I sent David's comments to Rene van der Veer, and part of his reply
included a shot (attached) of what translators and editors have to go
through in moving LSV and others into what today we'd call a book or
article. Pretty daunting.
From: email@example.com [mailto:
firstname.lastname@example.org] On Behalf Of David
Sent: Friday, January 01, 2016 6:44 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: [Xmca-l] Re: Yasnitsky and Van der Veer: Mythbusters!
Of course, when you read a translation, you are not reading the
writer, or at least not the writer in large letters; you are reading
the writer in small letters; that is, the translator. When we finished
translating "Thinking and Speech" into Korean (which we did from the
French and Italian translations, because our Russian was no good, and
because we could see, from the very first chapter, that the English
was no good either) one of our best translators quit the team with the
bitter comment that none of us knew any Russian (true) and some of us
knew very little Korean, or at least very little literary Korean
(also, alas, true). We've worked pretty hard to overcome both of these
problems, and next month we'll bring out our seventh volume of Vygotsky's works in Korean.
Years ago I was rather astonished when I heard Eugene Subbotsky
describe Vygotsky as a poet, since I too had read him entirely in
translation and had (wrongly as it turns out) come to think of him as
quite clumsy, maladroit, redundant and wordy. But I have come to see
that Subbotsky was
right: there are certain wordings in Vygotsky, like the idea that the
child is "intertwined (interpersonally) and interwoven (socially)"
that have wings; that overleap both languages and soar. As Vygotsky
says, there is a kind of thinking without words that only thinking
with words can bring about.
So when you read Vygotsky in English you are reading the thinker and
not the writer. There are certain advantages to that, which you should
be very conscious of as a teacher of foreign languages and as a
foreign language learner. The whole point of the first part of
"Thinking and Speech" is that the thinker and the speaker are really
two diferent creatures, and even in the second part we can see that
they are two radically different persona, even where they partake and
participate in the same personality. By standing aloof for a moment
from the language of expression, we can get a certain critical distance, a sense of the overall shape of the thoughts.
And in fact that was the point I was trying to make: "Thinking and Speech"
was not Vygotsky's final word (there will never be a final word,
thanks to people like you, Henry), and it was not even his finished
word, and its very unfinished quality is, I think, also responsible
for the fact that LSV doesn't list either HDHMF or Tool and Sign in any of his "Greatest Hits'
(though, significantly, Tool and Sign IS in the references to the
first edition of Thinking and Speech). This patchy, unfinished quality
makes the sheer brilliance and consistency of the ideas all the more remarkable.
I would like to think that our clumsy translations also have the
effect of throwing the spotlight on the grace and coherence of
Vygotsky's thinking, but I know that unfortunately this probably isn't
the case; I imagine there are lots of people scribbling imprecations
against Vygotsky in the margins of their Korean translations which really ought to be directed against us.
There can really be only one excuse for what we did.
It is the same excuse that Mike, Sylvia Scribner, Vera John-Steiner
and Ellen Souberman have for issuing a compilation under Vygotsky's name.
Yasnitsky and Van der Veer admit that no deception was involved, and
their main complaint is that the process of compiling it is not
sufficiently transparent to be made reversible, but of course the same
thing is true of almost any compilation and indeed coauthorship quite
generally--we only know which chapters in "Ape, Primitive, Child" are
by Luria and which by Vygotsky because of Vygotsky's complaints about
Luria's Freudianism in his letters, and there is no way for the reader
to know which of the revolutionary revisionist ideas in this book are
Van der Veer's and which are Yasnitsky's!
Of course, we have different standards for writers of historic stature
than we do for each other, and that's perfectly okay, so long as we
keep in mind that at the time "Mind in Society" was published,
Vygotsky was not generally considered a writer of historic stature:
his publication list in English was considerably shorter than Mike
Cole's. Today it's just too easy for people to forget that the
difficulty of publishing Vygotsky in the West was actually far greater
than that of publishing him in the USSR for most of the twentieth
century, thanks to the very real totalitarianism exercised
(increasingly) by commercial publishing. Yasnitsky and Van der Veer do
have the grace to acknowledge that "Mind in Society" started the
Vygotsky boom that made it posssible for Yasnitsky and Van der Veer to
start their revisionist revolution. We can't really fault historians
for not knowing what to do next. But we can fault them for forgetting
that people back then didn't know what we know today.
In the end, I think that's the only excuse for doing translations,
bad: Nobody else will, or nobody else will do it as well. To be fair,
I should say that there WERE no less than two other teams translating
Thinking and Speech into Korean when we went ahead and published; one
was a very well-funded team of Russian professors at Korea University
and the other had an official contract with MIT Press--but the latter
used the Hanfmann and Vakar translation into English and the team of
Russian professors--incredibly--used the Minick translation! So I am
very glad we went ahead and published ours, imperfect as it is. As
Tagore says, Ekla Chalo Re:
If they answer not to your call walk aloneIf they are afraid and cower
mutely facing the wall,O thou unlucky one,open your mind and speak out
alone.If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,O
thou unlucky one,trample the thorns under thy tread,and along the
blood-lined track travel alone.If they shut doors and do not hold up
the light when the night is troubled with storm,O thou unlucky
one,with the thunder flame of pain ignite your own heart,and let it burn alone.
(Translated from Tagore's Bengali by Tagore himself--but was it back
PS: While we were working on Piaget's response to "Thinking and
Speech" I wrote to MIT Press to get permission to translate it into
Korean. I learned that the original French manuscript had been lost,
and that the translator, Francoise Seve, had had to reconstruct it
from a typescript, part of which could only be reconstructed by back translating from English to French!
On Sat, Jan 2, 2016 at 6:36 AM, HENRY SHONERD <email@example.com> wrote:
Yes, it makes sense to me too. It at least partly explains why my
comments in the margin of my copy of Speech and Language I bought so
many years ago can still evoke my irritation at Vygotsky, who, it
turns out, is not the author I thought he was. Another part is my
own constantly gaining and losing my grasp on a coherent
socio-cultural bead on the here and now, very much connected to the
pulses of this chat. Funny how then and now inform each other.
On Dec 31, 2015, at 4:35 PM, Andy Blunden <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Thanks, David! :)
All makes sense to me.
On 1/01/2016 11:00 AM, David Kellogg wrote:
Or not. So, you thought you knew your Vygotsky, did you? Here are
seven facts you've always believed about Vygotsky that
are...well, more or
right, actually, according to Yasnitsky and Van der Veer's
"Revisionist Revolution in Vygotsky Studies", due to come out on
Routledge in the new year.
1. Stalinist science was highly centralized, clique ridden,
deliberately esoteric and impractical, parochial, and given to
cults and personality. Sounds familiar? Now, lest you think that
I am making an unfair comparison between Stalinist Russia and
today's relatively benign and bucolic academic atmosphere, note
that Anton's revolutionary revisionist point in this first
section is precisely that: the present
reputation of Vygotsky is based on a very centralized, monolithic
interpretation of his work, drive-by citations and padded
reference lists,an almost complete disjunction between high
theory and more or
banal practice, a geographical focus in just a few centres in
Russia and the West, and a foundational myth of a doomed Moses,
who saw the
land from the mountaintop and knew he would never set foot there.
Is the comparison unfair? Not at all. If anything, the problem is
that it is
obvious to count as revision, much less as revolution.
There is, however, another problem, or rather two other problems.
is that myths are not entirely fiction--it is not a myth but a
that L.S. Vygotsky died of tuberculosis in June of 1934, and it
is not really much more far fetched to say that he died without
in eight decades he would be translated into the Korean language
read by school teachers in South Korea. The second is that
themselves mythic figures; that is, they take certain historical
construct narratives around them, in this case the narrative that
the previous narrative was constructed around incorrect facts or
that it was constructed around correct facts which have been
some way. So....
2. There never was a Troika or a Pyatorka: instead, the "Vygotsky
was a loose network of scholars who came and went, joined and
spread across three cities (Moscow, Leningrad, and Kharkov,
although the loyalty of the Kharkov centre is in doubt). This
section, based on Yasnitsky's Ph.D. work, is--unlike the first
section, which manages to
both sensationalistic and naive--both nuanced and closely argued.
But of course for that very reason it tends to undermine the
claims of the
part of the book. And at the same time, it ignores the most
obvious evidence that there really WAS something like a
Pyatorka--the fact that Vygotsky's own letters referto the
Pyatorka, and the fact that the
held meetings, internal conferences, etc, None of this
main thesis, which was that the "Troika" and the "Pyatorka" were
constructs (exoteric as opposed to esoteric ways of
understanding) for thinking about the history of the Vygotsky
school even while it was happening. But it also doesn't answer
the question I have always had
the use of the term "Troika". For Trotskyists (and, as Anton
points out, there is clear evidence that Vygotsky has strong
the term Troika has very bad connotations: it referred to a
bureaucratic bloc between Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev to oust
Trotsky from power in
year following Lenin's death. .
3. Thinking and Speech", far from being Vygotsky's magnum opus,
is an unfinished and highly uneven work, cobbled together from
materials which really fit rather poorly, during the months
immediately before...and after...Vygotsky's death. I think
anybody who really knows the
of the composition of Thinking and Speech will not find this
the facts are well known, and only serve to throw the coherence
of the work into greater relief (and also, incidentally, to
popular idea--which Yasnitsky and Van der Veer DO subscribe
are three very different Vygotskies believing three very
different foundational ideas at work in the years 1926-1934).
So of course this is not really revisionist and revolutionary
enough for Yasnitsky and Van der Veer. Beyond this, they try to
claim that the
that Vygotsky thought were important are NOT the works that we
and the works we read today are NOT the works that Vygotsky held dear.
found their argument on Vygotsky's own lists, compiled at three
times during his life, of his own works. The problem is that two
are part of job applications, and anybody who has ever done a job
application knows very well that you list things that your
potential employer will find impressive, and these are usually
quite far from
the works that you yourself value. Sure enough, by this standard,
Vygotsky's most important work is his first one: "Educational
which is surely his most uneven and least visionary, closely
followed by "Imagination and Creativity", which was, as the
authors quite correctly point out, a work of popular science (and
includes references to
writers and agony aunts who wrote for the Soviet papers).
Weakest of all are Yasnitsky's claims about the History of the
of the Higher Mental Functions and Tool and Sign, to wit, that
was a fabrication by the Soviet editors cobbled together from two
texts and the Russian version of the latter the result of a
by Luria and the popular medical writer Elkhonon Goldberg.
First of all, there is strong evidence INSIDE the text of HDHMF
conceived and written as a single work: there is a conclusion
which goes back to the beginning, which remarks on the order in
which it was
and how it differs from the order it was written, and how the
together. More importantly, the first part DOES lay out the
problem, the approach and the research method followed in the
"special studies" of
second part, just as Thinking and Speech was to do years later.
is is really weak stuff: they
Secondly, as Yasnitsky himself admits, the wonderful story of
benign forgery (actually back translation, not a rare occurence
in recovering historic manuscripts) does not actually explain
what it is supposed to explain, which is the recurrence of
several paragraphs, not word for
but very nearly so. Yasnitsky explains this by adding a kind of
epicycle: there were TWO translators, and the editor didn't
what he was editing, so there was some redundancy. The only
this story, which seems so much less probable than the
alternative explanation that this is simply another instance of
repeat himself more or less verbatim in places, is Elkhonon
Wisdom Paradox: How Aging Actually Benefits Your Brain", and
other must readings in psychoneurology for aging jet-setters),
and an anonymous blogger (neither source seems very well disposed
to their erstwhile professor, Luria). Of course, the mere fact
that a story is highly improbable and that the sources are
somewhat jaundiced do not mean that
is not true; but in a work devoted to mythbusting, it should mean
is...well, possibly mythical.
4. Vygotsky died with an unfinished book on consciousness clearly
This much too should be have been already very clear to any
of Thinking and Speech. But this is in fact the most exciting
book, and the only part of the book which really does offer
evidence (it is also the only part of the book which was not
written by Yasnitsky or by Van der Veer). You may disagree with a
lot of what Zavershneva has to say about Vygotsky's supposed
Nietszcheanism and his rejection of "word meaning" as a unit of
consciousness in favor of
(which is, after all, a type of word meaning). You may question,
whether "perizhevianie" is really intended as a substitute, and
what point it is a substitute for word meaning. Above all, you
what the relationship between THIS unwritten work and the other
works that Vygotsky left us might be ("Teaching on the Emotions"
is mentioned, but there is hardly any mention at all of "Child
But this is the part of the book where you are most likely to
learn something. It's also the part of the book where we see the
most Vygotsky inedit--unpublished Vygotsky.
5. Vygotsky has been poorly translated, and he didn't write
English language books for which he is famous. The facts are
clear: the 1962 version of "Thought and Language" is something
the original, with all the Marx and Lenin (and also the
"redundancies", which for Yasnitsky are the proof of the
inauthenticity of Tool and
cut away by editors. "Mind in Society" was not a book that
Vygotsky ever wrote but instead (like much of Aristotle, like all
of the New
like the Quran and like de Saussure's "Cours", a compilation put
by students and students of students (e.g. Mike). I think what
the revolutionary revisionists ignore is the dialectic of that process:
in Society" was designed to, and did in fact, overcome the
significant omissions of Hanfmann and Vakar's translation: they
saw that they could bring back some of Vygotsky's Marxist roots,
and that is exactly what
did. Yasnitsky and Van der Veer acknowledge that this book,
whether by Vygotsky or not, was the book that started the
Vygotsky "boom"; the real question we have to ask is--what can we
actually accomplish with the
that "Mind and Society" unlocked? What happens when the rubble of
stops bouncing? Previously, our "revolutionary revisionists"
suggested archival work,authoritative editions, and so on, and of
course that is certainly very much to be desired. But it also
ignores the exoteric
of the boom and does nothing to overcome the gap between theory
and practice noted in point 1) above.
6. The results of Luria's Central Asian expeditions were
suppressed in order not to inflame resentment among the USSR's
too is extremely well known to people who read Luria's own
as those who followed the horrible story of the quasi-official
of Vygotsky and Luria (see point 7 below). And it turns out to
more or less true, although Laman and Yasnitsky manage to cloak
in anachronistic phrases like "affirmative action" and "political
correctness" which only show how very little they understand the
realities that Luria and Vygotsky actually faced. The really
part of this section of the book, though, is the accusation that
is a vulgar Marxist who believed that the change in the relations
of production, without any education, was enough to create
concepts in the minds of Uzbeks. There is no evidence for this in
any of Vygotsky's or Luria's texts, and plenty of evidence to the
contrary. (Luria repeatedly refers to the effect of schooling).
Note that Lamdan and Yasnitsky do
raise a number of key issues:
a) Vygotsky at one point in HDHMF, Chapter Two, criticizes those
experiments out of the laboratory and do anthropological
fieldwork with them and calls this method absolutely unjustified.
Does this explain
did not personally take part?
b) In fact, Luria's experiments were quite similar to what people
like Rivers had done in New Guinea--they were not at all
unprecedented; they were in fact part of a recognized and
continuing tradition in cross-cultural psychology (c.f. Glick and
Cole, and also recent work on chimps and children in Africa).
This ethnographic tradition WAS
suspect, and for good reason. Is this why Luria refers to it
why Koffka is rather unsympathetic to Luria's (largely foregone)
7. Vygotsky's work was never officially denounced by Stalin
himself, but instead was subject to an informal ban, which did
not prevent him from being favorably cited in the twenty years
between his death and the
publications in Russia. Well, this isn't exactly myth-busting.
not particularly well-read; his most critical comment on Vygotsky
would have been something along the lines of "Who?" But this
really is both sensationalistic and naive: it is sensationalistic
imagine that Vygotsky's work was famous enough at his death to
kind of explicit suppression that, say, Trotsky, Bukharin, Radek,
Vavilov suffered. It is naive to imagine that the two almost
fact-free articles published against Vygotsky in the years after
his death were somehow not part of an orchestrated campaign
against his work (which
WELL before he died--why is there no discussion of the 1931
decree on pedology in Leningrad, something that Vygotsky himself
and Speech Chapter Six?)
As Kozulin remarks in a remarkably well-tempered preface, this is
a dangerous book--not so much to the reader, but to the writers.
is that that Yasnitsky and Van der Veer run the risk of busting a
gut rather than busting myths, making revolutionary revisionism
out of their firm grasp of the obvious embroidered with material
that is anything but obvious. When that happens, we get something
that is neither a gorgon
minotaur but more like Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being
something like a monster without being a myth.
, and even (in designed to undo some of those cuts. Like
Christ, and Muhammad, Vygotsky didn't write or at least didn't
edit the books that made him famous. The problem of course is
know that he was Vygotsky; he thought he was just "me". and de
Saussure, Vygotsky did not
So you thought you knew L.S. Vygotsky! Well