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An Accidental Translator


“And I said to Colonel Greene: “Why don’t you translate ‘What is Property?’” His answer was: “Why don’t you?” A mere boy, the thought of my competency for such a task had never occurred to me. But, the suggestion thus deposited in my mind, I turned it over and over and enlarged upon it, until I reached a determination that I could spend my life in no worthier, more helpful, more congenial pursuit…”  Benjamin R, Tucker, announcing the Proudhon Library in 1887

I’m Shawn P. Wilbur, curator of the Libertarian Labyrinth digital archive, editor and chief translator of the Bakunin Library project, and publisher of Corvus Editions. These pages are a place to focus on the process of translation, highlight some particularly interesting examples, and indulge in a bit of theory.

It was almost exactly ten years ago, early in the summer of 2006, when I made the announcement that I had set off down a similar road. At the time, I was still focused on early North American anarchism, but it had become clear that I wasn’t going to do justice to figures like William Batchelder Greene if I didn’t first tackle a lot of untranslated by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Pierre Leroux and others. I had started to translate, with a sort of painful slowness, thanks to decades of neglecting my limited French skills, Proudhon’s Solution du Problème Social and was gradually learning, as I put it at the time, “to stop worrying and love being lost between the que and whatever is going to make it make sense, over there, after the verb phrase and maybe a dependent clause or eighteen.”

It would be a year and a day before I posted Proudhon’s “Toast to the Revolution,” in what turned out to be an adequate translation with only one very serious mistake. Then it would be almost two more years before I announced my own New Proudhon Library, starting with The Philosophy of Progress. But the new career was started and it was the exchange between Tucker and Greene that I was thinking of as I announced the new undertaking.

I don’t suppose I had any intention of “spending my life” at the task, but there has been no shortage of attractive translation projects, whether it is a question of big publishing projects like the Bakunin Library, the ongoing work on Proudhon, my translations for the feminist history project, La Frondeuse, or my occasional excursions outside the political realm, like An Account of a Voyage from the Arctic to the Antarctic Pole by way of the Center of the Earth. It has all been interesting and rewarding enough that, although I certainly won’t spend all of the rest of my life doing it, it is now hard to imagine a life that didn’t involve a continuation of my work as a translator.

The works featured here are among the most interesting or most finished of my works to date. I have chosen to feature them here alongside the original texts, both as an extra spur to get it right and as a means of helping others, who might themselves take up the challenge accepted by folks like Greene, Tucker and yours truly, to begin their journey.


— Shawn

PS. Proudhon’s Solution du Problème Social, despite being one of the first texts I began to work on, has remained a sort of perpetual back-burner project for a decade. But just this week, in a quiet sort of anniversary celebration, I’ve started to work on some of the still-untranslated portions with a new group of budding translators.

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