Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology




Translation is a perilous endeavor. Consider the following: When Freud wrote of "das Ich" (literally "The I"), he could not have anticipated the way in which the common English translation of "ego" would create an entirely new lexicon in the popular cultures of England and America. Vygotsky has sometimes been called a "Marxist psychologist," yet his references to Marx and Engels are frequently omitted from English translations. While many Lacanians attempt to preserve the terms in their proper language, perhaps to avoid these pitfalls, the word jouissance remains little more than a collection of sounds in English, missing all of the rich layers of nuance and historical usage that it possesses in French. Translation highlights a loss inherent to language - a loss of meaning certainly, but something more besides. There is also the absence of the speaker. We are left with words, static and unchanging, to represent the nimble complexity of a brilliant mind.

I never knew my father. Half a dozen grainy photographs are my only tangible links to him. So I have spent a lifetime observing the moments when this absence becomes suddenly poignant: A flare of hot envy when a classmate is praised by a favorite male professor; an intense and inexplicable sadness upon the death of public figures such as Fred Rogers or Jim Henson; or a nagging preoccupation with the symbolic importance of the forefathers of contemporary psychology when I set out to write an article about the perils of translation in the social sciences.

Perhaps the most palpable absence in the translation of these words is that of the men who wrote them. Each theorist has left behind an important body of work to which lifetimes have been devoted to understanding. And yet at the center of each man's words is an empty place that a real human, with all the common graces and foibles, must once have occupied. To think about loss in translation is to stare at a photograph of a man I never knew, whose importance cannot be underestimated, and whose absence is uncanny, both strange and somehow familiar. The problems we face in translating the words of others provide an opportunity to recognize, however momentarily, the parts of meaning that have been lost. And in so doing we may also briefly pull back the curtain on the stage of our personal psyche and mourn the absence of that which has been lost.

Suzanne Stambaugh, MA
Impulse Staff Writer