ND Translation Notes
Negative Dialectics
Translation Notes


Translators, the crucial intermediaries of global cultural exchange, are subject to a unique set of dangers and opportunities in the multinational era. Structurally, translators occupy a position analogous to the global currency and credit markets. At their best, they facilitate a truly equal cultural exchange, in which the achievements of one culture are made available to another. At their worst, they censor the original text, short-circuiting the flow of ideas, mediations and aesthetic achievements. The task of the translator, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin’s landmark essay on translation, is to think not only what is being translated, but the historical constellations in which it is said; put simply, to transcode a complex cultural matrix, instead of just the words, phrases or even individual meanings. This, of course, is impossible, but good translations nourish themselves on precisely the impossibility in question. This is why the first law of translation is, “change nothing”, while the second is “anything goes”. It is the epic struggle between the two extremes which results in translations worthy of the name; anything less just isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Strange as it sounds, good translations are actually rather like the false-color images of distant planets relayed by spacecraft: Neptune and Pluto wouldn’t actually look like that to the naked eyes of an astronaut cruising the dim outer reaches of the solar system in person, but the reprocessed and rescaled image does justice to the reality, by making the inexperienceable nevertheless experienceable after all.

All these issues are exacerbated to the breaking point by Adorno’s texts, which are mind-boggling complex, breathtakingly beautiful meditations on what it means (as well as what it doesn’t mean) to be a socially responsible citizen of the total system. Thinking, said Brecht, is one of the greatest pleasures of life, and on this score Adorno, who certainly had his share of disagreements with Central Europe’s greatest modernist playwright, would not only concur, but match Brecht’s own aesthetic praxis step for dialectical step by writing some of the most gorgeous theory ever written. Though I’ve done my best to render something of the subtlety, grace, tact and sheer power of Adorno’s original, bear in mind that what you’re reading is nothing but the false-color bitmap image, as it were, of the planetary surface of the original.

I’ve used the standard philosophical translations for terms wherever possible, e.g. Anschauung is rendered as intuition, Austausch is exchange, Seiendes is existent, etc. As much of Adorno’s gorgeous, intricately poetic grammar has been preserved as possible, by using “the latter” and “the former” in place of pronouns, which are marked by gender in German, thus allowing for complex sentences to be arranged in compact form; the pronouns of the text has also been gender-balanced, so far as this is possible (i.e. by substituting “one” or “they” for “he”). Certain terms have also been given more spin in English, to carry across their contextual meaning (i.e. Ordnung is usually translated as “social order” instead of the colorless, bland “order”). Allgemeine is usually “general” and Allgemeinheit “generality” or “universality”; the delightfully untranslatable term Schein (appearance, semblance, as well as a financial note or bill; “seemingness” might come the closest) is always and everywhere marked as follows: “appearance [Schein]”, whereas the mundane Erscheinung (ordinary, everyday appearance) is usually translated as “appearance” and, more rarely, as “phenomenon”, depending on the context. The equally untranslatable Geist ("mind", "spirit") is rendered in capitalized form as "Spirit", following the standard Hegel translations. I have, however, made a point of translating geistlich and related adjectives as “intellectual” wherever possible, due to the specific conditions of Anglo-Saxon culture, i.e. the fact that the culture of the Cold War constantly defamed the word “intellectual”, to the point where it has become vital to defend and rehabilitate the term, in order to defend the dignity of thinkers and thinking generally.

Anglo-saxon culture is also at issue in one of the most common terms Adorno uses, namely Bann, “spell”, translated herein as the deliberately malign, archaic “bane” rather than “spell”, “charm” or “magic” (with the one exception that “Bannkreis” is rendered as “magic circle”). The reason is that the multinational media and information culture has absorbed massive amounts of mythology and folklore into itself, effectively rendering these terms harmless, something apparent everywhere from Jimi Hendrix’s classic line in Purple Haze: “Am I happy, or in misery/ whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me” to the endless references to software wizards and listserv trolls. The word bane has resisted this incorporation, at least so far, while remaining close enough to the original to stick.

Selected nouns were expanded into clauses, to give the philosophical feel of the original, i.e. “das Unvermittelte” might be rendered as “that which is immediate” rather than simply “the immediate”, depending on the context. Individuum is usually translated as “the individuated”, with only a few exceptions, due to the fact that Adorno is constantly playing off the objective overtones of the term (it means the individual in an abstract, categorical sense) against the more subjective Einzelne or Individual (“individual” in the sense of a concrete person). Sachverhalt has been translated as “matter-at-hand”, except for a few cases where the context overwhelming suggested its associated meaning of an existential, abstract “state of affairs”; Sache, literally the “thing” or “matter”, in the sense of a set of immediate facts or data, has a direct, immediately material ring in German which “state of affairs” doesn’t quite capture. Other minor points: Technic is “technics”, a perfectly good word referring to the totality of technical knowledge and praxis, not technology or technique. Finally, all the Greek, Latin, French and Italian terms have been translated, and the Greek terms given their Latin spellings; philosophical terms in Greek were translated with the assistance of the superb Perseus Digital Library (it transliterates between Greek and Latinate letters, so no special fonts are needed to search for Greek terms; click here to go directly to the word-search area).

-- Dennis Redmond


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