Negative Dialectics


The available English translation of Negative Dialectics is all but unusable; a kind of pidgin Adorno; so slipshod that one is forced to conclude that no Anglo reader lacking German has ever really read the book. And since no-one seems to be in any hurry to publish a new version, here, piecewise, is our Englishing of the thing.

A few notes:

•I have the good fortune of working with a co-translator. If quoting from the translation, please credit Christian Thorne & Matthias Menda.

•I am translating from Volume 6 of Adorno’s collected works. I am up to p. 43.

PDFs are available for anyone who would prefer them. Web versions are listed in the sidebar.

•Please send on any corrections or recommendations; I would consider it a real kindness. Even Hullot-Kentor’s Aesthetic Theory has two or three plain errors on every mother-loving page.

•One of the things that first strikes a translator about Adorno’s German is how willfully archaic it had become by 1966. He uses an antiquated verb form in the very first sentence, and the opening pages flaunt nouns rarely seen outside of Luther’s sermons and conjunctions that went out of fashion in the eighteenth century. “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, liveth on…..” These choices impart to the prose faintly biblical cadences, which in turn underscore Adorno’s often theological vocabulary: “reconciliation,” for instance, or the first page’s strangest word: “das Übermächtige“—”the all-powerful.”

•In the paragraph on infinity, you’ll read that philosophy, zart verstanden, mightrefrain from fixing itself in a corpus of countable theorems.” Those two untranslated words are a phrase that Adorno rather likes and will use more than once. It’s a hard one to reproduce: a play on streng verstanden, “strictly speaking” or, literally, “strictly understood,” where for “strict” Adorno has substituted “delicate” or “gentle” or “sensitive,” which gives us philosophy-understood-as-something-fragile-and-supple, a philosophy without severity, philosophy supply speaking, where “supply” rhymes with “we” and not with “die.”

•The paragraph here titled “Lifting the Spell of the Concept” uses the Weberian term Entzauberung. Entzauberung des Begriffs plainly recalls Entzauberung der Welt, and the well-established English translation of the latter is “disenchantment of the world.” But then that phrase suggests a many-sided historical process and not a philosophical program of the kind Adorno is proposing. What’s more,  the English verb disenchant generally appears in passive constructions or as a participle. “Silvia has grown disenchanted with her new job.” It is rather rare to hear someone saying that “X disenchants Y.” And as one might surmise from that sample sentence, “disenchanted” is usually just a synonym for “disappointed.” This section, at any rate, calls for the “disenchantment” or “demystification” of the concept.

5 responses to “Negative Dialectics

  1. there is another version here:

  2. Christian Thorne

    True, and I’m glad to have the link on hand. I don’t really feel like taking a swipe at Dennis Redmond; I am, indeed, making myself his twin and emulator. But I wouldn’t bother with a rival version if I felt that his Adorno was much of an advance over Ashton’s. There are, I realize, no angels treading here.

  3. Great, Christian. It’s great that you are doing this. And thank you Frederic, for the link to Redmond.

    I would be curious to hear what either or both of you (or others) think(s) of the translations into English of the lectures entitled Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Lectures on Negative Dialectics, if you’ve had a look at them. Especially, I’d be very interested to know whether those, in the German, are also stylistically archaic. This because he is at such obvious pains (in the English trans) to make himself clearly understood by the audience.

  4. I just took a look at the first para of yours. I love it. Actually reads much more like the lectures, now.

  5. and thank you for this