Disagreement Paperback – 15 Dec 2004
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On the one hand, as one of the first English translations of Rancière's works, UMP and the translator did the Anglophone world a great service. In the interim, however, most publishers have realized that philosophical training is necessary to translate a philosophical text. The more recent translations of Rancière's works have been done both by people close to Rancière and who have training in philosophy. The latter especially is important, particularly since philosophy (like any other academic discipline) has a specific vocabulary and lexicon developed from its history and canon. The tricky thing about translating philosophy is that unlike some other disciplines, these technical words don't look much different from everyday words. It's easy when Rancière explicitly tells us that words like "politics" or "police" are being used in a specific and technical sense; but there are other times when our translator, because of her unfamiliarity with the philosophical tradition (and Rancière's own work), fails to recognize either that her interpretive decisions are changing the meaning of the passage she is translating or, at the least, are making what would be a perfectly familiar philosophical phrase read quite awkwardly. (This is ironic since our translator is best known for her work in translating French literature into smooth English. The trouble is that the tricks for translating literature don't work for translating philosophy and it takes more than facility with French and English to recognize and deal with philosophical language. As another recent controversy has reminded us, it has taken a long time for publishers to understand that philosophers and not authors of cookbooks need to translate philosophers.)
A line-by-line review of the first chapter alone revealed no less than 90 errors and infelicities in the translation. Only a few by themselves are egregious but collectively the result is that the translation as a whole is awkward and inaccurate. For example, we teach our students not to use synonyms or a thesaurus just for the sake of using different words, especially since philosophy's use of language strives for clarity and precision in meaning. Thus, for example, the words "reflection" and "contemplation" can have very different meanings given the context (for example, the latter is usually used as the translation of the Greek "theoria", viz., in Aristotle). Our translator switches between "theorizing" and "contemplation" for "réflexion" throughout when the contexts always call for the more obvious choice of "reflection" ("theorizing" is sometimes permissible but the one thing "réflexion" cannot mean in the philosophical and sociological contexts of Rancière's meaning is "contemplation" in any of its senses). Another fairly minor example is the awkward choice of "social relationships" for "rapports sociaux", used in the Marxist sense, which in English is usually (and more smoothly) translated as "social relations" (since "social relationships" tends to bring to mind something like friendships). Or there is the fact that "condition" (in the sense of Kant's "conditions of possibility") is a technical word that our translator renders as "requirement" (e.g., "la condition de la politique" becomes "the requirement of politics"). So too she doesn't recognize "facticity" [facticité] as a technical word and renders it as "invention".
A lack of familiarity with Rancière's own work permits "...marque la séparation entre deux sortes d'animaux comme différence de deux manières d'avoir part au sensible" to become "...[speech] marks the separation between two kinds of animals as the difference between two modes of access to sense experience". Granted "le partage du sensible" is a difficult term to translate, "sense experience" is highly infelicitous since that term is usually used in the empiricist context and Rancière clearly intends at this point to invoke the notion of "the sensible" as a field of experience (so something like "...two manners of participating in the sensible" would have been more appropriate). Similarly, our translator appears to be unaware of the difference between "la politique" and Rancière's neologism "le politique".
The translator (and the copy editors at UMP) apparently knows nothing about Greek philosophy (which is problematic since much of the first chapter is devoted to a discussion of Plato and Aristotle). She fails to realize, for example, that "Menon" is the French transliteration of the name rendered in English as "Meno" and refers to the Platonic dialogue "Politics", which doesn't exist (since no one actually familiar with Greek philosophy would refer to the Laws [Nomoi] as the "Politics", which is what Rancière is referring to when the translator says "Politics"). When discussing the Republic she renders "...l'organisation de la République est, elle, une chasse interminable à cette polupragmosunè, à cette confusion des activités propre à détruire toute répartition ordonnée des fonctions de la cité et à faire passer les classes les unes dans les autres" into "the Republic goes about endlessly tracking down this polupragmosunê, this confusion of activities, fit to destroy any ordered allocation of state functions and to cause the different classes to lose their proper character". Even aside from the fact that it is egregious to translate "cité" (Rancière's own translation for "polis") as "state"--not to understate how much that distinction is necessary given Rancière's usually nuanced treatment of the differences between ancient and modern politics--paraphrasing the confusion of the different classes passing into each other as "losing their proper character" obscures the language used by Rancière to characterize the hierarchical organization of the city being described in the Republic.
More problematically, the translator habitually drops the definite article when speaking of the good (and in general the definite article gives her trouble). For example, when she translates "la voie du bien passe par la substitution d'une mathématique des incommensurables à l'arithméthique des boutiquiers et des chicaniers" as "the path of good lies in substituting a mathematics of the incommensurable for the arithmetic of shopkeepers and barterers", by dropping the definite article (and not saying "the path of THE good..."), we lose the entire point of Plato's discussion of THE good (viz., Republic VI and the divided line) and the fact that he's not just talking about "being good" as a sort of moral disposition (a "path of good" like a sort of "path of righteousness") and that the entire point of the divided line, e.g., has to do with how one comes to know the idea/form of THE good (not to belabor the point but one of the great linguistic innovations of Greek philosophy was precisely its use of the definite article but this is only obvious to one who has training in the discipline).
Then there are omitted clauses (and in one case an entire sentence), outright errors (for example, inexplicably translating "la menue monnaie" as "the small beer" when it is simply the colloquialism "small change"; confusing an "apologue" with an "apologia"; and a baffling interpretation of "... des chefs et des subordonnés" as "chiefs and indians" when the context clearly calls for "leaders" and not "chiefs"), and inaccuracies throughout (e.g., conflating "gens" and "peuple" both as "people", sometimes in the same sentence).
My point is that, whether from ignorance or license, the translator takes liberties with the text that ultimately make the English sound awkward to readers with philosophical background. Individually these errors may not seem like much but my complaint is with the translation taken as a whole and not just individual examples. Whenever I found myself wondering "does Rancière really mean that?" and would go back to the French original, I always found the French was much clearer and obvious than the English translation. Unfortunately, for those who don't read French, my only advice is to take the translation with a grain of salt and to give Rancière the benefit of the doubt when it comes to any unclarity of expression as not being his fault. Rancière's French is always extremely clear even if his English translators are not always able to capture that clarity.
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