Translations: Stealing Tocqueville?

For years Harper and Row featured a blurb on the
front cover of George Lawrence's 1966 translation of Alexis de Tocqueville's
classic Democracy in America: "Tocqueville, whose brilliance has always been
granted by academics, is now accessible to readers who don't mind brilliance as
long as it is readable." Apparently, though, it's not been obvious to everyone
that this accessibility has been a good thing. Reviews of a new translation
published last fall by the University of Chicago Press have been overwhelmingly
positive, and largely for the reason that it is more difficult to read.

What could possibly be better about a translation that's harder to read
than its predecessors? In their introduction, Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., and Delba
Winthrop suggest that the ease of previous editions came at the expense of
accuracy. Two English translations have appeared prior to this one: Lawrence's,
almost 40 years ago, and another by an English contemporary and friend of
Tocqueville's, Henry Reeve, well over a century earlier. Reeve was actually
admonished by Tocqueville himself for the very indulgence with which Mansfield and
Winthrop charge Lawrence: interpretive license. As it happened, Reeve was
considerably less sanguine about the subject of Democracy than Tocqueville
was, and the leanings of the translator came out in the translation. After the
English publication of its first volume, Tocqueville wrote to Reeve from France:

Your translation must maintain my attitude; this I demand not
only from the translator, but from the man. It has seemed to me that in the
translation of the last book you have, without wanting it, following the instinct
of your opinions, very lively colored what was contrary to democracy and rather
appeased what could do wrong to aristocracy.

Reeve's translation was amended twice, once in 1862 by Francis Bowen
and again in 1945 by Phillips Bradley. In 1957, J.P. Mayer--the editor of
Gallimard's comprehensive French edition of Tocqueville's writings--decided that
a new English version altogether was in order. When it came out in 1966, Mayer
included the foregoing excerpt from Tocqueville's correspondence with Reeve in
his foreword, in order to indicate the standard he and his translator Lawrence
had set for themselves.

Alas, poor Mayer. According to Brian C. Anderson, writing in First Things,
the new Mansfield-Winthrop edition is "the first accurate translation of Alexis de
Tocqueville's nineteenth-century masterpiece." A review by Roger Kimball in The
New Criterion
describes it only somewhat less categorically as a "superior
translation." The Weekly Standard lauds the new edition as "a faithful
rendering" that "allows English readers to appreciate for the first time
Tocqueville's approach." More recently, the celebrated intellectual historian
Gordon S. Wood reviewed it in The New York Review of Books, and no less
positively. Though Wood spends only a short paragraph on the translation
itself--moving quickly into a thoughtful meditation on Mansfield and Winthrop's
69-page introductory essay--he repeats the main compliment paid by the other

Neither Mansfield and Winthrop nor any of their reviewers claim that the
relative shortcomings they find in the Bradley and Lawrence editions issue
directly from political prejudice, as Tocqueville had suggested of Reeve's. The
stated aim of the new translation is not to correct a political bias as such but
rather to preserve the literary and philosophical integrity of Tocqueville's
thought as he recorded it in French. "Recognizing that translation is always
imperfect," Mansfield and Winthrop explain,

we have sought all the more to be modest, cautious, and
faithful. Every translator must make many choices, but in making ours we have
been guided by the principle, admittedly an ideal, that our business is to convey
Tocqueville's thought as he held it rather than to restate it in comparable terms
of today.>

It would seem that a consensus has quickly formed that Mansfield and
Winthrop have hit their mark squarely.

Readers familiar with First Things, The New Criterion, or The Weekly
will, however, recognize something of a pattern to the venues in
which the Mansfield-Winthrop edition received such early praise. They are all
resolutely conservative institutions. And those familiar with Mansfield himself
will know that, in addition to being a professor of government at Harvard
University, he is one of the country's best-known conservative intellectuals.
Winthrop--who also teaches at Harvard and is Mansfield's wife of 23 years--is
associated with the same conservative-intellectual community as her husband.
What's more, so are each of the reviewers, with the exception of Wood. And the
suspicion has been raised--by Caleb Crain in a dissenting piece in The New York
Times Book Review
--that the Mansfield-Winthrop edition is less an authentic
rendering of Tocqueville than it is "Tocqueville for the neocons."

Most of Crain's review is devoted to the text of the translation, in which
course he makes a number of intelligent and valuable criticisms of the
translators' literalistic approach. One thing he maintains, however, is that
"Mansfield and Winthrop have nowhere altered Tocqueville's meaning." But Crain
sandwiches his analysis of the translation between intimations that a
neoconservative agenda is nevertheless being perpetrated here. He begins by
remarking on Mansfield and Winthrop's note of gratitude, in their introduction, to
the Bradley Foundation and to the John M. Olin Foundation, both of which are
widely known for their support of intellectual conservatism and endeavors allied
with it; he closes with a suggestion that a "modern Tocqueville" would reject the
politics of his contemporary neoconservative admirers; and he labels Mansfield and
Winthrop's literalistic translation "arch-conservative." The point of Crain's
polemic is stark: The translators are arrogating Tocqueville into contemporary
political conservatism.

This alternative take on the new translation is spreading
quickly. In truth, though, there is not much textual support for it. It reposes
on little more than the fact of Mansfield and Winthrop's politics. And it
strangely ignores a prior and glaring question, namely: What would
neoconservatives need a new "neoconservative Tocqueville" for, given that
Tocqueville has been a star of neoconservative thought for years?

Over the last half-century alone, Tocqueville has played leading roles
in a number of ideological settings. But one of the most enduring appropriations
of him has been on the New Right: as political theory's greatest critic of "big

When Tocqueville came to study America in 1831, he did so out of an anxious
involvement with the problems of contemporary French politics. The four decades
since the French Revolution had been tumultuous: marked by the Jacobin Terror,
the rise and fall of Napoleon, the subsequent Restoration of the Bourbons in 1814
under Louis XVIII, and the July Revolution of 1830. But Tocqueville believed that
a deeply seated malady lay beneath all the instability of post-1789 France--one
that would be even more threatening to French democracy in the long term. It
wasn't even postrevolutionary as such, but endemic to the country's history, as
it had been at least since the reign of Louis XIV: Political liberty itself,
Tocqueville thought, had been asphyxiated by the radical centralization of
political power.

Louis XIV had effectively destroyed the residual influence of the landed
aristocracy in the seventeenth century, depriving France of any loci of
independent power against the crown. When the country's democratic revolution
came in the late eighteenth century, its protagonists took over a highly
centralized form of state. The very idea of noncentralized political power was
widely seen as an aristocratic contrivance, the holdover of a feudal order. And
so there was a deep link in the minds of French democrats between the
equality that their revolution represented, on one hand, and a centralized
political authority that spoke and acted in the name of the people as a
whole, on the other. This link was so pernicious, Tocqueville thought, not just
because it ended up thwarting effective democratic participation on the part of
the citizenry (though it did that), but because it eviscerated the citizenry's
contact with, let alone its interest in, politics altogether. The central
government governed and everyone else, increasingly, cultivated their own

This attenuation of noncentralized political clout is the same thing, for
Tocqueville, as the attenuation of liberty itself. Where there are no foyers of
political power external to the central government, he thought, more and more
power will agglomerate in it. And when this happens, there are the makings of
despotism. Modern despotism would be "mild" or "soft," coexisting with the
external forms of democracy:

... it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them,
and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself
to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does
not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and
finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and
industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

Democratic despotism is not, according to Tocqueville, discretely
caused by hypercentralized government. But the question of a country's
political form--and its relative concentration or diffusion of power in
particular--is integral, for him, to the question of liberty itself.

In the America of 1830, Tocqueville saw what he was looking for:
a democratic society that had yielded an alternative model to the centralized
French state. The constitutional structure of the United States ensured not only
checks and balances at the federal level but, more important, the maintenance of
multiple layers of governance. And beyond the federal-state division of powers,
he discovered a great deal of political activity on the local stage. Moreover,
Tocqueville noticed, there was a tremendous degree of voluntary, civic
association among Americans. And where people combine for common purposes, he
thought, they not only foster self-reliance but also sustain the very skills of
association that a vital citizenry requires.

It shouldn't be hard to see how it is that Tocqueville's analysis of
the political and civic institutions of Jacksonian America has provided
contemporary neoconservatives with such an effective rhetorical template for
anti-statist argumentation. There really is no discussion in his analysis of what
is or is not a "legitimate" purpose for a government to concern itself with;
that's just not the kind of argument Tocqueville was engaged in. Nor is it
obvious that even "Tocqueville the prescient" could have anticipated the range of
issues on which democratic societies would have to make decisions over the next
160-odd years about appropriate areas and levels of government involvement. (Who
should provide natural- disaster relief? Fund disease research? What about the
regulation of airports?) But you can imagine the interpretive steps that bring
Tocqueville on board with the neoconservative opposition to "big government." As
former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich once encapsulated the argument: "The
core of the American system is to have the lowest possible tax, so you have the
highest possible take-home pay, so you have the greatest amount of free time, so
as a parent, as a citizen, and as a volunteer, you can be engaged in
Tocqueville's vision of an American free society, without a government and
without a bureaucracy."

Are Mansfield and Winthrop participating in this sort of ideological
arrogation? Toward the end of their introduction, they attribute to Tocqueville
the observation that "many individuals who are weak can easily become dependent
on big government." This attribution is troubling for two reasons. One is that
Tocqueville's analysis of the dangers of hypercentralized power was not cast in
such unsophisticated, quantifying terms as "big" and "small." The other is that
"big government" is simply a loaded expression at the turn of the twenty-first
century; it has an ineluctably neoconservative message packed into it. To cast
Tocqueville uncritically as an opponent of "big government" is therefore doubly
inaccurate. And this is arguably a particularly egregious inaccuracy given the
very literalistic purpose of this translation: "to convey Tocqueville's thought
as he held it rather than to restate it in comparable terms of today." (It should
be noted that they make no such error when referring to "gender roles," which
they put in quotation marks in order to mark the anachronism of the term.)

But all this takes place in the course of two pages in the
editors' introduction--Democracy in America itself is more than 700 pages
long--and there's little else in the new edition to suggest a neoconservative
objective. In certain respects, it in fact does justice to Tocqueville in a way
that prior editions did not. For example, in his analysis of the American
practice of "association" and its importance in the maintenance of political
liberty in the United States, Tocqueville refers to association alternatively as
an "art" or a "science." The terms in French are, simply enough, l'art and la
science. Tocqueville's usage might give the appearance that these terms are
interchangeable, in which case his alternation between the two would seem
needlessly confusing. In previous editions, the translators have at times
"cleaned up" this discrepancy by translating both l'art de l'association and la
science de l'association as "the technique of association." But if Tocqueville
wrote l'art or la science then should we not see these in English as "art" and
"science," respectively, instead of the generic term "technique"? To conflate the
terms is to assume that there is no tension of meaning in the way Tocqueville
deployed them.

But are these corrections representative of the new translation as a
whole? No. Comparable examples are in fact extremely few--meaning that the
previous translations just aren't as presumptuous as this one would suggest.
Where the new translation departs from Lawrence appreciably, it is almost always
a question of style, not one of ameliorating prior distortions. Mansfield and
Winthrop are usually, perhaps, a little less elegant and usually a little closer
to the original word order and phrase structure. But their relentless literalism
recurrently generates a problem of its own, one unknown to Lawrence: unneeded
difficulty. For example, they have Tocqueville writing this:

The people that, face to face with the great military
monarchies of Europe, would fragment its sovereignty, would seem to me to
abdicate by that fact alone its power and perhaps its existence and its name.

Admirable position of the New World that enables man to have no enemies but
himself! To be happy and free, it is enough for him to wish it.

Get it? No? Here is the same passage in Lawrence:

A nation that divided its sovereignty when faced by the great
military monarchies of Europe would seem to me, by that single act, to be
abdicating its power, and perhaps its existence and its name.

How wonderful is the position of the New World, where man has yet no enemies
but himself. To be happy and to be free, it is enough to will it to be so.

Literalism can render an author more authentically, true; but deployed
as an overarching principle of translation, it can just as easily generate
dilutions of an author's meaning.

Crain characterizes the Mansfield-Winthrop translation as "arch-conservative,"
by which I take it he means that the style in which Mansfield and Winthrop have
rendered Tocqueville is often wantonly abstruse. But in principle, it is no more
politically "conservative" than I would be if I put on a top hat and monocle
and started to read from the Lawrence translation in a snooty,
pseudo-aristocratic tone of voice; the problem is that this style tends to be no
less gratuitously distracting. Mansfield and Winthrop believe that if they
translate Tocqueville word for word, or as close to it as possible, we will be
able to confront his analysis more squarely on its own terms. The aspiration to
fidelity is itself irreproachable; but by playing it up in the way they do,
Mansfield and Winthrop suggest that the substantive problems with the prior
translations are systematic in a way they are not. And so, like good advertisers,
they insinuate that we very much need something new, even if we might actually be
better off to fix up what we already have.

Either way, the latest edition of Democracy in America neither gives us
a categorically authentic Tocqueville previously unknown in English nor distorts
him through the terms of neoconservatism. If it should strengthen the
contemporary association between Tocquevillean and conservative thought, this
will be largely because of Tocqueville's new public affiliation with the
high-profile conservatism of Harvey Mansfield. Whoever might find this
association troubling would do best to quell any literary-conspiratorial
suspicions he or she may harbor and to confront conservative appropriations of
Democracy directly and vigorously. After all, the more dialogue there is on
Tocqueville's thought across the political spectrum, the lesser the danger will
be that he's lost in any translation.