“Good translating is very hard work”: Karl Popper, translation theorist in spite of himself

Spencer Hawkins
Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz

Upon immigrating to New Zealand in 1937, Austrian-born philosopher of science Karl Raimund Popper lived and worked in the English-speaking world, where he published his major works in English. Life events forced him to engage in various forms of self-translation around the same time that he began earnestly working on translating Presocratic philosophical fragments into English. While he rejected language wholesale as an object of philosophical reflection, translation became an exception, a privileged occasion for philosophical reflection on language. This article reads Popper’s thoughts on translation in the context of previously unpublished correspondence between Popper and potential translators of Conjectures and Refutations (1963, third edition 1968) from English to German. The article thereby mediates the tension between Popper’s outspokenly perfectionistic demands on potential translators and his general thesis that scientific or philosophical language need only be as precise as the problem at hand requires.

Publication history
Table of contents

In the early 1920s, Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper (1902–1994) was peripherally involved with the emergent Vienna Circle. As a primary school teacher with no prominent publications to his name, Popper did not partake in the famous philosophers’ meetings, but he shared many of their views. Like his colleagues, Popper railed against metaphysical speculation and championed the wider application of scientific methods to research in all fields as well as to creative output, political deliberation, and everyday life.

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