Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Dora, a Case of Hysteria

Among the books beside my bed — this one just added for, believe it or not, light relief from heavier reading — is Anthea Bell’s new translation of ‘A Case of Hysteria’, known as the Dora case. The eighteen-year old Dora (not her real name) was brought to Freud by her father after she had threatened suicide, and Freud did his best to convince her that her desperate unhappiness was due to her internal, mental, state, rather than to her quite ghastly family circumstances.

Half this new edition is taken up with ‘Critical apparatus’ — notes, bibliography etc., and a long introduction by Ritchie Robertson. This last is very negatively critical: not of Bell’s translation but of Freud. Like most criticisms of Freud it is like a school physics teacher’s criticisms of Einstein; a fly buzzing round the head of a lion. And it does what nearly all criticisms of Freud do: berates him for not knowing in the early twentieth century what we know, or think we know, in the early twenty-first. It should qualify for hatchet job of the year.

But there are things wrong with the translation itself: Anthea Bell seems to have toned down, perhaps for the easily upset present-day reader, many of the things Freud said. Some passages seem to be quite missing — if I remember properly from my reading of an older version — or at least somehow skated over. The established technical terms of psychoanalysis are often  not used, or are used incorrectly.

Anthea Bell is a very fine translator indeed, and not only from German: I once attended a workshop she gave on the translation of the Asterix books. If anyone had thought ‘Oh, mere comic books; just changing the speech bubbles’ they had several thinks coming. And for general German prose literature she is excellent.

Great writings in other languages — and Freud, whatever his other faults and virtues, was a fine prose stylist — are thought by many, including myself, to need a new English translation every generation. Unfortunately two of the greatest foreign writers of the early twentieth century — Proust and Freud — have not been well served by their new translators. The recent editions of what I shall continue to call ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, and of ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, are bad.

I hope this new edition of the Dora story will attract new readers to Freud: even with the introduction and notes it’s no longer than a short novel and it’s got a very attractive well-chosen cover. (Nowadays these are the things that count.) I hope too that they won’t judge all Freud’s written work — about two feet of shelf space — by this one, nor be put off by the pygmy-to-giant gibes of the introduction.  Congratulations to Anthea Bell, but for those with a deeper interest in psychoanalysis and its founder, the best English translations of Freud are still the ones by James Strachey in the Standard Edition.

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