Translator’s Preface | Moses and Monotheism

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In the beginning of public presentations, Freud took pleasure in pronouncing patently improbable propositions, then proceeding to provide such a preponderance of proof that no person without prejudice could possibly protest. One apostle repeatedly present at such performances pointed out his perception of the persuasive principle propelling this polemical and playful process, and his pleasure in perpetuating its repetition:

I remember once that he made just such a statement, which sounded starkly unbelievable, and then went on to admonish his listeners not to reject it prematurely as paradoxical or impossible. “Do you remember,” he said, “how in Shakespeare’s play, when the ghost of the king cries ‘Swear!’ from within the earth, Horatio cries out ‘O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!’ But Hamlet replies, ‘And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.’ So I too shall ask you first to give welcome to the things that here rise so strangely from the tomb of the past.”[*]

Translating the text that lies before you, I often felt myself akin to Hamlet confronting the ghost of his murdered father. An “unlaid ghost” is how Freud described Moses and Monotheism, begun in 1934, withheld five years, published only after he had fled Austria, months before his death. Here that revenant arises, revealing secrets buried between the lines, lying all these years hidden in plain sight. Moses, I have discovered, is the author’s secret literary confession, written in disguise, misread by scholars for all this time.

Few figures have been more analyzed than Freud. The notion that he could have fooled all those who wrote about him—and his last book—may appear mad. True, the text appears ambiguous, capable of multiple interpretations. It was tempting to rectify double-meanings, internal contradictions, oddities in the original. But I resisted all such temptation: it would have been a mistake to alter it in any way—beyond, of course, the inevitable violence of translation.

All that is needed, I was instructed, is to translate the text faithfully. At first, I was skeptical. Yet “wondrous strange” though it may seem, the possibility of intentional distortion and dissimulation should be admitted. Freud would not be the first to don the fool’s cap to convey unpleasant truths to evade censorship and persecution, as Hamlet did to expose his father’s murderer. As his inquisitors perceived: “There is method in his madness.”

That linguistic violence is illustrated in a quip that Freud once[^] made to “the well-known cry ‘Traduttore—Traditore!’” [In Italian, a near-homonym: Translator-Traitor!] He wrote: “the similarity, amounting almost to identity, of the two words represents most impressively the necessity which forces a translator into crimes against his original.” I have tried to avoid such betrayals by translating texts “as is,” no matter how ambiguous they may appear. My method is to render the text as literally as I could, sometimes at the cost of making the language appear alien or unnatural. Attentive readers may draw, without prejudice, their own conclusions.

My new translation in no way belittles the work of Katharine Jones, who first translated Freud’s book. Her English edition was first published in June 1939, three months before his death. Over the objection of his publisher, who believed the last word in the title would put off readers, he insisted that the book be called Moses and Monotheism. Jones claimed that she had “the advantage of consulting the author on some doubtful points.” Strachey’s “standard edition” translation was published years after his death.

What we find when comparing Jones’ translation with Freud’s original is a certain looseness, efforts to embellish his exacting style and phrasing. It is as if she wants the prose to sound smoother and more polished than the literal, purposeful German, apart from the substantial differences between the two languages. In other cases, there are glaring discrepancies: key words are dropped altogether, ambiguous phrasings are resolved, provocative expressions are reworded, reworked or softened. The result is that often essential meaning is lost, obscured to the reader of her English edition.

My approach is faithful to Freud’s word selection. I have kept his paragraph structure and syntax. I take each sentence in its turn, accounting for each word in the original, finding the closest semantic equivalent for each. I translate nouns as nouns. The result is that the translation may sound at times stilted to the English speaker. The benefit is higher fidelity to the author’s word choice and narrative voice. Above all, I respect his sentence structure: a period is treated as sacred; to alter that would be taboo. His original footnotes remain in the body of the work, with endnotes linked sentence by sentence, each numbered, to the original German. In this way, readers can easily compare translation to original and validate its fidelity.

Along with the solemnity of the occasion, this translation is a cause for celebration. To discover something new and wondrous in the world does not happen every day.  It is a festive event. To connect .with Freud’s language is to celebrate his painstaking choice of words, the exacting care in which each choice of expression is invested. To translate his words is to travel in time and space, to submit to the summons of his voice and obey his command. There is pleasure in imitating greatness, trodding in heroic tracks.

In translation, then, yet in the spirit of the original, I will try, to the best of my ability, to execute Freud’s last will and testament. I heed the oath of the witness: to tell the truth—the whole truth and nothing—but the truth. Even if this be judged finally a legal fiction, a criminal case history, this literal rendering of his words deserves a fair hearing and a careful reading.

I ask only for discretion when telling others what lies between these lines. What’s found in reading should stay in reading. A translator’s commitment is not onlike that of an officer of the Court’s instructions to those who render judgment to achieve acquittal or conviction. We are tempted to paraphrase Hamlet in requesting the reader’s solemn vow. “There is more between Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your psychology.” So help me, Members of the Jury. Bid welcome to what has been so long encrypted. Swear!

Richard J. Koret

*Theodor Reik, “From Thirty Years with Freud,” in The Search Within (New York:1956), 8.

^Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Standard Edition, Vol.8, p.78.

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