Editors and Translators – On Saussure

As I read Jonathan Culler’s Ferdinand de Saussure, the difference between editors and translators is striking. Or rather, their similarity and yet complete perceived difference is striking.

In chapter one Culler notes, “Most teachers would shudder at the thought of having their views handed on in this way, and it is indeed extraordinary that this unpromising procedure, fraught with possibilities of misunderstanding and compromise, should have produced a major work” (Culler p. 25).  He then ends the chapter with the claim that he “shall not hesitate to rectify the original editors’ occasional lapses” (Culler p. 26).

Saussure is the origination point of the Course in General Linguistics. Nobody questions this. However, what of the status of Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, the “editors” to which Culler refers? Saussure’s colleagues, Bally and Sechehaye, gathered three terms’ worth of students’ notes, combined them, ordered them, limited them and in so doing made the Course. Culler calls them editors, and yet could he not also call them translators? What really is the difference?

Bally and Sechehaye are forgiven for their mistakes and counted as a problematic (but necessary) medium from Saussure to air to students to notes to editors. As such, Culler has no qualms about correcting their “lapses.” But how is this any different in the case of Wade Baskin, the English translator of the French original, or any other translator?

An editor is somebody that changes something for the benefit of general understanding. Editors are hated and partially antagonistic to the idea of the author, but are also considered a necessary part of the process. A translator is somebody that changes a text into a different form: it is not for general benefit, but specific benefit to a particular audience, whether that be temporally or spatially separated from the origin. In this case, Saussure in French… and in his classrooms between 1907 and 1911.

So, the Course is a translation of Saussure’s lectures just as the English translation of the Course In General Linguistics is a translation of a translation. And yet they aren’t considered as such, there is an assumed difference between the editors and the translators. Editing is different from translating.

But this makes little sense. They all move the text on, allow it to live, but necessarily alter it.

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