Foucault in English: The politics of exoticization

Karen Bennett


It is something of a cliché to affirm that translations into English are almost always domestications, privileging fluency and naturalness over fidelity to the source text. However, back in the 1970s, many of Michel Foucault’s major texts, which were introduced to the English-speaking public for the first time through Alan Sheridan Smith’s translations for Tavistock Publications, were not domesticated at all. Despite the fact that the originals are grounded in a non-empiricist theory of knowledge and use terms drawn from a universe of discourse that would have been completely alien in the English-speaking world, these translations closely follow the patterns of the French, with few or no concessions to the target reader’s knowledge and expectations. This paper analyses passages from Sheridan Smith’s English translations of Les Mots et les choses and L’Archéologie du savoir in order to discuss the long-term effects of this translation strategy. It then goes on to compare and assess two very different translations of Foucault’s lecture L’ Ordre du discours (1970), an early one by Rupert Swyer (1971), which brings the text to the English reader, and a later one by Ian McLeod (1981), which obliges the reader to go to the text. The paper concludes by reiterating the need for Anglophone academic culture to open up to foreign perspectives, and suggests, following Goethe (Book of West and East, 1819) that new epistemes are best introduced gradually in order to avoid alienating or confusing a public that might not be ready for them.

Table of contents

Michel Foucault has undoubtedly had a tremendous influence on Anglophone culture. His works are bestsellers, studied in fields as diverse as political science, psychiatry, linguistics and literary criticism; they have helped shape interdisciplines such as criminology, gender studies, cultural studies and postcolonialism, as well as methodologies like new historicism and critical discourse analysis. Although several decades have now gone by since poststructuralism was at its height, his influence seems, if anything, to have intensified with the passing of the years. Indeed, the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) and Arts and Humanities Citation Index (AHCI) show a steady increase in the number of references to him from the late sixties onwards (Megill 1987, 118); and in 2007, he was actually the most cited author of books in the humanities according to Thompson Reuters ISI Web of Science ( Times Higher Education 2009).

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Works by Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault
1961Folie et déraison. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique. Paris: Plon.Google Scholar
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Michel Foucault
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Michel Foucault
1969L’Archéologie du savoir. Paris: Gallimard.
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Michel Foucault
1970“Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?” Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie 63 (3): 73–104.Google Scholar
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Michel Foucault
1970L’Ordre du discours. Paris: Gallimard.Google Scholar
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Translated by Ian McLeod as “The Order of Discourse.” In Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader ed. by Robert Young, 51–78. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1981.Google Scholar
Michel Foucault
1975Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la prison. Paris: Gallimard.Google Scholar
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Translated by Iver B. Neumann as Forelesninger om regjering og styringskunst. Oslo: Cappelen akademisk 2002.Google Scholar

Secondary texts

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