I’ve always loved this famous sentence from the Communist Manifesto, translated by Samuel Moore (under Engels’s supervision) for the 1888 English edition: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” The first seven words were used by Marshall Berman for the title of his superb book All That Is Solid Melts into Air (see this LH post), and it’s hard to imagine a different rendering. And yet it’s a very loose translation of the German, which reads “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht, und die Menschen sind endlich gezwungen, ihre Lebensstellung, ihre gegenseitigen Beziehungen mit nüchternen Augen anzusehen.” The first bit, “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft,” literally means “Everything related to the traditional estates, [everything] stationary/stagnant, evaporates,” but how do you say that in English without putting the reader to sleep? The LRB has an excellent letter (in response to this review) on the subject in the 6 June 2013 issue:
Richard J. Evans’s comment on Jonathan Sperber’s attempt to find a better translation of Marx’s phrase ‘Alles ständische und stehende verdampft,’ usually rendered ‘All that is solid melts into air,’ pinpoints a particular difficulty in translating the German term Stand (LRB, 23 May). Sperber’s preferred version – ‘Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate’ – is, well, frankly hideous. On the other hand it is a lot more accurate than the elegant version it seeks to replace. The words Stand and its adjective ständisch have been variously translated as ‘status’, ‘estate’, ‘estate-type’ and now here as ‘a society of orders’. None of these captures what Marx is talking about here, which is inequality organised on a basis other than class or market. For Marx the problem of the emancipation of the Jews was that it would ‘free’ them only to enter an unequal, class-based world and, in so doing, would dissolve what was distinctive in a Jewish way of life, whatever value you might place on that. Even more than Marx, Max Weber contrasted status-based (ständisch) inequality with market-based divisions. A status group (Stand) has a distinctive way of life, which is regarded in a particular way, and is reflected in legal provisions and even in clothes or diet. An example in our contemporary world might be children: we think of them as fully human yet somehow as a different order of beings from adults, with a different legal position and different preoccupations. To some degree, gender divisions too are ständische differences. For both Marx and Weber what mattered was that the sweeping away of the old order – the ancien regime of, er, ‘social orders’ – is at first experienced as emancipation, only for the reality to dawn that what replaces it are different forms of exploitation and oppression and new social identities grounded solely in market position: in buying or selling labour-power. The German term Stand is first cousin to the English word ‘standing’, and both Marx’s and Weber’s point was that modernity erodes all identities, honour and relationships in the acid of commercial exchange, leaving few of us really happy with where we stand.
Russian is not only lucky enough to have a corresponding adjective сословный [soslovnyi] meaning ‘of or pertaining to сословие [soslovie],” where сословие is ‘estate’ in the old-fashioned sense of Stand (nobility, clergy, etc.), but lucky enough to have a phrase сословное и застойное [soslovnoe i zastoinoe] that chimes almost as nicely as the German “Ständische und Stehende” which it translates; the full sentence is “Все сословное и застойное исчезает, все священное оскверняется, и люди приходят, наконец, к необходимости взглянуть трезвыми глазами на свое жизненное положение и свои взаимные отношения.” But since English cannot provide a literal translation that is not hideous, I’m grateful we have the option of the lovely and suggestive “All that is solid melts into air.”