ALL THAT IS SOLID.

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.
Jem Thomas
Bristol

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.”

Comments

  1. Roger Depledge says:

    Yet it would be nice to keep the alliteration and the industrial allusion.
    “Status and statue/guilds and graven images dissolve in steam”?

  2. dearieme says:

    The solid sublimes, the holy is profaned, and man faces cold reality.

  3. Very nice! The estates have gone bye-bye, but nobody will miss them.

  4. what Marx is talking about here, which is inequality organised on a basis other than class or market.
    Would that the bleating-hearted letter writer from Bristol had better explained the lurid machinations of the “organizers” of said inequality? What a joy that helpless women and children can nowadays rely upon the staunch support of equality organizers to further their lot in life’s less but equalesque sweepstakes. Much simpler would have been to take the Jewish tack, overcome the status inferiority and beat then at their own unequal, class-based rules.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    Not to get too pop-Whorfian, but is the lack of any obvious English idiom to convey “staendische” itself a consequence of the Anglophone societies having become sufficiently post-feudal several centuries earlier than no one could understand what these weird-beard foreign radicals were banging on about? (Not that there wasn’t rather a lot of class distinction in the U.K., but it may not have been conceptualized in a fashion that made it easy to talk about in this sort of analysis.)

  6. Yes, I don’t think that’s pop-Whorfian at all—it makes perfect sense that the lack of feudal relationships would make the vocabulary of such relationships hard to understand. I remember wrinkling my brow over the “estates” for quite a while in college (presumably while studying the French Revolution) before I started sorting it out.

  7. Much simpler would have been to take the Jewish tack, overcome the status inferiority and beat then at their own unequal, class-based rules.
    That worked so very well in 1939-45, eh?

  8. DNFTT.

  9. I’m curious how this term has been translated into other languages (even closely-related languages like Dutch). If English has trouble, I’m sure it’s next to impossible for others.
    Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a Chinese translation of the Communist Manifesto on the web.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    How are helpless women and children, living stressful lives below the poverty line, supposed to be able to overcome the status inferiority and beat then at their own unequal, class-based rules ?

  11. No doubt you’ve done a post on the origins of “troll” in this context? All the better to know from what prediluvian morass my knuckle-dragging, dim-witted, mouth-breathing, breach-birthed, sloth-toed, albino-hued, pygmy-sized, pin-headed, cross-eyed, chin-less, color-blind, hair-lipped, speech-impaired, knock-kneed, club-footed, forehead-deficient, ring-wormed, cauliflower-eared, hunch-shouldered, sunken-chested, regressed-testicled, brain-dead, Golum-like, hirsute-berserk forebears appeared. By the buy, sounds like a dream grant in waiting for our Equality Organizers short on summer school proselytizing assignments.

  12. I remember wrinkling my brow over the “estates” for quite a while in college (presumably while studying the French Revolution) before I started sorting it out.
    But the concept of ‘estates’ isn’t quite as esoteric as all that, even in English. We still speak of the ‘Fourth Estate’ without sounding too old-fashioned.
    Golum-like
    All that effort spoiled by a spelling mistake…

  13. My Tolkien Companion, a collateral victim of the bookshelf-less, akimbo-angled Troll’s cave.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    hair-lipped too, by the buy

  15. I found this online for the French:
    Tout ce qui était stable et établi se volatilise, tout ce qui était sacré se trouve profané et les humains sont enfin forcés de considérer d’un regard sobre leur position dans la vie…

  16. And Swedish:
    Allt fast och beständigt förflyktigas, allt heligt profaneras och människorna blir slutligen tvungna att se sin livssituation och sina ömsesidiga förbindelser med nyktra ögon.

  17. Spanish (not sure how ‘standard’ this version is):
    Todo lo que era estable y establecido se volatiliza, todo lo que era sagrado se halla profanado y los humanos son finalmente forzados a considerar con una mirada sobria su posición en la vida y sus relaciones mutuas.

  18. Looking at the versions I’ve found, I wonder whether any of them really relay the meaning that the German is supposed to.

  19. I even found a Chinese version:
    一切固定的东西都烟消云散了,一切神圣的东西都被亵渎了。人们终于不得不用冷静的眼光来看他们的生活地位,他们的相互关系。
    For the phrase in question it says something like “All fixed things shall vanish”.
    I have to wonder whether this translation is really from the German or whether it took a shortcut from the English.

  20. SFReader says:

    Checked the Mongolian version – appears to convey original German meaning quite precisely, though I am not sure that the end result is actually a good Mongolian.
    “Alivaa ugsaa yazguuryn ba bainga togtongi ni hiiden shirgej”
    Literally “Everything of lineage and aristocracy, everything permanent and stagnant evaporates”

  21. SFReader says:

    Though perhaps “ugsaa yazguur” could be used to translate “estate” directly.
    It’s a composite expression formed from two synonimous words meaning roughly “lineage, origin, race, aristocracy, pedigree”

  22. Thanks, I was able to dig up the whole sentence thanks to that:
    Аливаа угсаа язгуурын ба байнга тогтонги нь хийдэн ширгэж, аливаа ариун нь бузардсаар, хүн эцэстээ өөрийн аж төрөх жинхэнэ байдал, хоорондынхоо харилцааг эрэгцүүлэн бодохын чухалд хүрчээ.

  23. There is, of course, a very strong likelihood that the Mongolian was translated from the Russian.

  24. SFReader says:

    Russian version uses “ischezayet” (disappears) while Mongolian translates “hiiden shirgej” (evaporates) which is a literal translation of German “verdampft”.
    I think direct translation from German is more likely

  25. But the concept of ‘estates’ isn’t quite as esoteric as all that, even in English. We still speak of the ‘Fourth Estate’ without sounding too old-fashioned.
    Oh, come on. “Fourth Estate” is a fixed phrase used as an occasional highfalutin’ substitute for “the press”; I will give you ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS if you go out on the street and find a single person who can explain why it’s called that and what the other estates are. (No fair going to a university campus, though I’d bet you’d have a hard time even there.) Do you seriously think the concept of “estate” (in this sense) is even vaguely part of the awareness of the average speaker of English?
    I think direct translation from German is more likely
    Yeah, if they’re translating “verdampft” correctly it can’t be from Russian.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    I think that the Spanish version is a word by word translation from the French.
    I am puzzled by un regard sobre and similarly una mirada sobria: sobre usually applies to absence of excess (in diet, clothing, decoration, and such), but un regard sobre seems to be a calque of English “a sober look” (cast by a person), not an actual French phrase (although it might be one nowadays that so many calques have been adopted). An online German-French dictionary gives for nüchtern ‘à jeun, objectif, prosaïque, froid’ (‘not having eaten yet, objective, prosaic, cold’). I would translate the German mit nüchternen Augen as “d’un regard objectif”.

  27. I will give you ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS if you go out on the street and find a single person who can explain why it’s called that and what the other estates are.
    I doubt I could find anyone in the streets of Beijing. I’m not sure about the streets of Sydney, but I’m willing to admit that a lot of ordinary people wouldn’t know.
    Quite a few of the words and concepts discussed on this blog would be a complete mystery to most people you meet in the street, but we discuss them all the same. I’m not sure why the three estates should be singled out as being especially esoteric. I’m familiar with them from high school and I’ve always felt they were a legitimate part of ‘general knowledge’. Of course, the problem is that one person’s general knowledge is likely to be another person’s esoterica. General knowledge also varies from place to place, which you find out very quickly when you watch quizz shows in foreign countries.

  28. All that is true, and of course it depends on what group you choose to study, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that knowledge of feudal estates falls (like the hierarchies of angels or Byzantine historiography) under “esoterica” rather than “general knowledge.”
    Quite a few of the words and concepts discussed on this blog would be a complete mystery to most people you meet in the street, but we discuss them all the same.
    Yes, esoterica is (or are) a specialty of this blog.

  29. I think that the Spanish version is a word by word translation from the French.
    That’s what I thought, too. But I’m still puzzled about the meaning of the French. Does it convey the meaning of the German?

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe, my German is rather old, has never been great (little contact with actual German speech or writing), so I am not very secure with it. I first read LH’s post, learning new German words as I read, then when coming to the French and Spanish versions I concentrated on the last few words, since the French phrase, and by extension the Spanish one, did not sound right to me. I remembered having seen “nüchtern” years ago but had forgotten the meaning and had to look it up. I did not comment on the Spanish version except for its similarity to French, but I did not want to hazard a better one, leaving that to a more qualified person. (I read and speak Spanish quite fluently but I am not as comfortable with it as with English, especially in writing it).
    I think we need Grumbly Stu here.

  31. dearieme says:

    In this situation I expect Grumbly Stu to sweep in, dressed like Cardinal Fang.

  32. Not to get too pop-Whorfian, but is the lack of any obvious English idiom to convey “staendische” itself a consequence of the Anglophone societies having become sufficiently post-feudal several centuries earlier than no one could understand what these weird-beard foreign radicals were banging on about?
    I don’t think so. Marx’s “Stände” are Adam Smith’s “ranks” (“estates” being land rather than people), and the adjective “ständisch”, like “feudalism” itself, is a nineteenth century scholarly term, not a medieval usage.

  33. Trond Engen says:

    The Swedish is very close to the English version – and to the quoted French and Spanish versions too – except that they all are closer to the German original in choosing eyes or sight rather than senses in the final clause. Could they all have been translated from an earlier German edition? Or that Engels provided translators with an unpublished, improved version?

  34. J.W. Brewer says:

    The old pre-1707 Parliament in Scotland was sometimes known as the “Thrie Estaitis.”

  35. Tim May says:

    For what it’s worth, here’s the Georgian:

    ყოველივე წოდებრივი და უძრავი ჰქრება, ყოველივე წმინდა შემწიკვლული ხდება, და ადამიანები ბოლოს იძულებული ხდებიან ფხიზელი თვალით შეხებონ თავიანთი ცხოვრების მდგომარეობის და თავიანთ ურთიერთდამოკიდებულებას.

    (if I’ve transcribed it correctly from here.)
    Q’ovelive ts’odebrivi da udzravi hkreba” looks like a pretty close parallel to “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft” or “Vse soslovnoye i zastoynoye ischezayet” (Tschenkéli’s Georgisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch gives “წოდებრი|ვი” as “Standes…”) but my knowledge of Georgian is too limited to attempt a translation, let alone compare the nuances.

  36. Here’s the Dutch version.
    -
    Al het feodale en al het vaststaande verdampt, al het heilige wordt ontwijd, en de mensen zijn eindelijk gedwongen hun plaats in het leven, hun wederzijdse betrekkingen met nuchtere ogen te aanzien.
    -
    (All things feudal and all things established evaporate…)
    -
    So the “ständische”, the “stable” and “estable” is being interpreted here as: ‘feudal’. The translation is the one officially used by the pre-war socialist party, made by a famous communist poet of that era (Herman Gorter).
    -

  37. James Conran says:

    I wonder has anyone noticed the strong similarity between Moore’s translation and MacBeth (I.III):

    Banquo: Whither are they vanished?

    Macbeth: Into the air, and what seemed corporal
    Melted, as breath into the wind.

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