be left really rough will be few.

Framing and Interpretation

As the editor of the edition, and for reasons that should already be fairly clear, my interpretive ambitions are pretty modest. Each volume will require the establishment of specific contexts, including the development of Bakunin’s ideas through the various volumes, and there will be a certain amount of annotation necessary to highlight potential problems in the texts. But I understand the Bakunin Library primarily as a means of producing new interpretations, rather than an interpretive account on its own. There will be instances where we have inherited interpretations that probably need to be questioned, but in those cases I hope to address the difficulties by discussing issues of translation, editing choices in previous translations, etc.

Naturally, spending all the time required wrestling with Bakunin’s ideas has inspired, and will undoubtedly continue to inspire, lot of thoughts regarding the interpretation of his works, not all of which will fit in a relatively neutral footnote or an aside in an introduction. I am considering the possibility of pursuing some of these ideas in a separate volume or volumes, perhaps with other scholars who have expressed an interest in contributing to the edition. But I am also planning to conclude each volume with some open-ended, exploratory remarks on the material. And the logistics of publishing The Knouto-Germanic Empire may commit us to two volumes, in which case it might make sense to include more interpretive material in what is also certainly going to be the centerpiece of the edition.

This particular approach to the material will undoubtedly not satisfy everyone, but I don’t think there is an approach that would be universally useful. What this set of strategies seems likely to guarantee is an edition that is broadly useful to anarchists and non-anarchists alike, regardless of their ideological or organizational commitments and interpretive presuppositions.

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.