WHISTLING IN THE DARK:
SEPTEMBER 2003

Lost in Translation

I was just reading the introduction to John Keegan's History of Warfare (just a little light reading for the subway ride, don't you know) and he writes:

"...[Clausewitz] actually wrote that war is the continuation of 'political intercourse' (die politischen Verkehrs) with the intermixing of other means" (mit Einmischung anderer Mittel)

This is to be compared to the usual English translation:

...war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.

Is it my imagination or is there a huge difference between continuing 'policy' and continuing 'political intercourse'? Just think about the mechanistic, self-confident, rational, controlled process implied by 'continuation of policy' compared to the messy dialectic of 'continuation of political intercourse'.

So I know most of you right now (with the possible exception of thebitterguy and maybe bluecomet) are thinking 'who cares'?

This is significant because Clausewitz' On War is possibly the most influential book on military policy ever written (far more than The Art of War for instance). Probably everyone seriously involved in military policy today has read it (either in translation or in German) and learned lessons based on it. That includes every single strategist who worked on Afghanistan and Iraq (not the political hacks, you understand, but all the military planners - probably including people like Rumsfeld, though I don't know that for sure). Almost all developed thought on national defence doctrine (at least in the Western world) holds Clausewitz's notions on warfare as it's foundation. This, of course, means Clausewitz' thinking figures prominently on pretty much all levels of international relations in as much as defence policy influences national policy.

...and yet, the translation stumbles over a quirk of English to German meanings and in doing so creates a sublime gulf between the implications of the text depending on which language you read it in.

 


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