I have spotted that during my Political Theory seminar on Rousseau, there was confusion among the students in the room. No one has previously had any particular difficulties on debating philosophical ideas. However, in the case of the Rousseau’s Social Contract, lots of his ideas and their phrasing seemed to raise conceptualization issues. I have personally studied Rousseau for years in French under the French education system.
The first detail which I picked on was how his ideas in English seemed to have been simplified. As a bilingual student, it struck me instantly that some of Rousseau’s complex nuances appeared have been somehow lost in translation.
For example: “Men are forced to be free”. This translation grasps the core idea that only humans can be free. However, the linguistic oxymoron of mixing the words “force” and “free” can cause an intellectual misunderstanding. Indeed, the very idea of imposing freedom on someone seems like a contradiction in itself. Following Rousseau’s meaning, a phrase like ‘men are naturally meant to be free’ would be more linguistically accurate in conveying Rousseau’s idea.
When the seminar teacher would manage to teach the essence of his ideas to the other students, I would hear remarks such as “Oh! He chose the wrong terms then if he meant that.” or “he’s just saying people should respect the law” when mentioning the importance of a ‘superior-being’ legislator in society to regulate human passion. The translation and cultural adaption to suit the academic audience is essential. Another example which may have been inherited from the Cold War is Rousseau’s notion of the “common good”. This term could be interpreted as socialist if not communist-inspired in a highly liberal society where the good is individually made and by extension benefits the rest of the society.
Another controversial point in understanding his radically secular vision of the state: what he calls a “civil religion”. His ideal when understood is to keep faith within private life and carefully make sure it does not interfere with the public sphere and society in general. However, the path to hell is paved with good intentions to cite a much older French expression. Indeed, from an Anglo-Saxon viewpoint, it can be considered a negation of diverse civil identities. This implicit term “civil religion” can easily lead a liberal mind to see it as religious blindness suggesting an alleged superiority of the state over religions and cultures.
All in all, the official translation of Rousseau’s Social Contract goes back to the late 19th century, when linguistics sciences were not as developed as they are today, which may be why his masterpiece’s core ideas struggle to resonate with English-speaking students. Two World Wars, one Cold War and one new intense wave of globalization later, with its religious and cultural discontents, our way with the English language has drastically evolved. If ideas never die, translations can definitely become outdated.