Notes on the first French edition of Capital – II

Image: Cyrus Saurius


Marx not only accompanied the French translation of his book, he went much further: he completely rewrote it.

the editorial adventure

Let us now deal with the “exceptional editorial adventure” (Gaudin, 2018, p. 37) that was the elaboration process of the French edition[I]. Let us continue with the words of the agents themselves: here, the letters exchanged by Marx with Engels, with his son-in-law Paul Lafargue, with his daughters and with his editor Maurice Lachâtre[ii].

But first let us remember that the translation of Book I into other languages ​​was already the object of Marx's attention even before its first publication in 1867. In correspondence with Engels and with other recipients, the question was raised at least since 1865. doubt that Marx's intention was that, as a rule, the reader would read the work in his own language without having to consult another edition in a foreign language; We will see the only exception below: the German-speaking reader would have to use the French edition.

Marx paid special attention to the French public. As soon as he went to Hamburg to deliver Book I to its publisher (for the first German edition), he expressed his wish that it should be published in French afterwards, in Paris. He told his correspondent (Ludwig Büchner) on May 1, 1867:

“The reason I write to you personally is this: I want the thing published in French too, in Paris, after its publication in Germany. I myself cannot go there, at least not without risk, since I was expelled from France, first under Louis Phillippe, and a second time under Louis Bonaparte (President), and lastly I have been incessantly attacking Mr. Louis during my exile in London. I cannot, therefore, personally go and scrutinize a translator [Marx then asks his correspondent to name someone suitable for the job, as he would not have time to do it himself, and, at the end, adds:] I consider it to be It is of the utmost importance to emancipate the French from the erroneous views under which Proudhon, with his idealized petty bourgeoisie, buried them […] I am constantly confronted with the most repugnant consequences of Proudhonism[iii]” (Marx, 2010. V. 42, p. 368).

The search for an appropriate translator lasted until 1872. In the meantime, the following were considered or even started the project (without completing it): Élie Reclus, Moses Hess, Joseph Card and Charles Keller.

Keller, for example, even sends Marx a manuscript with the translation of Chapter II of Book I of Capital (which is The Exchange Process in german and Exchanges in French). Marx, on October 18, 1869, returned the manuscript with his corrections and commented the following to his son-in-law Paul Lafargue and daughter Laura (who acted as intermediaries with Keller):

“Paul and Laura, […] tell Mr. Keller that he can proceed. On the whole, I am satisfied with his translation, although it lacks elegance and is very carelessly done. He will do better to send me every chapter through you. As for Chapter IV, I must subdivide it […] In German we use the word 'Process' (process) for economic movements, as they say chemical process, if I'm not mistaken. He translates it by 'phenomena,' which is absurd. If he cannot find another word, he must always translate it by 'movement' or something analogous” (Marx, 2010a, V. 43, p. 359/360).

Three comments on this letter.

First, it contains what Marx expected from a translation. That it was elegant, careful and rigorous in respecting the categories used. Unlike Engels, Marx in no way asserts a supposedly inescapable necessity of sacrificing the meaning of the original.

Second, it announces a change in the structure of Book I. Here we already have the news that he would subdivide Chapter IV in the French edition, which he effectively came to do, demonstrating that the alterations he promoted in the work were not random, but planned. .

Third, regarding the category “process” (whose meaning was approximated, in the above-mentioned letter, to that of “movement”), Marx makes an addition in the French edition, in a footnote, which was not reproduced by Engels in the 4th German edition and, therefore, it is not included in the Brazilian editions. This addition was made in the very important item “The Work Process” inserted in the Chapter “The Work Process and the Valorization Process”, in the part where he talks about the “[...] simple elements into which the work process is broken down… ” and inserts the following footnote:

"In German, Arbeits Process (work process). The word 'process', which expresses a development considered in its actual conditions as a whole, has long belonged to the scientific language of the whole of Europe. In France it was first introduced in a timid manner under its Latin- process. Then it slipped, stripped of this pedantic disguise, into books on chemistry, physiology, etc., and into some works of metaphysics. She will eventually get her full naturalization letter. It should be noted in passing that the Germans, like the French, in ordinary language, use the word process in its legal sense” (Marx, 1872/1875 and 2018, p. 77)[iv]

So what is process for Marx? It is “a development considered in its actual conditions as a whole”. We have here, therefore, an important addition of content. This addition may even help explain the change in the title of Book I: in the German edition it is “The Production Process of Capital”; in the French one, “The development of capitalist production”.

Let us return to the path that led to the publication of the 1st French edition. It was towards the end of 1871 and beginning of 1872 that Marx gave up on having Keller as a translator. The warning that he would delay the translation of the work because he needed to finish a medical book first was apparently the last straw (cf. Marx in Bouffard et al., 2018, p. 77).

Shortly afterwards, with the intermediation of Marx's daughter and son-in-law, Laura and Paul Lafargue, the publisher was found: Maurice Lachâtre. by Laura we came to find this rara avis: an editor” (in Gaudin, 2018, p. 23). Lachâtre, Paul and Laura were staying on the same floor and establishment (Hotel de France), in Sán Sebastián, as exiles, after the defeat inflicted on the Paris Commune (Lachâtre in Bouffard et al. p. 85).

The contract concluded with the publisher for the publication of the work was signed on February 13, 1872[v]. Marx considered it essential that it be a “cheap popular” edition; he then had a requirement inserted into the contract, a clause imposing the obligation on the publisher to publish an edition accessible to “small exchanges”. For Marx, it was in the foreground that the work should be financially accessible to the working class.

The contract signed by Karl Marx and Maurice Lachâtre, dated February 13, 1872. Source: Gaudin, 2019, p. 179. With the help of Charles Longuet (who would soon become Marx's son-in-law) a translator was finally found: Marx decided on Joseph Roy, who was to translate from the manuscripts of the second German edition that would be sent to him (Marx, 2010a, V. 44, p. 283 and 327; Gaudin, 2019, p. 81). The fact that Marx considered that he had succeeded in translating Feuerbach into French was decisive for his choice.

Marx's dialogue with his editor and translator was never simple. One reason was their distance from the place of publication and from each other: the author was in London; the translator, in Bordeaux; the publisher, first in San Sebastián, then in Belgium, then in Switzerland; and the publication of the work took place in Paris. Addressing Marx on February 17, 1872, Lachâtre vividly describes this singular picture:

“Sir and illustrious philosopher […] A singular destiny presides over the creation of this book, because its translation into French is a true creation! The author is outlawed and lives amidst the mists of the Thames; the editor was likewise banned, he escaped as if by a miracle from three bands of assassins sent to shoot him on the infernal day of the 24th of may[vi]. He who brought us into contact, your son-in-law, also outlawed, carried by all the winds of persecution, followed by your well-beloved daughter and the poor dear child whose frail health causes you all so much anxiety” (Lachâtre in Bouffard et al. ., 2018, p. 75-76)

The distance between the agents involved in the process of translation, revision and publication of the book was also later highlighted by Marx at the end of the French edition, in an errata whose presence he justified in the following terms:

“With the author, translator and editor removed from the place of printing, the definitive correction of Capital became quite difficult. Therefore, in the course of the work certain faults slipped that the reader will rectify without regret. The errata list concerns, with some exceptions, only the first section of the book […]” (Marx, 1872/1875 and 2018, p. 351).

But the distance between everyone involved was not the only obstacle. The demands brought by the editor, Maurice Lachâtre, bothered Marx, and the too-literal translation by Joseph Roy, for whom Marx showed he had more appreciation, entailed enormous work.

The portrait of Marx that was published in the work, made by the painter Adolphe Dervaux. Source: Marx, 2018, p. 05.

With the editor, the conflicts had the most varied causes: the insistence on the publication of a portrait of Marx (which, we see above, effectively came to appear in the French edition - Marx, 2010a, V. 44, pp. 347 and 578 , e.g.); the continuous delays in the publication of the fascicles of the work, which were accentuated from the moment that Lachâtre's company suffered the intervention of the State, with the appointment of a judicial administrator who sought to postpone the publication of the fascicles, which made Marx even consider suing him; also the failure to send the already printed fascicles to the translator, so that he could verify the changes made and adapt the translation of the fascicles that would follow; but, above all, we will highlight the dialogue on the content of a letter-reply that would be subscribed by Lachâtre in the publication, since it contributes to shed light on how Marx thought about questions of method.

Having in mind the publication of the work in periodic installments, it had been agreed that, for the first of them, Marx would write a letter to be published in facsimile, serving as a “preface” in the author’s own handwriting – an autograph – the which would be (and was) followed by a reply letter from Lachâtre. Not only the mere presence in the work of a response signed by Lachâtre, but above all its content, contradicted Marx. He had, therefore, to propose changes, so that Lachâtre would not expose readers to erroneous judgments about his work and his way of thinking.

But let's look first at the autograph, the letter that, on March 18, 1872, Marx wrote for his publisher's publication:

“London, March 18, 1872.

To the citizen Maurice La Châtre,

Dear citizen,

I applaud your idea of ​​publishing the translation of 'Das Kapital'' in periodic issues. In this form the work will be more accessible to the working class, and for me this consideration prevails over all others. Here is the beautiful side of your medal, but here is the reverse: the method of analysis that I used and which had not yet been applied to economic issues, makes reading the first chapters very arduous and it is to be feared that the French public, always impatient to conclude, eager to know the relationship between general principles and the immediate questions that impassion him, he only becomes discouraged because he will not have been able, first of all, to go further.

This is a disadvantage against which I can say nothing, except to warn and forewarn readers thirsty for truth. There is no royal route for science and the only chance of reaching its luminous peaks is those who are not afraid of tiring themselves climbing its steep paths.”[vii]” (Marx, 1872/1875 and 2018, p. 07)

Marx's original autograph. Source: Gaudin, 2019, p. 90.

Two conclusions derive from this autograph by Marx: the first is that the main addressees of the work were the working classes; the second, that Marx was aware that the work involved difficulties, which were mainly at the beginning and resulted from the method used to deal with the matter; it emphatically encouraged the reader, however, to face and overcome the obstacles in the way.

Let us now return to the dialogue about the content of the editor's response letter.

Suggesting to Lachâtre information to put in his answer and clarifying aspects of the work, Marx told him, on March 07, 1872:

“It will be useful to say (from your side), in the first part, that the translation was made according to the manuscript of the second German edition, whose publication will begin in just a few weeks.

Between us. My German publisher imitates you by publishing the second edition in periodicals.

I hope the book doesn't cost you new persecutions. The method is altogether different from that applied by the French socialists and others. I do not take general ideas such as equality, etc. as my starting point, but begin, on the contrary, with the objective analysis of economic relations as they are, and that is why the revolutionary spirit of the book is revealed only gradually. What I fear, on the contrary, is that the aridity of the first analyzes will alienate the French reader…”” (Marx in Gaudin, 2019, p. 85)

Then, already aware of the outline of the response written by Lachâtre, Marx points out an error and proposes the correction, thus saying to his editor, on March 20, 1872:

“In the last paragraph these words are rectified 'they will not be detained in their reading for exposing our analytical methods'. There is a misunderstanding here. I I don't expose my method but apply it, but its application, in the first chapters, to the analysis of 'merchandise,the value,the money' is, by the nature of the thing itself, a little difficult to follow.

But it is easy to change: 'they will not allow themselves to be stopped in their reading by the application of our analytical method to the first notions of political economy which by their very nature are very abstract' – or something like that – we would have ended the preliminaries…” (Marx in Gaudin, 2019, p. 97)

The following day, March 21, 1872, Marx vented to Lafargue:

“La Châtre is an abominable charlatan. He wastes time with absurd things (eg his letter in response to my autograph, in which I was obliged to propose changes to him)” (Marx in Bouffard et al., 2018, p. 80).

Below follows the final version of the letter-reply that Lachâtre sent to Marx on a “Sunday morning”, March 24, 1872, (Lachâtre in Bouffard et al., 2018, pp. 81-82), and which was published as and which in the French edition (Marx, 1872/1875, p. 08):



Your book “O Capital” attracted you so many sympathies among the working classes in GERMANY, that it was natural that a French publisher had the idea of ​​giving his country the translation of this magisterial work.

RUSSIA anticipated FRANCE, it is true, in the reproduction of this important work; but our country will have the happy fortune of having the translation made from the manuscript of the second German edition, even before its appearance in GERMANY, and revised by the author.

France will be able to claim the largest part in the initiation of other peoples to your doctrines, as this will be our text that will serve for all the translations that will be made of the book, in ENGLAND, in ITALY, in SPAIN, in AMERICA, wherever men of progress, eager to know and willing to propagate the principles that should govern modern societies in the old and new world.

The mode of publication that we have adopted, in installments for ten CENTAVOS, will have this advantage, that of allowing a greater number of our friends to acquire your book, the poor not being able to pay for science except with the obol; your end will be achieved: to make your work accessible to all.

As for the fear you express of seeing readers stop in the face of the aridity of the economic matters dealt with in the first chapters, the future will show us whether it was justified.

We must hope that people who acquire your work, having as their main object the study of economic doctrines, will not allow themselves to be detained in their reading by the application of your analytical methods; each one of them will understand that the first chapters of a book on political economy must be devoted to abstract reasoning, obligatory preliminaries to the burning questions that impassion the spirits, and that one can only arrive gradually at the solution of the social problems treated in the following chapters; all readers will want to follow you, – it is my conviction, – until the conclusion of your magnificent theories” (Lachâtre in Marx, 1872/1875, p. 08)

It can be seen, therefore, that it was only on the last paragraph of the letter that the objection that Marx had launched was focused, when he pointed out that he did not expound his method in the work, but applied it. Lachâtre then heeded Marx's objection and altered that passage as requested. Now, the rest of the letter and, mainly, Lachâtre's categorical statement that it would be the French edition that would serve as a reference for future translations, was not the object of any questioning, showing that Marx agreed with what was said.

Since we have already followed the relationship, somewhat conflicted, between the author and the editor, let's look at the more comprehensive one that developed between the author and the translator. A shared distaste for the editor, mentions of difficulties in the translation and publication process, problems in receiving the printed fascicles, delays in the translation by Roy (who marries in the course of it, after facing family difficulties – Roy in Bouffard et al ., 2018, p. 83), these are questions that Roy's correspondence with Marx deals with. We highlight here those related to the translation and publication of the work.

For example, in a letter from Roy to Marx[viii], written on March 14, 1872, in order to expose the difficulties he faced in translating the work, he reflects on the differences between the German language and the Latin languages, in the following terms:

“It's not that the translation presents serious difficulties, but it presents a multitude of small ones that stop every step. In principle, French, owing to its origin from Latin, contains a multitude of words with no analogy for hearing and sight, even though the meaning they express is analogous. As a result, the correspondences between ideas are not found in language, and from this point of view German is far superior. You know this as well and better than I do; but, despite your perfect knowledge of our language, perhaps you do not feel, as well as we do, another difficulty, which is not easily overcome. In a work like yours, the same words are necessarily repeated very often. This repetition shocks the ear, in French, infinitely more than in German, because you cannot use them so easily wherever you want” (Roy in Bouffard et al., 2018, p. 78/79).

In addition to showing that distinctions between the different “linguistic groups”, so to speak, were, even if incidentally, the object of the interlocution between author and translator, this letter indicates that the repetition of the same words was the aspect that seemed to bother Roy the most. Marx's central concern was another: he saw the main problem of translation as being too literal. But at first he hadn't noticed it; in fact, when the first manuscripts (from Chapter I) translated by Roy reached his hands, Marx went so far as to describe Roy as a “wonderful translator” (21/03/1872; Marx, 2010a, V. 44, p. 347) and even as a “perfect translator”[ix]. Shortly afterwards, however, he would recognize that this problem was emerging, even if he did not fail to refer to Roy's work in praise, saying that: "He translates very literally in easy passages, but shows his strength in difficult ones" (01/05/ 1872-Marx in Gaudin, 2019, p. 100).

Thus, despite a very favorable first impression of Roy's work, as the translated manuscripts came into his hands, the activity of revising the translation began to take up more and more of Marx's time. In addition to revising the content of the text and the translation, Marx also had to correct the proofs of the fascicles and, finally, check whether or not the published fascicle was the same as the corrected proof. The procedure was roughly as follows: Marx sent the base text to Roy, who translated it and returned it to Marx, who revised the translation and sent it to Lachâtre's establishment in Paris, who forwarded it to a first printing which, once done, it was sent for correction and checking by Marx and Lachâtre, who then sent it back for a second proof to be made, which was sent again to both, which would be repeated until there were no more corrections and Marx gave, after all, his endorsement for the publication of the issue (see, for example: Lachâtre in Bouffard et al. p. 78). To all this was added, until mid-1873, the correction of the proofs of the second German edition.

The French woman's proofreading work was a “devil's job” for Marx (21/06/72 – Marx, 2010a, V. 44, p. 399), even greater than if “it had to have been done without a translator” (21 /12/1872- Marx, 2010a, V. 44, p. 460). Marx worked on it daily, until 3 am, practically without leaving his room, according to his daughters Eleanor and Jenny (Marx, 2010a, V. 44, p. 576 and 584). Displeased, he complained: “I often have to rewrite [the proofs] completely to make matters clear to the French” (23 May 1872- Marx, 2010a, V. 44, p. 377). The translation had been done “very literally” and that forced him to rewrite it in large part (27/05/72 and 28/05/1872- Marx, 2010a, V. 44, p. 379 and 385).

The excess of literalness in the transposition from German to French – the only criticism leveled by Marx at the translation – was recognized even by Roy, when, on May 02, 1872, he said to Marx:

“[… ] The translation is perhaps excessively faithful, I mean, sometimes it does not separate itself from your text enough to conform to the genius of our language; however, I believe that reading will not present any more difficulties than the subject has” (Roy in Bouffard et al., 2018, p. 83/84)

Thus, if we combine what Marx said with what Roy said about it, we can say that a translation that is too literal is one that, by not moving far enough away from the source text, ends up in disagreement with the genius of the target language.

But how could Roy change his too-literal way of translating if he didn't receive the fascicles after Marx's revision? This is what Marx demanded from Lachâtre (and his agents), on March 29, 1873: that after the final printing the fascicles be sent to Roy (which until then had not occurred), since for him to “change his way of translation” it was essential to “study the printed fascicles” (Marx in Gaudin, 2019, pp. 134 and 135).

All these obstacles that stood in the way of publishing the French edition – the conflicts with the editor, the interruptions in publication for the most varied reasons, the too-literal translation – explain why Marx referred to it all as “the painful experience I suffered to the French translation of Capital” (06/11/1876-Marx in Bouffard, 2018, p. 98).

In view of the above, it is no coincidence that, once the French edition is published, Marx already emphasizes on his face that it is a “translation entirely revised by the author”, as well as that he reaffirms, in letters, and for more than one again, that what one reads on the title page is “by no means [..] a mere sentence” (e.g. Marx, 2010a, V. 44, p. 399), but rather something that occurred such and which said.

*Rodrigo Maiolini Rebello Pinho Master in History from PUC-SP.

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[I] This “editorial adventure” has its winding path full of mishaps described in detail by François Gaudin (2018 and 2019), who rightly describes it as “exceptional” and “unique”.

[ii] Valuable documents, the letters make it possible to follow Marx's day-to-day work and compose a picture of the far from ethereal environment in which he lived and produced. Interspersed with the development of theoretical questions, the effort employed in the dissemination of his work, the political-administrative activities at the International Workers' Association, financial difficulties, in addition to family circle matters (in the period we are dealing with range from the marriage of a daughter to the early loss of a grandchild) and personal (such as recurring news of health problems – insomnia, eye inflammation, coughs, headaches, etc.). Marx's own life seems to have confirmed what he said in the autograph of the French edition (we'll see later): the route of science is not royal.

[iii] The so-called emancipation of the workers' movement in relation to Proudhonism is an argument also used by José Nobre França, a typographer for the official Portuguese press and secretary of the Lisbon Federation of the International Workers' Association. The Portuguese researcher Carlos Bastien, when investigating the reception of Marx's works in Portugal, revealed the following: “[José Nobre França] received from Marx in 1873 […] two copies [of fascicles] of the French edition (translation by Joseph Roy) of Book I […] one of which is personally dedicated. At the same time, around 150 more copies arrived in Lisbon, at Livraria Internacional, which were sold clandestinely there. The relatively high demand for the book was due not only to the fact that Marx was already a well-known and prestigious figure in Portuguese progressive circles, but also to the fact that many of these Marxist militants saw in this work an instrument to combat the Proudhonism that continued to influence the 'literary youth' (Letter from José Nobre França to Marx dated 17.8.73[ ..])” (Bastien, 2016. pp. 06,07 and 10).

[iv] This notedoes not appear in the following Brazilian editions: Marx, 2017, p. 256 (Boitempo); Marx, 2002, p. 212 (Brazilian Civilization); Marx, 1996, p. 298 (Cultural Nova).

[v] After the National Library of France's lack of interest in having and making available to the public the originals of the letters exchanged by Marx with Lachâtre and with others who participated in the printing of the work in Paris, both the letters and the original contract for the publication of the work were auctioned. in the year 2018 (Gaudín, 2019, p. 10). The letters were sold for 160.000 euros; the contract, for 121.600 euros (see here: It's from François Gaudin the merit of having transcribed and preserved for the public the facsimile of these unpublished documents (Gaudin, 2019).


[vii] There is an interesting apparent similarity between this autograph and a very brief passage from the Preface to the 2nd edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, in which Kant says “that the thorny paths of criticism […] did not prevent courageous and lucid minds from seizing it” (Kant, 1999, p. 50)

[viii] Regrettably, Marx's responses to Roy's letters seem to have been lost (cfr. Bouffard et al., 2018, p. 79).

[ix] “[…] Roy (6 Rue Condillac, Bordeaux) is a perfect translator. He has already sent the manuscript of the first chapter (I had sent him the manuscript of the second German edition to Paris)” (Marx in Bouffard et al., 2018, p. 80).

[X] The translation of the excerpts I extracted from the works referred to in a foreign language in this bibliography is mine (eg The capital, Marx & Engels Collected Works etc).

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