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Freudian slips
Penguin’s new take on classic Siggy
The "Wolfman" and Other Cases
By Sigmund Freud. Translated by Louise Adey Huish. Penguin, 383 pages, $15.
The Schreber Case
By Sigmund Freud. Translated by Andrew Webber. Penguin, 96 pages, $12.
The Psychopathology of Everyday Life
By Sigmund Freud. Translated by Anthea Bell. Penguin, 320 pages, $14.
The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious
By Sigmund Freud. Translated by Joyce Crick. Penguin, 272 pages, $14.

No, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But when the new Penguin Classics editions of Freud appeared, retranslated and redesigned for the 21st century, I weakened and judged.

So far, four volumes of this series supervised by the British psychoanalyst and author Adam Phillips are out in the US (a fifth, The Uncanny, will be published September 30). The Psychopathology of Everyday Life is translated by Anthea Bell and has on its cover René Magritte’s painting The Blood of All Things, a sickening candy-striped vision of the human vascular system. The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious is translated by Joyce Crick; the cover is Magritte’s The Art of Living, a fleshy, floating balloon head. The "Wolfman" and Other Cases, translated by Louise Adey Huish, features Max Ernst’s Angel of Hearth and Home, a stomping wolf cloaked in autumn leaves. And The Schreber Case, translated by Andrew Webber, is illustrated with Magritte’s Le Viol, a nude female torso framed by an ugly wig so that it looks like a face. Gross, gross, gross.

What does the choice of Surrealist art have to do with the new translations of Freud? In contrast to the plain covers and simple lettering of the Standard Edition — which was translated by James Strachey, approved by the Freud estate, and published between 1953 and 1974 — the new Penguin paperback covers seem designed to address Bruno Bettelheim’s 20-year-old complaints against Strachey’s translations. In "Freud and Man’s Soul" (1982), Bettelheim accused Strachey of medicalizing Freud’s writing, taking the very soul out of it. (And he was being literal here. The "psyche" in psychoanalysis, he noted, is closer to "soul" than to "mind.") The new covers seem to agree with Bettelheim’s take on unconscious life: it’s "a world of darkness and uncertainty, a world of chaos." Surreal, not clinical.

But enough about covers. Let’s go inside. What are the translators up to? Are they posthumously doing Bettelheim’s bidding? (Bettelheim once declined the job of preparing an annotated translation because, he noted, it "would have consumed the rest of my life.") Are the new translators putting the soul back in psychoanalysis? Or are they just taking advantage of the fact that the old Strachey copyright has run out?

Consider The "Wolfman" and Other Cases, which includes Little Hans, the young Oedipus who was afraid of horses and giant widdlers; the Rat Man, named for his obsession with a horrific torture involving rats; and the Wolf Man, whose dream of white wolves was interpreted by Freud as proof that as an infant he witnessed his parents having doggy-style sex. Although Louise Adey Huish admits that every "translation is to some extent misrepresentation" and pays homage to "Strachey’s monolithic accomplishment," she goes on to carry out what she sees as Bettelheim’s mission, to eliminate "the great distortion of Freud’s terminology for which Strachey is responsible."

The question is whether it’s too late. As W.H. Auden famously said, "We are all Freudians now." For English speakers, that generally means, "We are all Stracheyans now." We are comfortable with "ego" and "id" (Strachey’s translations for "das Ich" and "das Es"), not with "the I" and "the It" (Bettelheim’s more literal translation, which Huish follows). We use "affect" as a noun. We know what "fixation" and "defense" and "repression" mean. For better or worse, that’s what it is to be a Freudian. In high school, I picked up my first Freud book, The Ego and the Id, because I was attracted to those weird new words. If the title had been The I and the It, I might have put it back down.

Some of Huish’s changes are improvements or at least do no harm. "Besetzung," which Strachey made into the ugly "cathexis," even though Freud suggested it should be "interest," is now just "investment." "Trieb," which Strachey translated as "instinct," now is "drive," which returns to the concreteness of the original. The Rat Man’s "Schaulust," the lust for looking at naked women, which Strachey termed "scopophilia," is now plain old "voyeurism," the obvious choice. The ailment suffered by both the Rat Man and the Wolf Man, "Zwangsneurose," which Strachey called "obsessive neurosis" but which should also, Huish writes, have the sense of "compulsion" or "force" (since "Zwang" means "force"), now has a little of both; it is called "obsessive-compulsive neurosis," a term that links it to the clinical terminology of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders.

But some of the fixes should never have been tried. Although the word "defense" has long since passed into colloquial English, Huish insists on translating the German "Abwehr" as "parrying," which is awkward in almost any situation. Now, for instance, whenever the Rat Man wants to look at a naked woman, he also has "an urge to perform parrying actions."

The real losses, oddly for a translation that seeks to eliminate jargon, are in ordinary language. In the case of the Rat Man, it’s clear that Strachey had some fun stretching the rodent metaphor. He had Freud picking up the "crumbs of knowledge" offered by the Rat Man case. And he determined that the Rat Man’s childhood governess would allow him to "creep under her skirt." In Huish’s version (where the hero is called "Ratman" instead of "Rat Man"), the "crumbs" have become "fragments of understanding." And the governess merely lets the Ratman "crawl under her petticoats." The case used to be a lot more fun, and a lot more ratty.

The Wolf Man (now called the Wolfman — as if he were some sick superhero) has suffered too. In the earlier translation, he comes to Freud with an attitude of "obliging apathy." Now it is one of "submissive indifference." He used to look at all the holy pictures hanging in his room at night and "was obliged to think: ‘God — Swine’ or ‘God — Shit.’ " The new translation has him thinking "God — Swine" or "God — Crud."

Many of the word changes seem backward, even archaic. The Wolf Man used to fly "into a rage"; now he flies "into a passion." What used to be "any" is now "one whit." At one point, Strachey said the Wolf Man was "in his eighth year." Now he is "getting on for eight." The Wolf Man once abused the nurse maid; now he is charged with "calumniating" her. These shifts do not give the case more clarity or soul. They may just be Briticisms (the general editor of the series and all the translators are British), but that doesn’t help an American audience one whit.

Of all the cases, Little Hans seems least affected by the new translation. Maybe this is because much of the history is not in Freud’s voice anyway but rather in the voice of a father speaking for his child, so problems of jargon and terminology come up less often. Freud never analyzed Little Hans in person; rather, Hans’s father would bring Freud tales of his son and analyze them himself, clearly trying to impress Freud, who would often rubber-stamp the father’s analysis. If there is a translation problem regarding Little Hans, it is not from Freud’s German to our English but rather deep in the case itself. And it’s a problem that neither the translator nor Freud nor the father seems to care much about.

It concerns the childish word "widdler." Little Hans’s father and Freud agree that the boy’s trouble, his obsessive fear of horses and their giant widdlers, is a form of castration anxiety brought about by the little boy’s lust for his mother and her threat that he will lose his widdler if he keeps fiddling around with it. But if you look at the case carefully, Hans’s fixation on widdlers seems to stem from a problem of definition. Here is an exchange between Hans and his mother when he is about three years old. "Hans: Mummy, have you got a widdler too? Mummy: Of course I have. Why? Hans: I just wondered." And here is what his father tells Hans when he’s five years old: "Girls and women don’t have widdlers. Mummy doesn’t. Anna doesn’t, etc." So which is it? Is the widdler what everyone widdles with? Or is it a penis? Such confusion would leave anyone flummoxed. And all the new translations in the world won’t change that.

Each work in the Penguin Classics Freud series presents a different set of translation challenges. This is partly because Adam Phillips assigned a different translator to each volume and decided not to enforce consistency for even the most basic Freudian terms. (Whereas in the case histories, Strachey’s "cathexis" is "investment," in the jokes book, it is "charge.") But it’s also because that is the nature of the many-headed Freudian beast.

In The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, where the humor depends on word play, the challenge, as Joyce Crick points out, is how to translate the jokes into another language "and still keep them even remotely funny." In The Schreber Case, where the psychotic judge writes his own demented diary and Freud analyzes it, the trick, as Andrew Webber notes, is "to do justice . . . to two writers: Freud himself, as framing expositor and analytic translator; and the memoirist Schreber. Both have distinctive styles."

I particularly liked the humility of the translator of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Anthea Bell (who is also the translator of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz). Although she does take up Bettelheim’s battle against Strachey’s "parapraxis," she dispenses with his indignant high-handedness as she sets about finding a good alternative word. She admits she’s got a tough nut to crack. Freud’s own term, "Fehlleistung," was itself an unwieldy concoction that Bettelheim suggested translating as "faulty achievement" to suggest both "a real achievement and a howling mistake," a mixture of unconscious truthfulness and conscious error. Today, as Ms. Bell points out, there is a perfectly good word for this: "Freudian slip." But you cannot use "Freudian slip" in a Freudian text. In the end, she opts for "slip" or sometimes "slip of the memory," "slip of the mind," "slip of the tongue," "slip of the pen." It sounds good, and we all know what it means in a Freudian context.

The problem of translation doesn’t always boil down to finding good substitutions. In his introduction to Psychopathology, Paul Keegan, the former editor of Penguin Modern Classics in Great Britain who conceived the whole series (and who, by the way, uses "parapraxis" throughout his essay), notes that this volume is not just a book of slips but a cultural document of its time, a book in which "the shame-culture of fin-d’empire Vienna is selectively but mordantly on view." That is, while Freud is peeking under the surface of every little stumble, slip, and fall, he is also giving the modern reader an "exploded Baedeker" of Vienna’s "ordeals of civility" and a glimpse into just how obsessed the aspiring bourgeoisie, especially the Jewish bourgeoisie, was with verbal correctness. In the chapter titled "Forgetting Foreign Words," Freud reports meeting an acquaintance and striking up a conversation. His young friend tries to quote a famous line from the Aeneid but forgets a word, the impersonal pronoun "aliquis." What is fascinating today is less Freud’s revelation of the hidden association behind the block (something to do with menstruation) than the fact that two Jewish acquaintances would quickly find themselves quoting Latin and nervously discussing (as Freud reports) "the social standing of the race to which we both belong."

Translation, in short, is a problem of culture and history, not just language. It is also a problem, perhaps the problem, of the Freudian project itself. How do you put the witty, condensed, twisted logic of unconscious life into ordinary words? As a translator working inside the mind (or is it the psyche or the soul?), Freud was brilliant, bold, tendentious, ridiculous, all of the above. Let the translator beware.

Sarah Boxer is the author of In the Floyd Archives: A Psycho-Bestiary (Pantheon), a cartoon novel based on Freud’s case histories.

Issue Date: September 19 - 25, 2003
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