Book review
Spencer Hawkins. German Philosophy in English Translation: Postwar Translation History and the Making of the Contemporary Anglophone Humanities
Abingdon: Routledge, 2023. x, 179 pp.

Reviewed by Gary Massey
Zurich University of Applied Sciences
Publication history
Table of contents

The title on the cover of Spencer Hawkins’ book raises certain expectations in the reader: that it will focus on post-war English translations of seminal works by German philosophers; that it will discuss the history of key translations in that period; and that it will then demonstrate ways in which those translations have contributed to “making” the humanities in the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, those expectations are not entirely met. This is not to say that this erudite volume only disappoints. On the contrary – the thought-provoking exegesis of German philosophical terms will profoundly sensitise translators and readers of philosophy to the conundrums and pitfalls of translation, providing insights that will be of value beyond the ostensible (though somewhat misleading) focus of the volume. But German Philosophy in English Translation: Postwar Translation History and the Making of the Contemporary Anglophone Humanities is not nearly the comprehensive, coherent study that its title suggests. It is the parts that convince, not the whole.

The book’s far-ranging introduction begins with an exploration of the “morphemic transparency” (14), related metaphoric quality, and consequent polysemy of German philosophical terminology, derived from the particularities of German etymology and exemplified by words for major concepts such as Grund in the works of Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger (where it can mean ‘foundation’, ‘ground’, ‘cause’, ‘reason’, and/or ‘principle’). This the author embeds in an episodic presentation of philosophical ideas, such as the German Welt (‘world’, but also ‘universe’ in Christian Wolff and Kant, for example), that defy consistent definition and are thus what Hans Blumenberg (1997)Blumenberg, Hans 1997 “Prospect for a Theory of Nonconceptuality” [orig. “Ausblick auf eine Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit”]. In Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence [orig. Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer. Paradigma einer Daseinsmetapher ], 81–102. Translated by Steven Rendall. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar, to whom the book devotes a separate chapter, calls “nonconceptual” – ideas which can only be signified through metaphor. The author traces such nonconceptuality back to the emancipation of German philosophical expression from the dominance of Latin and French, exemplified in Wolff’s work. It is here that he first addresses in detail the issue of translating such words, proposing the non-standard method of what he calls “differential translation”: “translating keywords variously by context rather than consistently as terms” and placing “signs of polysemy into the reading experience by presenting foreign keywords in brackets after their differing, context-dependent meanings” (9). The method, he maintains, has been deployed in practice, though not in name, by various translators of philosophy.

He will follow this up in subsequent chapters with reference to differential and conventional English translations of, among others, Kant and Edmund Husserl, as well as French and English translations of Heidegger and Sigmund Freud, concluding from the spotlights he has cast that the technique “has been covertly transformative of discourses throughout the translation history of philosophy” (170), a sweeping observation that is not borne out by the selective examples presented. Just as contentious in a book purportedly dealing with English translation of German philosophy is the lengthy treatment of French translations, which does little to strengthen the stringency of its argumentation, despite the author’s later wholesale claim, founded on only a handful of examples from French and English translations of Freud and Heidegger, that through the “American appropriation of French theory” (136) French acted as an “interlingua” (137) between German philosophy and its reception in the United States (peculiarly equated with its induction into “the Anglo-American humanities”).

The introduction goes on to situate the claim of “the special status of German’s metaphoric resonance” historically, by way of exponents of German Romantic philosophy and the lexicographer Johann Heinrich Campe’s denotation of German as an Ursprache (‘original language’). It is now that Hawkins begins explicitly to outline the foci and aims of his book: translating key philosophical lexemes, rather than syntax or style, to assess how translators convey polysemous words’ ranges of meaning; combining cultural and linguistic approaches to explore the dilemmas that translators face by providing an episodic, theoretically coherent approach to translation history that embraces the “historical and cultural determinants of translation choices” (19); and encouraging translators to become “sovereign” agents in the construction of concepts by accepting untranslatability. “One might ask”, he muses, “to what extent the untranslatable is the same as the metaphoric? It may be that metaphor’s efficacy is revealed precisely when a sentence cannot be translated” (20). As abrupt and inscrutable as this last statement is, it at least serves to jolt the reader back to the long-dormant relationship that the author had previously constructed between the concreteness of German vocabulary and its metaphoric potential.

This is important, because it is the substrate of metaphoric language that creates the most (and in some cases only) visible connection between what are four disparate chapters – as the author himself appears to admit (20). In fact, the book as a whole reads more like a collection of four essays themed broadly on philosophy, translation, and metaphor (if, that is, we share the largely unsubstantiated claim11.The issue is dignified with no more than an endnote halfway through Chapter 3 (115). that Freud is indeed a “canonical philosopher” [22]). The first, third, and fourth chapters appear to have been originally written as individual contributions (viii), which could explain the palpable coherence issues between them and some of the puzzling repetitions they contain.

Chapter one sets out a detailed case for differential translation in the face of “philosophy’s generic convention of selecting clear terminology and sticking with it” (21): “the expectation that one ‘invariant’ term will convey the range of a philosophical concept plagues the translation of philosophy” (39). The case is made eloquently and eruditely, with particular reference to the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger, who exploit to the full the word-compounding, transparent etymology, and “suggestive polysemy” (47) of the German language. There are meticulous examinations of the derivation and use of the metaphorical Grund (“ground or reason?”, 48–51) in Heidegger and Strom (“stream or flux?”, 51–53) in Husserl. The limitations of translations adopting terminological consistency to mark and disambiguate terms are convincingly exposed for the translational loss that results, and the relative merits of exhibiting polysemy through differentiated or disjunctive translation (i.e., where multiple translations are offered to the reader, separated by slashes) are well explored (50). Hawkins is at his strongest here, and throughout the book, when explicating philosophical meanings and contexts within a framework that combines Barbara Cassin’s untranslatables with Blumenberg’s metaphorology and Jacques Derrida’s différance, and when aligning the temporal experience of reading differential translations with the ontological indeterminacy of Derrida’s (and Husserl’s) claim that logical categories are inseparable from the temporal experience of fluctuating meaning (57) – a sort of exophoric textual iconicity.

But there are also some conspicuous gaps. Translation Studies scholars will justifiably ask why the author fails to engage more expansively with translation theories that posit a strikingly similar contextual dependence and communicative fluidity of meaning to the one he is examining, such as the functionalist approaches he has cursorily dismissed in the introduction (10), or, later, more subtle theories of equivalence beyond Nida (104–105). Likewise, in view of the centrality given to latent and overt metaphor in expressing conceptual and ‘nonconceptual’ lexical items both here and later in the book, linguists will rightly ask how exactly he defines the term. They will probably also want to know why, in view of the weight placed on “combining cultural and linguistic approaches” (19), he virtually ignores relevant cognitive linguistic fields such as conceptual metaphor theory and/or conceptual blending.

Metaphor is the dominant focal point of Chapter 2, which aims primarily to examine Blumenberg’s theory of “absolute metaphor” – “metaphors that make history by being taken literally” (73), “express insights that cannot be expressed otherwise,” and cannot be back-translated (79–80) – in relation to philosophical texts and their translation. There are evident strengths to this second chapter, especially if read as a standalone contribution. The stimulating exploration of analogies between the absolute metaphor concept and translation, and of the “untapped resources” (74) that the concept holds for translation theory, are especially enlightening: the potential for both to pass as literal or original, their hidden transformative roles in conveying ideas, the way both conceal in the act of presenting (i.e., by veiling the truth in the act of presenting in language, by obscuring source domains and texts). When related back to particular practices in translating metaphor, these insights reinforce the argument for differentiated translation at the lexical level as a means of accessing “authors in the fullness of their own embeddedness in linguistic, cultural, and discursive history” (94). Yet, the value of these passages cannot mask the chapter’s omissions. As in the first chapter, the cultural and linguistic study that this volume purports to be should have afforded more serious consideration to the intellectual kinship between Blumenberg and cognitive linguistics than the sparse references to Turner (1998)Turner, Mark 1998The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. New York: Oxford University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar that it actually receives. And however revealing the chapter’s analyses are, restricting the discussion of untapped theoretical resources to word-level metaphors suggests a surprisingly narrow perception of contemporary translation theory.

We are then moved abruptly from Blumenberg’s metaphorology to Freud in French and English (re)translation, ostensibly to explore the historical conditions in which new English translations of Freud’s work are embedded. The otherwise opaque connection between Chapters 2 and 3 apparently resides in the author’s conjecture that Freud is “exemplary of the continental philosopher’s status in English translation” (22), a claim for which no real evidence is advanced. The chapter does indeed “contextualize more deeply the challenge of representing the polysemy of German-language vocabulary when translating into highly Latin-lexified languages” (103), but quite why Freud and why French remains a moot point. As elsewhere in the book, the acuity with which Hawkins dissects translations of now everyday terms like das Ich (‘ego’, ‘the I’), das Es (‘id’, ‘the It’), or Zwang (‘compulsion’, ‘obsessiveness’) is first-rate, but functionalists in particular will baulk at how the complexities of multiple agency and intention are underplayed in explanations of retranslation as a “form of belated revision” which launches a “metadiscourse” on the new translators’ desire to gain legitimacy in “the theoretical climate into which a text enters” (127–128). And we are still a long way from the heralded “making of the contemporary anglophone humanities” when this chapter ends.

The fourth and last chapter attempts to bring us closer, though curiously (and distractingly) via the translation and absorption of German philosophy “into the French intellectual system” (137), from where it is supposedly imported into the anglophone humanities. To show how, the author considers selected examples of the translation (French–English) of translations (German–French). There is a compelling aside on Martin Born’s German translation of Alain Badiou’s use of Jean Beaufret’s translation of Heideggerian terms (151–152), where Born consciously prefers – generally in the spirit of contextualised differential translation – to translate the French words directly rather than drawing on the original German source. But elsewhere in the chapter, there is no persuasive evidence of the impact of French translations (of Heidegger) on English translations from the German. The author does intimate a connection of sorts between an example of Joan Staumbaugh’s English translation of the term Lichtung (‘clearing’, ‘openness’) and Beaufret’s French version (146). Even here, though, he immediately seems to weaken the book’s main contention by observing that “the French translation even more demonstratively prefers the language of openness to the language of clearing” (146), before again appearing to contradict himself by maintaining that “both latch onto the primacy of the ‘openness’ truth over the forest ‘clearing’ for understanding Heidegger’s argument about the determinism of truth” (147). These and other passages lead to the inevitable conclusion that this chapter comprises a set of interesting speculations on the role of translation in the history of ideas, but that it comes nowhere near to demonstrating how translations have contributed to a pervasive understanding of “being German” in France, America, or anglophone communities less worthy of explicit mention.

And what of the strategy of differential translation? According to the blurb at the front, the book is a “crucial reference for translators and researchers interested in the German language, and particularly for scholars in translation studies, philosophy, and intellectual history.” This is only partly true. The concentration on a single (albeit consummately presented) strategy for word-level translation, combined with a refusal to engage with leading theories and models of translation and cognitive linguistics, diminish its interest for mainstream translation practitioners and scholars beyond the confines of (comparative) literature and philosophy. It is in the latter disciplines that the book is likely to appeal most. For despite the manifestly exaggerated claim that differential translation “turns out to be a microcosm for the insight at the heart of poststructuralism, comparative literature, and ultimately the contemporary anglophone humanities” (23), the author’s painstaking explorations of its ramifications in differing historical, cultural, and philosophical contexts remain insightful, enlightening, and enriching.


Open Access publication of this article was funded through a Transformative Agreement with ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences.


1.The issue is dignified with no more than an endnote halfway through Chapter 3 (115).


Blumenberg, Hans
1997 “Prospect for a Theory of Nonconceptuality” [orig. “Ausblick auf eine Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit”]. In Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence [orig. Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer. Paradigma einer Daseinsmetapher ], 81–102. Translated by Steven Rendall. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Turner, Mark
1998The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. New York: Oxford University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar

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