Beaney’s Tractatus translation

I’m not sure what prompted me to send off for a copy of the new translation of the Tractatus by Michael Beaney (it is, though, a very inexpensive paperback from Oxford World Classics, for which OUP are to be thanked).

A quick description. The initial apparatus is almost a hundred pages. There is a sixty page Introduction, very much aimed at the new student reader. Then an eighteen page Note on the Text which goes into probably unnecessary detail. There is a daunting Bibliography and a short Wittgenstein Chronology. Then comes the Translation — but no German text on facing pages on the rather feeble grounds that the text is readily available online. (Given the choice, I’d have thought that many readers might have preferred the read-once Note on the Text to be mostly an online supplement, and the might-want-to-consult-often German original to be included.) There’s an Appendix giving the top-level numbered propositions again. And then twenty pages of Explanatory Notes, which often  comment on the original German, making the absence of the original again an oddity. And finally there is a two-part Glossary, first German-English and then English-German.

How useful is the Introduction? Much more importantly, how good is the Translation?

On the first, I’d say the Introduction is not particularly good or clear. Perhaps it tries to do too much in too short a space. The student new to the Tractatus would do much better to read the (albeit rather longer but wonderfully clear) chapters in Antony Kenny’s still remarkable 1973 Wittgenstein or perhaps the main chapters of Roger White’s still short 2006 Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. 

As for the Translation, I’m in no position to really judge. But, almost at random, here’s the Pears/McGuinness rendering of 4.026:

The meanings of simple signs (words) must be explained to us if we are to understand them. With propositions, however, we make ourselves understood.

Beaney has

The meanings of simple signs (words) must be explained to us for us to understand them. With propositions, however, we communicate.

The repeated “us” in the first sentence is unnecessarily ugly. And Beaney adds a note on the second sentence “lit. we make ourselves understood, connecting with the use of ‘verstehen’ (‘understand’) in the previous sentence” which makes the departure from Pears/McGuinness seem a bit puzzling. Is Beaney’s version an improvement?

Again, here’s the Pears/McGuinness translation of 4.041

This mathematical multiplicity, of course, cannot itself be the subject of depiction. One cannot get away from it when depicting.

And Beaney:

This mathematical multiplicity, of course, cannot in it turn be depicted. One cannot get outside it in depiction.

Is the second sentence even English?

And so it goes. I’m not immediately bowled over. However, it is evident that a great deal of thought and widely-sought advice has gone into shaping the translation, and many of the notes on translation look well-judged. Beaney’s final explanatory note is a rather engaging two-page essay on why he has, for example, rendered the famed last sentence of the Tractatus as “Of what one cannot speak, about that one must be silent.”

As to content of the Tractatus itself, about that I must indeed be silent!

1 thought on “Beaney’s Tractatus translation”

  1. Reading “which makes the departure from Pears/McGuinness seem a bit puzzling” in light of the recent plagiarism controversy, I’ve realised that I’m not sure what rules are meant to apply to translations. Translators are presumably not supposed to copy freely from another translation, departing from its wording only when they think they can improve it. However, in many cases it must be difficult to produce a new translation that does not contain anything that would be flagged by the sort of software now used to detect plagiarism.

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