I was very taken with a sentence in the introduction to Thomas Piketty’s famous book Le Capital au XXI Siècle, “Pendant longtemps, les débats intellectuels et politiques sur la répartition des richesses se sont nourris de beaucoup de préjugés, et de très peu de faits.” This means roughly, “For years, the intellectual and political debates about the distribution of wealth have been nourished by many prejudices, and very few facts.” It’s a good line, although it could doubtless be said about pretty much any political debate. But in most debates, there actually are facts. It is just the case that when the facts don’t support the position of the power elite, they are ignored. And that is largely what I expect to happen to Piketty’s book in the years ahead, but I will leave that for later. Now I want to talk about something more uplifting.
When Arthur Goldhammer translated that sentence of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, it became, “Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact.” That’s not just an important observation, it is a beautiful sentence. And that more than anything is what strikes me about the book: it is beautifully translated.
I know quite a bit about Piketty, but I had never heard of Arthur Goldhammer before. And there isn’t a lot of information about him online. That’s not surprising. Translators rarely become celebrities. And given that Samuel Beckett always translated himself from French into English and Goldhammer has never translated Gargantua and Pantagruel, there is no reason I would know him. But Goldhammer is a very well known translator. His translation of Democracy in America is highly regarded and now he has translated Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
According to the Wikipedia page on him, he got his PhD in math at MIT in 1973. And from 1977 onward, he’s worked as a translator of French nonfiction. That isn’t that strange: math, music, and linguistics all have much in common. They all have similar qualities of beauty. But I’m afraid that translators get the least credit of any creative workers. There are very few people who ever read more than one translation of anything. So there is a tendency to think of translation as a special kind of stenography. But just the one sentence above shows the lie to that.
In case you missed it, I finally got Capital in the Twenty-First Century. And it is a shockingly good read. I can attest to Piketty’s brilliance in telling a story. I can’t, however, say what he’s doing on the micro-level. But for my English language enjoyment and edification, Goldhammer has me covered. His translation is beautiful.
Goldhammer blogs about French Politics. I’ve only scanned it but it looks quite interesting.