Working with Translations in the History of Political Thought


Begriffsgeschichte as represented by the volumes of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, edited by Otto Brunner, Werner Conze and Reinhardt Koselleck has focused on individual concepts within their broader semantic fields and explored their meaning in their social context over an extended period of time. Koselleck and his colleagues focused their investigations on what they considered the German Sattelzeit (or saddle period) between 1750 and 1850 – a period of accelerated social and political change which was crucial for the making of modernity, and in which many concepts relating to the state and its institutions came to develop their modern meaning. Their working assumption was that social and political change were reflected in semantic change, and that, conversely, by studying these key concepts we would better understand socio-political change.

However, like Pocock and Skinner, Koselleck and his colleagues did not pay much attention to translation from one contemporary vernacular language into another, while some of their followers do. Thus, in recent years, attempts have not only been made to apply Begriffsgeschichte to different historical periods, but also to extend it geographically into a transnational Begriffsgeschichte which looks at concepts across borders and languages, which comes with a whole lot of new problems and traps we should not fall into. 

In his work on liberalism, for instance, Jörn Leonhard has pointed out that semantic change did not necessarily happen at the same time and in the same way in different countries. Terms such as ‘liberal’ might look the same, but not actually mean the same in different contexts. While the French ‘idées libérales had become a universal concept for continental authors’ by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, for instance, and were used in Germany and Italy ‘to articulate new constitutional, social and national expectations’, in Britain the shift from ‘Whig’ to ‘liberal’ was slow – partly because of ‘the existence of pre-modern party names’, and partly because ‘liberal’ was long conceived as foreign and un-English.

Anthony Pym has pointed to a similar problem with the concept ‘democracy’ which ‘can mean radically different things in Pericles’ Greece, Real Socialism and consumer capitalism, even despite apparent equivalence on the level of translingual morphology.’ This is important to bear in mind when studying early modern democratising processes, for instance, because the danger is always that we project something back into the past that was never there. 

However, one can also turn this absence of exact equivalents into a positive and argue that translation is interesting exactly because of the little cultural differences between concepts, the not-quite-equivalent translations, which might point us exactly to that which is unique and distinctive in one context as opposed to another. And this is may be where linguistic analysis and an approach via translation can be the most productive.

(This blog post was adapted from my introduction to the workshop on ‘Ideas and Translation in Early Modern Europe’ at Newcastle University on 22 April 2021.)


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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