A Compass for Libidinal and Political Economies


Translating Marx and Lacan

Recently, Routledge published another book on the crosspaths between Marx and Lacan: The Marx through Lacan Vocabulary: A Compass for Libidinal and Political Economies (2022, 305 pages), edited by Christina Soto van der Plas, Edgar Miguel Juárez-Salazar, Carlos Gómez Camarena and David Pavón-Cuéllar. Although some might take this as an unnecessary insistence on an approach to Lacan that has almost become a cliché, the Vocabulary is a landmark in translation, if we understand this term in several dimensions:

1. Because the entries it is composed of come from authors who speak many languages: Spanish, Arab, French, English, Portuguese, Slovenian and Italian.

2. The work itself (as has been informed by their editors in several public presentations) is being translated into several languages: into Spanish, French, Italian and Russian, the first of many it might circulate in the future.

3. The translation of Marx into Lacan, and vice versa, i.e., how both authors are united through concepts which come from different fields others than Marxism and psychoanalysis, like political economy or political philosophy (e.g., “Money”, “Economy”, “Society”).

4. The translation of what is properly Lacanian or properly Marxist into the other field. This translation is the most important attempt of the book.

The fourth translation means to consider the properly Lacanian work as a way to think Marx. Lacan himself was aware and eager to reunite his work with Marx: at the beginning of his famous Seminar XVII (Lacan, 2007), where he proposes the four discourses, Lacan states that it was Marx who invented the symptom before Freud, in the first chapter of the first volume of The Capital. This does not mean that, in order to understand Freud, we should first read Marx, nor that Freud and Marx used the same word to refer to similar ideas. It is a more radical matter: the truth of Marx is exposed with the retrospective reading that Freud’s work allows us to make (and again, Freud himself was aware of this, e.g., the famous passage in The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 561, where he compares the dream-work with a relationship between a capitalist and a worker). In a way, the past –Marx– is put in relation to the future of that past –Lacan– which is understood as a way to realize the past’s potential.

This is why I partially disagree with the editors of the Vocabulary when they say (p. xxviii) they wanted to avoid the psychoanalytical term of losange (<>), which designated a paradoxical relation, to explain what the idea of their work is. Lacan states that the losange is a term to designate relations of “envelopment-development-conjunction-disjunction” (Lacan, 2006, p. 542), it separates by uniting, and unites through separation. This is precisely what is done in the entries of this Vocabulary: they unite Marx and Lacan precisely by showing the disparities, contradictions, disagreements between them, and in showing them, they provide a new reading both of Marx and Lacan.

Panoramic of the Book

This reflections on what a translation is are notdetours I am taking in this text, but are essential even for the structure of the Vocabulary itself. We should look at its content under the lens of what a translation is.

First, it contains two lists of abbreviations of all the Lacan’s and Marx’s text that are used in all entries. These 8 pages are themselves a bibliographical achievement, due to the very complex vicissitudes –in their own dimensions– of different editions, translations and sources of the works by Lacan and Marx. Lacan has circulated on a very strange way not only in the English language when compared to Marx, and this presents a peculiar problem for a collective, multilingual team such as the collaborators (whose bios are next in the book).

Next to the abbreviations and bios, we have the 13-pages preface written by the four editors, and they tell us a little about the work they made, how it came to be, how they invited the contributors, how they selected the terms (or “keywords”, as the refer to them in the preface, p. xxxvi), how they took difficult but crucial decisions regarding the bibliographical challenges, the circulation of Lacan and Marx in different languages and how they see their accomplishment among other attempts as dictionaries and vocabularies. It is a preface charged with a sort of pessimistic atmosphere, destined to discourage anyone to embark in such an effort, not because it is unrewarding, but because it is titanic, it needs a collective effort where flaws can appear in many flanks, and, perhaps most fascinating or terrifying, it is never ultimately finalized: the many translations into other languages being prepared are including different entries, so this Vocabulary is an object of new transformation into the languages it is, or will be, translated. A second, much shorter preface by Ian Parker, positions the achievements of the book within the Routledge series The Lines of the Symbolic in Psychoanalysis.

Then, the 26 entries. It strikes at first the elections of the entries. Some of them are concepts widely recognized and worked-through both by Lacan and Marx (“Alienation”, “Capitalism”, “Ideology”). Some could be characterized as more properly Marxists (“Communism”, “Materialism”), some are totally Lacanian (“Surplus-jouissance”), and some are actually a sort of Freudian inspiration (“Uneasiness/discontent/unhappiness”). Although different in style, sources and inspiration, each entry follows a similar pattern: first, a brief introduction of the concept, second, a tracking of such concept in Marx’s work, third, a tracking of such concept in Lacan’s work (this third part is usually longer, for it includes some references to Freud and the ways Lacan disagrees or coincides with Marx), finally, a reflection of contemporary authors or contemporary uses of the term in philosophy, politics and psychoanalysis. It also includes a brief list of further reading. It is true that some entries that we could think would be included in such a project are missing (the case of “fetishism”, “desire”, “dialectics” and “Hegel”, to name some); nonetheless, the index of terms allows us to track some of those concepts to the respective entries.

Each entry (again, reinforcing the idea that translation is the transversal term of the work), also includes, at the beginning, the translation of the term of the entry into Arab, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Turkish. This editorial decision makes sense if we consider the first Annex, where the editors reflect on the problematics of transliterations of some words (not only those of the entries) into each language. The second Annex briefly presents the Lacanian term of matheme (which itself can be seen as a translation of mathematics and psychoanalysis) and how it is useful to think a translation of Marx into Lacan, with the four discourses as the privileged example of this.

Reflections: Translation’s Navel

Finally, this brings us back to the issue of the translation. Another –very famous– dictionary, known as Dictionary of Untranslatables (Cassin, 2014), was commissioned for its Spanish version to Néstor Braunstein, who deserted the work, according to him, for lacking time and abilities to do it. In the text where he reflects on such task and what a translation is for psychoanalysis (Braunstein, 2012), he recalls the Freudian dream’s navel, the hard, non-sensical point of a dream that resists interpretation, that is untranslatable. For Braunstein, the task of a translator is to find again such untranslatable navel.

Those of us who have translated a work before know very well the tools to relate the original work to our translation (using parentheses to put the original word, using footnotes to explain, and even comparing different sources and translations), in order to enclose such navel. And yet, we know this task is a continuous encounter with an impossibility. To translate a text and not encounter such impossibility is no translation at all, but a mere communication of a previous communication, which is very naïve if we are not only translating from one language to another (from German to French) but from one discursivity to another (from Marx to Lacan). It is with a translation of this nature where we can see the power an author has always had: we should recall the power Freud acquire in many fields of knowledge when we got a systematic translation into English of his complete works by the same translator (James Strachey), as well as Lacan’s popularity in Latin America once we got a (sort-of) systematic translation of his work under the same label (Paidós, in Argentina). Perhaps Lacan’s difficulty in the Anglo-Saxon world is, in a deep measure, a consequence of the lack of a systematic translation into English: even when they are under the same label (Polity or W.W. Norton & Company), they are done by different translators.

Just as Marx’s work acquires new meanings, exposing its navel, in Lacan’s concerns with surplus and the master-slave relationship (Seminar XVII is the privileged place); Lacan’s work also exposes its navel in Marx, even though the latter preceded the former chronologically (see Marx’s texts on alienation and the productivity of the bourgeois family as a prolegomenon of Lacan’s texts on the individual myth of the neurotic).

When he translated Freud’s complete works into Spanish, José Luis Etcheverry needed to add another volume to his enormous enterprise, an essential corollary if we want to take a serious study of Freud in Spanish. The Marx through Lacan Vocabulary is precisely that: an essential corollary if we pretend a serious study of the Marx in Lacan and the Lacan in Marx.


Braunstein, Néstor. 2012. Traducir el psicoanálisis. Interpretación, sentido y transferencia. Mexico: Paradiso Editores.

Cassin, Barbara (ed.). 2004. Vocabulaire Européen des Philosophies. Dictionnaire des intraduisibles. Le Robert, Seuil.

Freud, Sigmund. 1900/1958. Volume V (1900-1901). The Interpretation of Dreams (Second Part) and On Dreams. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis.

Lacan, Jacques. 1969-1970/2007. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Book XVII. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Lacan, Jacques. 2006. Écrits. The First Complete Edition in English. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.