Academic Stories

Found in translation

A translator par excellence breaks down Tocqueville and textuality

During Spring Quarter, visiting scholar and translator Arthur Goldhammer chaired “Reading Tocqueville, Translating Tocqueville”— a lecture on French diplomat, political theorist, and multi-hyphenate Alexis de Tocqueville, held in conversation with Social Sciences faculty and undergraduates taking courses in the Social Sciences Core.

Book jacket of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

Goldhammer, a four-time winner of the French-American Foundation’s prize for translation, is among the most acclaimed translators working today. His audience broadened in 2013, when his translation of a 700-page tome on income inequality—Thomas Piketty’s watershed Capital in the Twenty-First Century—became an unlikely New York Times bestseller. But among academics, Goldhammer is best-known for his work on Tocqueville, another Frenchman with prescient commentary on American life.

In a twist of fate, this lecture on a French intellectual coincided with a French cultural crisis. As Goldhammer noted in his opening remarks, the talk began while Notre Dame was still aflame. But as the conversation proceeded, the attendees considered intellectual history from a number of different angles, discussing not only the fundamental questions raised by Tocqueville, but by those raised by a liberal arts education. How do we juggle contradictory interpretations of the same text? How do we form a canon? And to borrow the words of another Core heavyweight, Walter Benjamin, how can a translator “allow the pure language [to] shine upon the original all the more fully?”

In all this, the event proved a close reflection of the Social Sciences Core, which rewards close reading and distant reading alike. Mandel Hall proved, in turn, to be a fitting site for the symposium—as moderator and Social Sciences Collegiate Master James Sparrow noted, UChicago’s very first Core lectures were held in the same space.

Henry Connolly, a fourth-year and student in Sparrow’s course “Democracy in America?”, attended the lecture and appreciated its relevance to both current events and his coursework.

“Despite the tragic timing of Dr. Goldhammer’s visit, he maintained incredible composure and delivered a piercing lecture about his work translating hundreds of books, including the words of Tocqueville that we had been reading all quarter,” Connolly said. “In delivering this lecture, Dr. Goldhammer himself embodied the spirit of the Core, which I take to be an unwavering commitment to fundamental texts, in light of any and all modern circumstances.”

As Goldhammer sees it, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a case study for the interpretative reading that the Core facilitates. In a phone conversation, he noted how Tocqueville's own identity shaped his writing.

“I think Tocqueville saw himself as a man standing between two worlds—between the aristocratic society into which he was born, and the democratic society which was emerging around him, and which he thought was inevitable,” he commented. “He could not give himself fully to either, but his position in between made him think of himself as a more objective observer, both of the tradition from which he came and the world that he saw emerging around him.”

Goldhammer recalls that Tocqueville’s insights on democracy and inequality felt every bit as relevant in 2003, when he was first approached to translate Tocqueville, as it is today. But the writer’s metaphorical dual citizenship continues to manifest in unexpected ways. The publisher for Goldhammer’s translation—Libraries of America, known for its glossy black dust jackets— was created in homage to France’s own reader library, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Tocqueville was, for that matter, the first foreign author that Libraries of America published.

“Reading Tocqueville” applied this sort of contextual reading to the Core—for at UChicago, a critical eye is essential even when reading one’s syllabus. As Goldhammer’s interlocutors discussed, Goldhammer’s translation of Democracy in America is read in “Classics of Social and Political Thought,” while Harvey Mansfield’s is de rigueur in the “Power, Identity, and Resistance” sequence.

Why, then, read Goldhammer’s edition? In conversation, Goldhammer explained some oversights and malapropisms his edition addressed—and noted how his edition differentiates passages where Tocqueville  “[emulates] the voice of another writer, and [makes that quality] stand out in an English translation.” He continued, “we know a number of the writers that he kept by his bedside and [who] he cites in his letters as influences on his prose—but he doesn't give footnotes or explicit mentions in the text of the names of those writers.”

For Sparrow, the question of Tocqueville’s textuality follows from the same questions Goldhammer raised about Tocqueville’s background and his readers. “He translated American democracy for an elite French audience, as well as for us today, and that’s what makes the more literal questions of translation, addressed so expertly by Mr. Goldhammer, so vital,” Sparrow remarked.

Goldhammer, on the other hand, sees his most important contribution as a matter of nuance. “I think each translator brings a different ear to the writer’s prose. And I felt that the biggest translations had failed to capture what I thought was the essential beauty of Tocqueville’s prose.”

As of press time, Goldhammer is translating a new book by Piketty and working on a novel of his own. He is also slated to return to campus during the 2019-2020 academic year, as part of a new initiative to foreground questions about democracy in the Core curriculum.

But until then, Tocqueville will remain—in all his translations—on the UChicago Social Sciences syllabi. As Sparrow remarked, he has “long been part of the Social Sciences Core reading list, and for good reason.”