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The Challenges of Translating Simone Weil’s Philosophical Works with an Eye on The Need for Roots

Eric O. Springsted

Philip Wilson and Sylvia Pannizza in their adjoining article in this journal have pointed out what the challenges of translating Weil’s literary works are. In doing so, they appropriately highlight that Weil wrote in many different ways. Her literary works are not written like her early journalistic works; her philosophical works are yet another genre.

Even in this last category, Weil’s style could differ. For example, her essays, especially the finished ones that were subsequently typed, and most especially those of her last writings, such as the ones written in London, are often models of lucidity. Yet, in an essay such as Science et nous (At the Price of an Infinite Error: The Scientific Image, Ancient and Modern”) she showed herself fully capable of writing complicated, academic French with long sentences containing many subordinate clauses, and where the location of the main verb requires a sort of treasure hunt. In this essay, it seems that she deliberately did not want to use mathematical formulas, suspicious as she was of algebra, and so describes scientific experiments and results verbally. This is not an easy read, or easy to translate. As a new translation of The Need for Roots is due out next spring, it is worth, therefore, to  take a moment to reflect on what some of the challenges are in that task, and what a reader might reasonably expect in a new, updated, translation. 

The need to understand what the author is saying

The best explanation that I have yet heard of what it takes to translate a philosophical work comes from the eminent French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. In a lecture on a recent book, he thanked and praised his translator, a man who had translated previous Marion works, and one who had been a student of his. Marion went on to say that proficiency in the language from which one is translating is the least important aspect of translating. What was most important was, first, understanding what the author was saying, in both a large and a small sense. I can give a simple example of how important this is.

Twenty years ago, Jane Doering and I were editing the essays that went into The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil. Several of them were originally given in French; we had asked the authors to provide a translation. One essay, in particular, proved particularly difficult to work with, and since we had the original French, we knew the problem was with the translation. It had been made by somebody who was a native English speaker, but who had been living and studying in France for several years. So, there was no problem with either her English or her French. The sentences, however, that she produced, while clearly traceable to the author’s French, somehow didn’t make sense, either on their own or as an ensemble. What we came to realize was the problem was that she, the translator, simply did not understand what the author was talking about. Thus, her translation was just words, but words without meaning, and words that defied comprehension because there was none in them. Words do give our minds away.

The importance of proficiency in the target language

But that is not all that it takes. Marion went on to point out that there was a second thing that was also more important than complete competency in the original language, namely, proficiency in the target language, in this case, English. What he meant, I think, is that the translator should not try to paint in English words something like a veil, one that is as thin as possible, over the French so that somehow through the English one can still see the French. Upon brief consideration one should realize, of course, that does the English reader who knows no French any good at all. At best, if one did not know French, it would produce only a fake understanding. So, purely and simply, the translator needs to make the author’s thought as comprehensible as possible to an English speaker, to someone who doesn’t know French and the only way to do that is in English. To do that, one needs to have a competent English vocabulary appropriate to the subject, and a command of English idioms, again at an appropriate level for the task. I have noted more than one biblical scholar whose expertise in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek is unparalleled, but who stumbled badly in translating because he or she lacked a proper understanding of English moral and spiritual terms, and so often committed the mistake of misplaced concreteness, or of bending the text to his or her own limitations, or the linguistic limitations of the age.

How does this work in translating somebody like Weil? Very frankly, it needs to be recognized that both Arthur Wills, who translated The Need for Rootsthe Notebooks of Simone Weil, and some essays in Oppression and Liberty, and Richard Rees, who translated four volumes of Weil’s works for Oxford University Press in the 1960s did a good job. Although their translations were pioneering, and they did not have the benefit of learning from others’ mistakes, both men closely studied Weil, and were able to bring a sophisticated understanding to their task. In this regard, their translations are still quite serviceable.

So why try to improve on them? I don’t think the reason has so much to do with the change in the English language over the course of fifty years. For the texts at hand, which were not written in a highly idiomatic way, what changes have happened are insignificant – with the very obvious exception of how we now deal with gendered language. What has changed is that we do know more about Weil, and Weil’s context. High-level discussions of Weil’s thinking have been going on for seventy years now, and have gathered more and more steam as they have continued. So, we now recognize certain terms as highly charged in Weil’s vocabulary. A certain consistency in how they are translated is needed for anybody who is dependent on reading Weil in translation.

The challenges of translating Weil

Let me give an example. Weil’s essay Le personne et le sacré, which was originally translated as “Human Personality,” contains an explicit attack on the philosophical movement known as Personalism. But for the longest time, nobody knew who, if anybody, was the target. In recent years, it has become clear without any doubt that it was Jacques Maritain, and not as originally thought, Emmanuel Mounier. Now, Maritain in promoting the notion of the personne, had a very detailed and explicit understanding of what constitutes a person. One of the most important aspects is the personality, which is also indicated by the term “personne.” Personality was connected to the notion of “rights;” a person to be a person needs rights to protect the expansion of his personality, which is what is expected of one’s personality.  That was precisely what Weil thought was wrong, and what was wrong with the notion of rights. Now, in Rees’ original translation personne is almost always translated as “person” or “personal” but rarely, if ever, as “personality.” This sometimes was quite awkward. It also kept some of her deep points quite veiled.  Once one understands, though, that “personality” is a live possibility for translating personne, and is even demanded at points,  using it not only enhances the quality of the translation as a work in English prose, it actually helps the reader understand what is at stake much more clearly. Thus, while I am quite sure that Rees’ French was better than mine is, I will give the palm to my translation of the essay where I was able to use this understanding. And, I am also quite proud of the new title I gave it which, I think, better reflects what it is about: “What Is Sacred in Every Human Being?” This lets it be brought into relation to the several essays of the London period, and especially The Need for Roots.

The Need for Roots

This brings us to The Need for Roots. Again, I will maintain that Wills’ translation is still serviceable. But there are numerous areas in which it can also be improved. There are technical terms, or terms that we have now come to recognize as technical, that have better renderings, particularly in making them more consistent over all of Weil’s writings, and with the various translations of Weil’s writings. For example, recently it was pointed out to me that Wills in The Need for Rootsat least once translates attention as “concentration.” In context, perhaps this works. But given Weil’s highly developed sense of what attention is, and her saying that it is not concentration, there seems to be at least a missed opportunity to draw connections, and it is probably misleading in any case. In other places, as I recall, Wills underemphasizes the range of words and ideas that the word “relation” might have: mathematical relations, e.g., which were important for Weil, or the Greek word “Logos,” with all its implications. Oftentimes, too, we need to recognize that classical quotes and allusions that would have been part of an educated man or woman’s verbal repertoire seventy years ago will now utterly escape the sad products of our current educational system. These quotes need highlighting and explaining somehow. Or, in explaining what the “need for roots” is, Weil says that we draw energy from the environments– moral, spiritual, physical, etc. in which we live, and, moreover, that we need to be part of several different environments. The term “environment” is a perfectly acceptable translation here for the French milieu. However, in present usage, it is most likely to evoke thoughts of the natural environment and not the social. While Weil would most likely want to emphasize the importance of our natural environment, she is not talking about it here. How the metaphor works is thus reversed, with the natural becoming the concrete use of the term and the social as the metaphorical use. In the case of this term, since milieu is an English word as well, and since there are studies on the notion of the milieus in which we live, it seems preferable simply to use “milieu.”

The gendered-language issue

There is then one final issue that has to be dealt with, namely, that of gendered language. There is no easy answer for this. While in what translations I have done of Weil, I have tried to use gender-neutral language, for The Need for Roots, there is an argument that can be made to translate “l’homme”  literally as “man,” at least much of the time. It certainly has to be translated that way when talking about “the men of 1789″ or their document “The Rights of Man.” Consistency would then demand recognizing this in related discussions. But that then gets complicated. In other places, it may well also be needed for the generic quality she wants to emphasize, although there are not quite as many uses of l’homme in this sense as one might think. In any case, the point is certainly arguable. But certain translations are simply impossible, too, if one decides to take on completely ungendered language. “Man” cannot be rendered as “person” without creating a sense of incoherence for anybody who knows Weil, for reasons given above. One should also avoid what has been a long time practice in daily speech, that is, using the plural “they” as a pronoun referring to a singular antecedent. Unfortunately, this has become the practice in some published books, including academic ones. It not only creates mental confusion when reading sentences, especially complex ones, it actually bespeaks laziness on the translator’s part. There are ways of desexing language; it just takes some effort.

The translator’s friend

With respect to all these points, I would hope that in this new translation Penguin would go to the effort to get a number of Weil scholars to do a thorough philosophical review of it, thus making it a publication suitable not only for personal and classroom use but also one that is scholarly dependable.

Finally, let me add something that is the translator’s friend, and that was missing in the earlier translation. T. S. Eliot’s introduction to The Need for Roots is a short piece of Weiliana to be treasured in itself. But its purpose in 1952 was to use Eliot’s fame to introduce the unknown Simone Weil to the public. That is no longer needed. What is needed is a detailed and genuine introduction to the book, one that gives historical context, and some real sense of Weil’s mind as she wrote it. Fortunately, we do know that this will be the case with the Penguin translation, as Dr. Kate Kirkpatrick has been engaged to provide one. Having the good fortune of corresponding with her, I can say that she has done exactly the job that is needed. 

About the author

Eric Springsted is the founder and longtime president of the American Weil Society, author of several books including Simone Weil for the Twenty-First Century (2022), co-editor (with Jane Doering) of The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil (2004), and translator of Simone Weil: Late Philosophical Writings (2015) and Simone Weil: Selected Writings (1998).

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