Reversing Technology

A blog on reverse engineering technology and reverse engineering technology.

Braindump: Nuances of Translation in Political Texts

“A spectre is haunting europe, the spectre of communism”

So begins the famous “Communist Manifesto” by Marx and Engels. Except it does not, because there is no Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels.


The Point of this Blogpost

This tweet made me of think about the subtle change of tone in the famous quote compared to the German original once again, and I didn’t have anything better to do and decided to reply. Then I got sucked into reading up more about this and at some point decided that a dedicated blogpost is a better medium to collect and share my thoughts on this compared to the twitter mentions of someone else. In conclusion this nerdsniped me for around 4 hours.

But why on this blog?

I have not set up my blog for non reverse-engineering related content yet[^1] and until then this one will have to suffice. I apologize to what is probably the one person who is subscribed to my RSS feed and actually gets a notification about this, expecting some kind of reverse engineering content. I promise there is at least one reference to InfoSec in this.


First off, this is probably something that is incredibly obvious to anyone who studied something that is not STEM and deals with texts written by humans as a subject of study. I also want to clarify that I didn’t study anything like this either, and my formal education on working with historical texts is what was covered in high school, about which I didn’t really care at that time. The only thing I have going for me in this context is that I am a German native speaker, so I can see various nuances in the German source texts that are lost in the translations. I still haven’t read more of the text discussed than what I cover in this post, which is only what comes before the first chapter and barely amounts to more than a few sentences in total. It literally takes less than a minute to actually read if you don’t think too hard about it. If you do the result is a 2000 word blogpost. The following doesn’t follow some smart structure for arguments about historical texts, and only roughly follows my train of thought and the order in which I learned them.

Why is this so hard?

You will probably disagree with the earlier statement “There is no Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels.”. And on the general level of an English conversation you are correct, there is a specific document that everyone calls the “Communist Manifesto” and it was written by Marx and Engels. This is where it gets really nuanced and I hope I don’t mess this up. I just skimmed the English and German Wikipedia article and read a few PDFs I found online. My rough point is that:

Marx and Engels did not write the English translation of the “Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei”

And because they didn’t really write the English translation any translation will implicitly carry the context of the translator with it.

Consider the following: What do you think of when you hear “A spectre is haunting”? At least to me, this sounds menacing. “Haunting” has a fairly negative connotation, “spectre” I mainly associate with that James Bond movie of which I can’t remember more than the scene where someone plugs in a USB stick and subsequently accidentally lets a secret network get owned[^2]. But according to Wikipedia SPECTRE are the antagonists who murder people, so they are probably bad. If James Bond based arguments about the connotations of words are not enough, consider the Oxford dictionary definitions of spectre:

A ghost.

‘a dread of spectres and witches affected every aspect of daily life’

Something widely feared as a possible unpleasant or dangerous occurrence.

‘ the spectre of nuclear holocaust’

“The spectre of communism” sounds quite similar to “the spectre of nuclear holocaust”

But the original German version of “Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei” doesn’t use the word spectre or any word that seems etymologically related. Instead, it uses the word “Gespenst” which is fairly close to the English word “Ghost”. “Ghost of communism” sounds like communism died already, and not something looming that will bring annihilation like in “spectre of nuclear holocaust”. “Ghost of nuclear holocaust” doesn’t make any sense.

My translation and the original context

Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa - das Gespenst des Kommunismus. Alle Mächte des alten Europa haben sich zu einer heiligen Hetzjagd gegen dies Gespenst verbündet, der Papst und der Zar, Metternich und Guizot, französische Radikale und deutsche Polizisten.

These are the first two sentences, and there is already a lot to talk about. The first sentence is the well known one. In its mostly literal translation (by me), it roughly states: “A ghost moves around Europe - the ghost of communism”. “Moves around” is already hard to translate “ein Gespenst geht um” is a typical phrase in German and does in fact mean something like “a ghost haunts” if it would be used in a sentence like “The mansion is haunted by a ghost” => “In der Villa geht ein Gespenst um”.

But “Gespenst” especially in the sense of “Gespenster sehen” (“seeing Ghosts”) also has a certain meaning in German. Namely being afraid of something despite there being nothing to be afraid of, because ghosts aren’t real[^3].

Before I continue to explain why this is my preferred interpretation, let’s look at the following sentence:

Alle Mächte des alten Europa haben sich zu einer heiligen Hetzjagd gegen dies Gespenst verbündet, der Papst und der Zar, Metternich und Guizot, französische Radikale und deutsche Polizisten.

The same text that translated the first sentence by using “spectre” translates this sentence as:

All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.

My more literal translation is:

All the powers of old Europe have allied themselves into a holy hunt against this ghost: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police.

The German word used for hunt is the word for “Persistence hunting”, i.e. a specific kind of hunt. This means Marx and Engels imply that this as an explicitly offensive alliance. I have no idea why “deutsche Polizisten” is translated as “German police-spies”. It originally just says “German police” like you would nowadays say “US police”. The interesting thing for me in this sentence is the juxtaposition of “Pope and Tsar, “Metternich and Guizot” and “French Radicals and German Police”.

Europe was fractured and unstable around the time the manifesto was originally written in 1848. This year specifically saw various bloody uprisings. There was no Germany, just many small German-speaking states that were considering to unite. The previous Holy Romain Empire was shattered by Napoleon in 1806.

The contrast between French radicals and German police seems obvious in that context, the contrast between “Pope and Tsar” probably refers to the 1847 Agreement between the Holy See and Russia and “Metternich and Guizot” is probably also some smart joke but I don’t get it.

So in this sentence Marx and Engels emphasize how, supposedly, scared many groups in Europe are, from the French in the West, to the Russian Tsar in the East.

This is then followed by a few sentences about how the ruling political factions use communism to decry the political opposition, while those in turn use it against the more radical factions and their reactionary opponents. Everyone insulting everyone else as communist without anyone actually knowing what “communism” is sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

But the most important sentence is the one that follows shortly after:

Es ist hohe Zeit, daß die Kommunisten ihre Anschauungsweise, ihre Zwecke, ihre Tendenzen vor der ganzen Welt offen darlegen und dem Märchen vom Gespenst des Kommunismus ein Manifest der Partei selbst entgegenstellen.

The English text translates this as:

It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself.

Which I mostly agree with, though I would have translated it as “fairy tale of the ghost of communism”. But this makes the stated intent of Marx and Engels (and the communist league on who prompted them to write the document) clear: Explain what communism actually is because there was no clear definition of communism before. Nearly everyone using communist as an insult could not actually know what it meant, because no one before the publication of the communist manifesto had actually written down and published the ideas of communism. So in a sense there was nothing concrete to be afraid of.

The English Text

I actually intentionally ignored some nuance in the previous chapter. The next sentence of the original manifesto states:

Zu diesem Zweck haben sich Kommunisten der verschiedensten Nationalität in London versammelt und das folgende Manifest entworfen, das in englischer, französischer, deutscher, italienischer, flämischer und dänischer Sprache veröffentlicht wird.

Which is translated in the English text as:

To this end, Communists of various nationalities have assembled in London and sketched the following manifesto, to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages.

This is correctly translated, but has some major context that is missing: There never was an English text published alongside the initial German version. They planned to publish the manifesto in multiple languages, but this did not happen, only a German version was printed initially. To add to the confusion this German version was printed in London.

The first English translation was by Helen Macfarlane and published in a 1850. In her version the first sentence is:

A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are haunted by a ghost, the ghost of Communism

This is remarkably different to the English text I was previously referring to. She must have had some knowledge about Marx and Engels because the publication was the first to reveal them as the authors. Engels had half of the manifesto translated to English by himself already. I have not found the actual full text of this translation.

There were various later translations in English, but it seems like the most commonly cited one is the 1888 translation by Samuel Moore, which was “commissioned, thoroughly verified and supplied with footnotes by Engels”. Notably Marx was already dead at this point in time. This is the version I quote as “the English text” and seems to be generally considered as such.


Translation is complicated and two translations, both done by someone who had contact with at least one of the original authors, already greatly differ in their connotations. The manifesto wasn’t even well known before the 1870s, when in 1872 the manifesto was read out loud during a treason trial of communists, so the well known English translation over 15 years later was already written in a remarkably different context.

In the modern context it might not seem that ironic anymore to use “spectre of communism” like one would use “spectre of nuclear holocaust”, after the various atrocities and mass murders committed in its name. But keep in mind that it took ~70 years (1848 to 1917, the latter marking the rise of Communism in Russia) for someone to commit atrocities in the name of communism, while fascism started pretty much right away after the ideology formed.

Take-Aways that fit inside a Tweet


[^1] I did already buy the domain though. That is like 90% of the work of setting up a blog, right?

[^2] See, I can make anything about InfoSec

[^3] googling the phrase “seeing ghosts” leads to discussion by people being confused about someone saying this in the context of American Football


I wasn’t exactly diligent with citing while writing this because I quickly lost track where exactly I copied which snippet from, but the main sources are: