Academic journal article History of Economics Review

A New English Translation of Cantillon: Modern Improvement or Anachronistic Rendition into North American English?

Academic journal article History of Economics Review

A New English Translation of Cantillon: Modern Improvement or Anachronistic Rendition into North American English?

Article excerpt

Mark Thornton (ed.). An Essay on Economic Theory, an English translation of Richard Cantillon's Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General, translated by Chantal Saucier. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute (published under the Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0). 2010. Pp. 51. ISBN: 978-1-610-16001-8. US$14.00.

A new English translation of Cantillon's Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General (1755) is justified on the following grounds by its creators--Chantal Saucier as the translator and Mark Thornton as the editor--in their introduction to the work. First, the complexity of Cantillon's economics in their view requires a clearer and more modern text than the earlier 1931 translation by Henry Higgs. Secondly, they object to Higgs's attempt at a 'faithful rendition' of the French text into mid-eighteenth century English language based in particular on the style and vocabulary of Malachy Postlethwayt's major economic works. The precise extent to which Higgs used Postlethwayt's work in preparing his translation of Cantillon is not known, but this issue should not have been ignored by the editor in his introduction, particularly when his considerable knowledge of the Cantillon--Postlethwayt connection was displayed in his earlier paper on Hume and Cantillon (see Thornton 2007b, p. 471, n. 17).

The translation 'tradeoff' for the new translator and editor is, therefore, different. They prefer 'beauty' of translation to faithfulness; and accessibility for the modern reader by using twenty-first century terminology to the scholarly approach of capturing in the translation the flavour of the time of the original text. They also claim that Higgs's translation can only be 'roughly understood' and that his use of eighteenth-century phrases, such as 'stewards and bailiffs' (in Higgs 1931, p. 5; new translation, p. 24) would transport the contemporary American reader to thinking of 'airplanes and the courtroom' (p. 16). Editing, they explain, has resulted in shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs as well as the introduction of 154 footnotes to 'describe the people, places, events, weights, measures and currency values that Cantillon used, and rationales for departing from the Higgs translation'. This listing fails to mention their footnotes inserted to link Cantillon's views to those of later economists, such as, in particular, the concept of the 'invisible hand' of Adam Smith, and the many alleged anticipations in Cantillon's economics of theories and concepts of Austrian economics. These were earlier asserted by Thornton in some of his articles on Cantillon (Thornton 2006; 2007a; 2007c), with respect to 'opportunity cost', 'business cycles' and the importance of free markets for good economic outcomes. Before criticising these changes in editorial and translation style in some detail, a glance at the credentials for their respective tasks as the new Cantillon editor and translator seems to be in order. However, it should be stressed at the outset that I do not regard the Higgs edition of Cantillon as perfect; while I would also support a new scholarly edition of Cantillon's text, if only to incorporate the many fruits of recent Cantillon research, and to improve on the various oddities in the Higgs translation. However, such a new edition would have to be prepared using generally accepted scholarly standards.

What are the relevant credentials of the persons involved in preparing this new translation of Cantillon's text, and of pontificating in this context on the 'art' of scholarly translation of eighteenth-century economic texts? As already implied when mentioning the editor's articles on Cantillon and his work, Thornton can be viewed as a practised historian of economic thought, narrowly specialising on the work of Cantillon. To reiterate, Thomton has four articles on Cantillon to his credit, all published in 2006 and 2007. The first of these appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics (Thornton 2006), two appeared in History of Political Economy (Thornton 2007a; 2007b), and one in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought (Thornton 2007c), dealing respectively with Cantillon on business cycles, Cantillon on opportunity cost, Cantillon and Hume on antimercantilism, and Cantillon as a 'mercantilist'. …

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