Capital -  a correspondence over Everyman translation


In your last letter you mentioned the new translation of Capital by E. and C. Paul. The book, peculiar as it may seem, has not been a pleasure to me. Of course, it is agreeable to find the demand for the works of Marx, having become so great as to require a new edition of the Capital, and as a sign of this increased interest in Marx and his works I certainly welcome this edition. Only my pleasure has been marred by the circumstance that one has found it necessary to make an entirely new translation instead of revising the edition of Moore and Aveling, which had been thoroughly revised and completed by Engels.

            Both translators of the first English edition were born Englishmen, both were quite conversant with economical matters and even if to them has to be denied an all-round competence in questions of economy, nothing of the kind can be said against Engels, who, as is to be seen from letters of that period, also from his Introduction to the English edition, has spent an enormous deal of time and labour on this edition. This old edition contains a tremendous deal of Engels’s own work, and I do not consider it right to neglect this work; and what is more, to me it is not a neglect only but equals almost to a contempt, to an abjudication of Engels, and with such a tendency I, of course, cannot at all sympathise.

I do not consider myself so competent as to declare decisively that the edition revised by Engels complies to all stylistic requirements, or that it contains no mistakes, no errors. Its containing mistakes is quite possible. But to justify the discarding of the text authorise by Engels, the least one ought to have done would have been to prove on hand of numerous instances the absolute uselessness of the old Engels edition, the impossibility of adapting it to the requirement of to-day and hence its inevitable fate of being thrown away in order to make room to a completely new translation. To such an authority as Engels this justification, to my idea, ought to have been made!

            I have not gone through the Pauls’ translation very thoroughly, but the fact of this translation suffering from serious errors was brought home to me by the introduction of the Pauls, from which I learned that they have not used for their text the Volksausgabe, published by Kautsky (and to which I also contributed by adding a very complete register).

            The Kautsky edition, though not a critical definitive one, possesses great advantages over all other editions as far as the text is concerned, as Kautsky has used for this edition all the variations of the four different versions by Marx, resp, Engels, further numerous corrections of Marx and Engels found in their own copies, and also the French edition, which to a great extent has been revised by Marx. From all this is to be seen that the Pauls have not made use of the best text hitherto known, therefore their translation is a step backwards.

A hasty perusal of their book resulted in my discovering the following errors:-

On page 866 instead of ‘hoffnunsvoll’ (hopeful) they translated unhappy.

           282 instead of ‘Arbeitsvolk’ (working people) they translated the French people.

          318 instead of ‘Arbeitzeit’ (labour time) they translated tannery.

        593 instead of ‘politische Oekonomie’ (political economy) they translated English economics

In conclusion, let me say that as long as E. and C. Paul do not convince me by a thorough criticism of the old translation that a revision (the necessity of which I do not deny) has been absolutely impossible, I maintain and shall continue to maintain the standpoint of considering their new translation from a scientific point of view superfluous. The interest of the English-speaking world in Marx’s Capital will grow to such an extent that I hope the day will not be far off when the opportunity arises of re-editing the old translation.

Fraternally yours,

D. Riazonov, Moscow, April 18, 1929.

Labour Monthly, May 1929, pp. 312-3.


To the Editor of the LABOUR MONTHLY.

DEAR COMRADE, – In his letter in your issue of May, 1929, dated Moscow, April 18, 1929, Comrade Riazanov writes:- A hasty perusal of their (E. and C. Paul’s) book resulted in my discovering the following errors: (list follows).

We are sure that our Comrade does not intend any suggestio falsi, but most of those who read his letter will believe him to be charging us with certain mistranslations from the text we used, that of the fourth German edition. Actually Comrade Riazanov has scanned the list of alleged misprints or conjectural emendations in the German text given by Karl Kautsky on pp. xiii and xiv of his editorial preface to the Volksausgabe of Das Kapital (Vol. I, 1914). Naturally our translation from the fourth edition (1890), containing the last text revised by Engels, does not tally with Kautsky’s revised text of 1914.

Apart from this, technical point, are all the five instances mentioned by Riazanov errors?

(1) He says that on p. 282, instead of “Arbeitervolk” (working people) we have “French people.”

Now the word “French” is in the text anyhow. What Kautsky shows is that the word “Arbeiter” has been dropped from the compound word “Arbeitervolk” by the printer. The English text ought to read “the French workers” instead of “the French people,” and shall be corrected accordingly.

(2) He says that on p. 318, instead of “Arbeitszeit” (labour time), we have “labour power.” The German fourth edition has Arbeitskraft, Kautsky says that this is a misprint for Arbeitszeit, as used in the second edition. We agree, and admit that we had not become fully conscious that there was a misprint. But in our translation, “the expenditure of the necessary labour power for eight hours daily,” the use of the word “labour power” is correct; and the translation conveys the meaning of Marx’s German quite as efficiently as would have a literal translation of Kautsky’s revised text.

(3) He says that on p. 552, instead of Lehrfabrik (factory for learning), we have “tannery.” Here, once more, we agree with Kautsky that Lederfabrik, in the fourth edition, should have been Lehrfabrik, as in the second. We had not detected the actual misprint, but had marked our German text in the margin, indicating our awareness of something wrong, It was, for translators from the fourth edition, a case for a conjectural emendation (a “wangle,” if you like), and ours was good enough to satisfy any one but a pedant. We did not translate so as to suggest that a school of that date was a tannery – though Marx was not incapable of the grim jest! (Compare the famous passage at the close of Part II.) But we are glad to have had the error pointed out, and are correcting it in the reprint now being made.

(4) He says that on p. 593, instead of “politische Oekonomie” (political economy), we have “English economics.” The German fourth edition has “Englische Oekonomie,” but Moore and Aveling, translating from the third edition, have “political economy.” Here we differ from Kautsky, who regards “English” as a misprint, and wants to go back to the earlier text. We think that any well-informed English reader of the footnote in which the passage occurs will agree that the substitution of the less general term for the more general one in the fourth edition was probably a deliberate emendation made by Engels.

(5) He says that on p. 866, instead of “hoffnungsvoll,” we have “unhappy.” The fourth German edition has “hoffnungslos”; Moore and Aveling, translating from the third, have “unhappy.” Kautsky says it is a misprint. We will spin a coin with him as to who is right, but we think “hoffnungsvoll” more likely to be a misprint than “hoffnungslos.” It seems more in keeping with Marx’s sardonic humour to write “a mishmash of knowledge through whose purgatorial fires the unhappy candidate for a post in the German bureaucracy has to pass,” than to write “the sanguine candidate.”

Having dealt with the specific charges of mistranslation, let us turn to generalities. Riazanov says that until we convince him by a thorough criticism of the old translation that a revision was absolutely impossible, he will continue to think our new translation superfluous. (He reminds us little of an old Scottish lady of our acquaintance, who, when in the mood for a battle royal, would say defiantly: “Conveence me, Ah’m only waiting to be conveenced!”). How can we convince him? Not, we fear, by splitting hairs as to what is a “literary” translation, and what a “scientific.” We must counter by a general statement. He admits that a revision of the old translation is necessary. Well, a revision would have been a devitalised botch. If the old translation was difficult to read (of that anon), a pedantically “accurate” revision would have been – will be, if ever made – hopelessly unreadable.

What is a good translation? The requisites of good medicine are said to be that it shall “cure quickly, safely, and pleasantly.” In like manner, the requisites of a good translation are that it shall convey the author’s meaning in a foreign tongue, and shall do so quickly, safely, and pleasantly. A publisher who considered that the Moore and Aveling translation did not fulfil these demands commissioned us to make a new one, and to use the fourth German edition, finally revised by Engels, as our text. Agreed that it might have been preferable to use Kautsky’s Volksausgabe, but that is still copyright, and the English publisher, wishing to produce the translation at as low a price as possible, did not want to burden his undertaking with royalty or outright payments to the Germans. Besides, many, perhaps most, of Kautsky’s modifications concern German readers, and have little bearing on the possibilities of an English translation. But some of the remarks he makes in his preface have so close a bearing on the canons that have guided us in our translation, that we venture to reproduce them here: –

He has incorporated certain passages from the French translation, “for my business was to make the German text more readily comprehensible, in so far as this could be done without impairing the profundity and character, of the work.”

“In the choice of these passages, I did not feel bound to be guided by the English translation revised by Engels, since my main concern was to produce a German text easy to understand.”

As regard the question whether there are any important differences between his text and earlier ones, he writes: “Of my own ‘editing’ of the text I need only say what Engels said of his in his preface to the fourth German edition, ‘that the laborious process of rectification has not modified any of the essential contents of the work.’ “

In questioning the expediency of a new translation, and in his doubts as to whether ours is a good one, Comrade Riazanov has two notable supporters, the Socialist Standard and The Times. The former says: “We are quite certain that the majority of readers will hold that the present translation ... is no way superior to, if as good as, the Sonnenschein edition.” The reviewer in the Thunderer writes more guardedly. He finds it “surprising” that there should be a new translation. There are only “small verbal alterations, sometimes to the advantage of the new, sometimes to that of the old.” Certainly the new volume is “easier to read than the other; but since there are no great differences, we wonder at the venture.”

Just as we have no intention of complying with Comrade Riazanov’s demand for detailed (and “convincing”) demonstration of the faults of the old translation, so we feel no call to sing the praises of our own. “We have done our level best,” and there it is. But, at the cost of undermining the Socialist Standard’s certainty as to the opinion of the majority of readers, we should like to wind up by quoting a few voices from what, with the exceptions named, has been a universal chorus of approval. Reviewers are “readers,” sometimes; and there is internal evidence to show that many of the reviewers of the new translation of Capital have undertaken a less “hasty perusal” than that on which Riazanov bases his criticism.

The Socialist and Labour Press has so far been chary of notice: but the Daily Herald says, “At last a great book has been worthily translated”; and from the Socialist Review we learn that “the translation which has hitherto passed current has been a rather bad one,” but “this new translation will go far to instruct the uninitiated in what Marx really thought and wrote.”[1]

Yours fraternally,

LONDON, June 2, 1929.


Riazanov returned to the fray in his review of the Pauls’ translation of Georg Plekhanov’s Fundamental Problems of Marxism, Labour Monthly, 12 (1), January 1930, p. 64.

          Finally, we may remark that the translators, Eden and Cedar Paul, should not allow themselves to be guilty of the following error which occurs in a passage from the preface of the second German edition of Capital, Vol. I (see p. 30 of the volume under review).

         In the quotation, instead of saying as Marx said, according to the original translation as edited by Engels (New Edition, 1912): ‘In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany because it seemed to transfigure and glorify the existing state of affairs,’ Comrades E. and C. Paul quote from their own translation as follows – ‘because it seemed to ‘elucidate’ the existing state of affairs.’ Elucidate, to throw light upon, has obviously an entirely different meaning from ‘transfigure and glorify’ and makes nonsense of the sentence.

         Let us hope that Comrades E. and C. Paul will, in the next edition at least, pay more attention to what they might call niceties. In a book such as this, not to mention Capital, the exact language is of the most supreme importance.



 The Pauls made the following reply, Labour Monthly, 12 (3), March 1930, pp. 190-2.


In a review of Plekhanov’s Fundamental Problems of Marxism, ‘H.P.R.’ declares that we have ‘made nonsense’ by a false translation of a passage in the preface to the second edition of the first volume of Capital – with the implication that there are like errors in our handling of Plekhanov’s own text.

         We cannot deal with the latter charge, which is vague and unspecified. As regards the former, Comrade ‘H.P.R.’ would have done well to consult the German original before making it. The passage as written by Marx, in the preface dated 1873, to the second edition of Capital, and reproduced unchanged in the fourth edition as finally revised by Engels shortly before his death, runs as follows: -

In ihrer Mystifirten Form ward die Dialektik deutsche Mode, weil sie das Bestehende zu verklaren schien.

 Thus we translated as:-

 In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany because it seemed to elucidate the existing state of affairs.

 Moore and Aveling, in their translation, write:-

         In … Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things.

 The difference between our own version and Moore and Aveling’s illustrates one of the perennial difficulties of translation. Very few words other than the names of concrete objects can be exactly rendered in another language, for the sense of terms is always shady at the edges. Verklaren means, literally, ‘to shed a flood a light on’; secondarily it means ’to transfigure’ and ‘to glorify’ in the biblical sense. There is no means of ascertaining now ‘exactly’ what Marx meant here by verklaren. Perhaps ‘elucidate’ is too weak a term. We incline to think ‘transfigure and glorify’ too strong a rendering. Perhaps ‘shed a flood of light on’, which comes betwixt and between, would have been a better rendering, though it errs on the side of prolixity.

But to found a charge of mistranslation upon a difference of opinion as to the best rendering of such a term as verklaren, and to make it the text for an admonition to ‘pay more attention to niceties,’ is to overlook the extreme difficulties of the translator’s art – and is, to say the least of it, uncomradely!

Yours fraternally,

Eden and Cedar Paul


 ‘H.P.R.’ replies as follows:-

 E. and C. Paul are absolutely and totally incorrect. They try to justify their mistake: (a) by abusing philology; (b) by suggesting the Engels was incompetent when he revised the first English translation because he was in his dotage; and (c) simply by making Marx deny Marxism.

Let us deal with these justifications seriatim.

(a)  They suggest that ‘the sense of terms is always shady at the edges’. Even admitting the shadiness of the edges, the centre of each term has always a precise meaning; otherwise there could be philology. Erklaren and verklaren, as the following shows, have entirely separate meaning contents.

According to Dr. F. Flugel’s Universal Dictionary, in three volumes, edition of 1894:- ‘Erklaren’ means (1) to explain, expound, interpret, elucidate, illustrate; to define, to account for; (2) to declare (Kreig, war). To announce, state, express, set forth, to profess. ‘Verklaren’, on the other hand, means – (1) to make clear or bright, to brighten, figuratively, to ennoble; (2) theologically, to glorify, transfigure, to elevate to heavenly glory.

It is clear that the meanings of these two terms have very precise difference.

(b)  Engels in his preface to the first English edition, after detailing the several sections translated by Moore and Aveling respectively says: ‘While thus each of the translators is responsible for his share of the work only, I bear a joint responsibility for the whole.’ Further he refers to certain ‘changes prescribed by Marx in a set of MS. Instructions for an English translation …’ I am compelled to quote these sentences from the Kerr edition of Capital (1912, p. 28), translation revised by Engels), as for some unaccountable reason E. and C. Paul have considered it unnecessary to reproduce the paragraphs in which these words are contained in Engels’ preface, extracts from which they print along with the other prefaces as appendices to their own translation. A most extraordinary and slovenly procedure in a supposedly scientific and definitive translation. Have they, for instance, we would like to ask in passing, in making their translation tried to have access to these MS. Instructions of Marx’ for their own translation?

   But to return to the main point. For E. and C. Paul to consider it necessary to refer to the fact in the above letter that Engels did the revision of this translation ‘shortly before his death’ – an otherwise completely irrelevant fact – shows that they consider this revision was not done properly and that he was definitely misleading his readers when he said he took ‘joint responsibility for the whole’, as we have quoted above; for he was not competent to take such a responsibility because he was in his dotage! A cheap and dastardly sneer which calls for an immediate withdrawal. It was apparently inserted to justify their statement that ‘there is no means of ascertaining now “exactly” what Marx meant.’ Engels, though Marx’s collaborator throughout his life, was not able, being in his dotage, to remember what Marx would have meant!

( c ) But the Pauls’ greatest crime is that they have translated this preface without a glimmering of the understanding of Marxism. Quite apart from all the authorities, dictionaries, &c., for the Pauls to make Marx suggest, as they do in their translation, that Hegelianism, i.e., dialectic in its mystified form, seemed to elucidate, i.e., explain, the existing state of affairs in Germany, is to make Marx deny Marxism. Why did Marx say immediately above this disputed passage with regard to Hegel’s dialectic that:- ‘With him it is standing on its head, It must be turned right upside down again if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystified shell’; or again a paragraph earlier: ‘My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian but it is its direct opposite’ (quotations from the Kerr edition, 1921, p. 25). Why did he say this if in the next paragraph he were to say that Hegelian dialectic seemed to ‘elucidate’ affairs in Germany.

   But the Paul’s querulously remark: ‘there is no means of ascertaining now “exactly” what Marx meant.’ Nonsense. And as I said in my review they have accordingly made nonsense of this quotation.

   I feel my implication with regard to their translation of Plekanhov’s book is, therefore, fully justified.


 [Riazanov’s tone and imputation of motives would catch up with him as the standard operating procedure at the Moscow show trials. Jonathan Beecher and Valerii N. Fomichev, ‘French Socialism in Lenin's and Stalin's Moscow: David Riazanov and the French Archive of the Marx‐Engels Institute’, The Journal of Modern History, 78 (1), March 2006, pp. 119-143.]