Preliminary thoughts on the new translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit by Fuss & Dobbins


I’ve recently discovered that the notorious Phenomenology by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has been re-translated into English yet again, making the previous A. V. Miller translation now seemingly outdated. The publisher’s blurb of the University of Notre Dame Press for the 2019 translation by Peter Fuss and John Dobbins reads as follows:

The Phenomenology of Spirit, first published in 1807, is G. W. F. Hegel’s remarkable philosophical text that examines the dynamics of human experience from its simplest beginnings in consciousness through its development into ever more complex and self-conscious forms. The work explores the inner discovery of reason and its progressive expansion into spirit, a world of intercommunicating and interacting minds reconceiving and re-creating themselves and their reality. The Phenomenology of Spirit is a notoriously challenging and arduous text that students and scholars have been studying ever since its publication.

In this long-awaited translation, Peter Fuss and John Dobbins provide a succinct, highly informative, and readily comprehensible introduction to several key concepts in Hegel’s thinking. This edition includes an extensive conceptual index, which offers easy reference to specific discussions in the text and elucidates the more subtle nuances of Hegel’s concepts and word usage. This modern American English translation employs natural idioms that accurately convey what Hegel means. Throughout the book, the translators adhered to the maxim: if you want to understand Hegel, read him in the English. This book is intended for intellectuals with a vested interest in modern philosophy and history, as well as students of all levels, seeking to access or further engage with this seminal text.

For the moment I would simply like to state out two basic views of mine as far as English translations of the Phenomenology are concerned:

1) Contrary to many other readers of Hegel in English that I’ve encountered, I actually believe the standard A. V. Miller translation of Phenomenology to be far better than is usually proclaimed. I’ve enchanged thoughts with people in the past who were exited about “the Cambridge translation by Terry Pinkard”, yet that one failed to impress me personally during my brief skimming of the text, apart from a particular ingenious rearticulation of the famous passage of ‘the flight of the owl of Minerva’. There is also another translation by Michael Inwood in print out, which for various reasons I also deem inferior to the Millerian one, although it’s also more recent. This being said, while working through the book in English (since my German is still too narrow and too basic for such readings, although I’ve also got the book in both German and Slovene) I’ve always defaulted back to the Miller translation…

2) …Nonetheless, I also stick to my second point, which could be phrased as there is no translation of a book like Phenomenology out there which could simply be called redundant. In my personal view, one work of philosophy, or one particular reading, analysis or commentary, never really opposses another, as long as it’s not filled with explicit hostilities or other subversions in relation to some other work. On the contrary, for me works like these usually tend to enrich each other by providing a plurality of options put out there on the book market from which a reader can choose. So no matter how much I can object to a particular translation or the usually-included commentary in it, it’s a question to what extent do different translations really undermine each other directly. I am fully aware of the various academic difficulties that can arise in a classroom, of for example an ongoing course of a reading done by students, only to realise different students purchased a different translation of the same work, leading to confusion. But there are also academic mechanisms set in place in various universities to prevent this happening.

But, returning back to my reading, due to my engagement in other areas, I’ve so far only been able to read the Vorrede, or Preface, to this specific new translation, and my first impression so far is actually not that negative. One thing that struck my gaze was the phrasing of simplex or simplexity where I expected the simple term of simplicity to occur in the text, and I’m currently still unaware of the reasoning behind this specific choice of words. To be fair, as things stand right now, I do not even know the semantic difference between the terms of simplex and the more common term simple, yet am suspecting this has something to do with ideological struggles within United States Academia, or perhaps, on the other hand, it’s some linguistic anarchronism of the English language that I’m personately unaware of. But in spite of this, I’ve found a lot of different phrases to have been restated in a very novel and ingenious way, prividing a fresh breath to a text I’ve personally re-read in the Miller translation at least ten times now in the last decade or so. So, to conclude with a point I’ve already stated, I don’t think any translation like this is ever redundant, am very pleased to see a new articulation of such a classic of philosophy, and would recommend to everyone to get a copy while it’s still hot off the press.

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