Much More Than a Mere Translation-Talcott Parsons's Translation into English of Max Weber's Die Protestantische Ethik Und der Geist Des Kapitalismus: An Essay in Intellectual History

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Abstract: The essay focuses on the young Parsons, discussing his translation of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (first published in 1930). Parsons's understanding of Weber in his Dr. phil. dissertation is one backdrop to his translation, whereas another is American sociology in the late 1920s. In my view, Parsons's comprehension of Weber's methodology as used in The Protestant Ethic is closer to Weber's original than that of the recent retranslation published in 2002. As an accomplishment fitting his intellectual biography, Parsons's work in the 1930s rescued Weber's thought from certain misconception at the hands of the Nazis.

Resume: Cet essai rend compte de la pensee du jeune Talcott Parsons, de maniere d'analyse de sa traduction en l'anglais de Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. En relation de cette traduction par Parsons, il est important de se rappeler que Parsons a prepare son these a Heidelberg sur l'idee du capitalisme de Weber, et d'ailleurs qu'on considere par contexte que la sociologie americaine dans les annees 1920 etait forcement liee au utilitarisme darwiniste de Herbert Spencer ou suivit la tradition positiviste daus laquelle les travaux de Weber etaient manifestement meconnues. Je vais presenter l'evidence que la comprehension de la methodologie sociologique de Weber qu'on peut trouver dans la traduction de Parsons etait beaucoup plus satisfaisante que celui des autres traductions qui ont ete faites depuis 1930, meme celui de 2002. Un effort admirable de Parsons dans les annees 1930 dtait qu'il a sauve par adaptation en anglais l'oeuvre de Weber dont la pensee etait menacee d'atre detruite ou deformee en Allemagne par les Nazi.


The translation of Max Weber's classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has never been dealt with as an achievement in its own right (Weber 1920, Weber 1930). (1) Instead, various reissues of Parsons's translation have been dismissive of his accomplishment (e.g., Giddens 1976). The author of the recent retranslation, Stephen Kalberg, had this to say about his reasons for deeming Parsons's translation dated:

[W]hereas the 1930 translation of PE was oriented mainly to scholars and students steeped in a liberal arts canon, today's readership is more general and less acquainted with the great works of the past. This new translation is long overdue. (Kalberg 2002: v)

Despite such judgement, the question must be raised whether Parsons's translation not only commands historical value, but also outshines the more recent retranslation.

As for the history of sociology, it should be remembered that Parsons's translation of The Protestant Ethic helped rectify some flagrant misinterpretations of Weber in the late 1920s. The only two accounts aptly appreciating Weber's work in the English-language world were Frank H. Knight's translation of General Econonomic History (Weber, 1927) and Richard Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Tawney, 1926). Parsons, who was familiar with Tawney's interpretation but was also aware that Tawney had misunderstood Weber's idea of the "historical individual," invited Tawney to write the introduction of the 1930 translation.

From the standpoint of contemporary sociology, the question arises whether Parsons, as a translator of Weber's The Protestant Ethic, was better able to understand Weberian methodology than his successor.

The Problem: Parsons's Translation Then and Now

My paper raises three issues. One is that Parsons's translation had a role to play in his understanding of Weber's theory of capitalism. His Dr. phil. dissertation delivered at Heidelberg University in 1927, an endeavour that dealt with Max Weber and Werner Sombart (another German who analysed the origin of capitalism through economic history), was written in German and in English. The clue is that the Dr. phil. thesis accepted by the Philosophische Fakultat in 1927 (2) and published, according to Heidelberg rules, in The Journal of Political Economy in two parts in 1928 and 1929, differed from the second--indeed earlier--endeavour to write a thesis based on his reading Weber in the original. …