How Eleanor Marx’s incredible work ethic, linguistic talents and political knowledge made her the “proletarian” of international activist communications. By Rachel Holmes
The Marxes were poor, perilously insecure and continuously under state surveillance during Eleanor’s early years. But the riches of literacy and an equal love of poetry and politics compensated for their lack of capital. The Marx family languages tell the story of the migrations and exiles that were the price of their progressive beliefs. When they escaped to England in 1849, it was their last refuge after successive expulsions resulting from the 1848 European revolutions.
From the womb, Eleanor swam in a fluid polyphony of German, French and English, with Dutch phrases and Yiddish tags thrown in. Originating from Rhineland, Germany, both parents were born into multilingualism. Between them, the Marx and Von Westphalen broods spoke five primary tongues. In Karl’s childhood home, German, Dutch and Yiddish were spoken, and a little Hebrew read; in Jenny’s, German, French and English.
Eleanor’s immediate paternal family were mostly Dutch and lived in the Netherlands. She inherited familiarity with elements of Hebrew and Yiddish both from her father’s Rabbinical ancestry and his mother’s adherence to her faith. As an adult, she learned Hebrew and Yiddish – the latter prompted by her work with Jewish trade unions in the East End of London.
Eleanor’s elder sisters, Jenny and Laura, who were born in Paris and Brussels, spoke French with each other, French and German with their mother, and mainly German with their father, the family housekeeper Helen Demuth and ‘Uncle Angel’ Friedrich Engels.
Labour of love
Eleanor was home-schooled by her father and Engels. During her first ten years she sat at her father’s knee while he wrote Capital. As a teenager, she started to work as his researcher and secretary. She continued in these roles until his death. By then, aged 28, Eleanor was the sole surviving person able to decipher his illegible handwriting and understand how he organised his manuscripts. Hence Engels appointed her keeper, interpreter and archivist of Marx’s literary estate – and editor of many of his key political tracts.
Eleanor’s first love and sometime fiancé, Hippolyte Lissagaray, authored the seminal History of the Paris Commune. In 1871, the Basque journalist and activist turned street fighter and exile published a pamphlet in French about his experiences. Lissa, as she called him, read early extracts to Tussy and together they expanded the pamphlet. When the book was finished, Tussy translated it into English. An unpaid labour of love, it was her first major translation and brought to English readers the first authentic, personal memoir of the Paris Commune. To this day, the book remains the primary historical source of Communard history.
Marx became a socialist activist, feminist, trade-unionist and leading internationalist of her age. She was equally absorbed in modern drama and teaching the emerging discipline of Shakespeare studies. Her language skills were key to her public, professional and personal lives.
Interpreter and translator for the first International Workers Congress, held in London in November 1888 and organised by the TUC (Trades Union Congress) Parliamentary Committee, her fluent German and French, combined with a deep knowledge of labour and socialist issues, made her the linchpin communicator between European delegates. In the break after every congress speech, delegates gathered around the interpreter speaking their language – Eleanor attracted the largest crowd.
The same year, she completed the first translation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, or as she translated idiomatically En Folkefiende (‘An Enemy of Society’). Her friend Henry Havelock Ellis commissioned this for the first English edition of Ibsen’s works of which he was editor, offering the handsome fee of £5.
Tussy was known for her championing of the radical Norwegian dramatist. For her 31st birthday, she arranged a reading of A Doll’s House – or ‘Nora’, as the play was then called – in her living room in Great Russell Street. Tussy’s friend George Bernard Shaw, who had never heard of the play and knew nothing of Ibsen, read the part of Krogstadt at her request. Ibsen became Shaw’s most formative theatrical influence. Fifty years later, Shaw confirmed that Tussy had introduced him to Ibsen’s work through her theatrical soiree – “the first performance of A Doll’s House in England”. Eleanor became the go-to translator for Ibsen in Britain, and the publisher Thomas Fisher Unwin commissioned her to translate the first English version of The Lady from the Sea.
Her literary translation ran alongside her political work. In 1889, Eleanor was in Paris for the landmark International Socialist Workers’ Congress – “the Marxist Congress”. Once again, she interpreted and translated the proceedings, including historical resolutions on the unity of the movement, the international eight-hour working day, disarmament, pay and conditions for child and women workers, and the establishment of an annual international labour demonstration for 1 May.
Eleanor was a political leader in the campaigns for the eight-hour day, rights of women and children, and the call for May Day, so she both drafted and translated the resolutions. Eduard Bernstein described “the superhuman effort” she put into the task that made the gathering of many different language speakers possible. “She was ceaselessly busy, from morning to evening, generally interpreting in three languages. She gave herself no respite, missed no session… doing this thankless, gruelling work: in the truest sense of the word the ‘proletarian’ of the Congress.” Bernstein’s acknowledgement speaks across the centuries to the crucial work of the interpreter and translator to cultural and political internationalism – the importance of which is often unsung.
At the Zurich International in 1893, Eleanor was delegate as well as translator and continued to serve at the internationals of the 1890s. She worked also at other international trade union conferences. Acting as secretary by day, she spent the nights writing full-length political and economic analyses for the international press, which she typed up and submitted in both English and German. Eleanor interpreted, translated and kept verbatim reports, copied from her notes with her ‘machine’.
It is important to remember how vital translation work was to the effectiveness of internationally supported strike campaigns. Eleanor managed several major worldwide strike funds, dealing with contributions from across the globe, including the USA (at the time, most immigrant-led socialist trade unions in the US conducted their business in German).
Her legacy as a literary translator forms part of an integrated whole with her political work. She was a child of German Romanticism and European philosophy, and a radical who believed socialism was about building beauty. Within 12 months between the summers of 1885 and 1886 she started and finished the first English translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and revised a new edition of her former lover Lissagaray’s History of the Commune, in which she had been so instrumental. Like most translators, Eleanor was critical of her own work, but it is still used for new editions and some scholars argue that it stands as one of the best.
Nabokov fulminated about Eleanor’s version, as he did about all others, but it was hers he chose as a set text when teaching the novel. Her challenge was to translate to a tight deadline a writer who spent whole days, sometimes weeks, seeking a single right word, and whose masterpiece is structured through ironic cliché, banality and romantic convention. Impressively, she resolved the question of how to translate le style indirect libre – free indirect speech – in a way that made this radical new way of writing aesthetically meaningful to English readers.
Eleanor translated many significant new literary works, such as her friend Amy Levy’s novel Reuben Sachs about Anglo-Jewry, and the short stories of Alexander Kielland, later acknowledged as one of the Norwegian greats.
Bernstein was correct about Eleanor’s labour ethic. “Laziness is the root of all evil” was a favourite catchphrase. Certainly her ability to burn the candle at both ends is reflected in her prodigious output, of which this is only a snapshot. This aspect of her work provides a reminder of the vital importance of translation and multilingualism to political internationalism in times so threatened by cultural parochialism and the divide-and-rule nationalism it begets.