I was trying to read Rousseau's The Social Contract and Discourses. On archive.org I found a copy of the Everyman's Library version translated by G.D.H. Cole (1913). However, on amazon.com, a reviewer says that

Cole was sympathetic toward Rousseau's political theories, which makes for good translation, but not a very objective analysis. In my opinion, Cole completely misunderstands the implications of Rousseau's invocation of the General Will, which perhaps with some distortion by later readers, has been responsible for many of the social-political disasters of the past two hundred years...

Is there any English translation of the book that is widely considered as accurate and fluent? I had tried to read the Penguin version translated by Maurice Cranston. While I had no idea how accurate the translation was, I did find it a bit hard to read.


One issue that commonly occurs with translations of works in philosophy is that there are often "old translations" -- which you'll readily find in print because they are outside of copyright. In general, these translations lack awareness of which terms are philosophically important. Moreover, they are often hard to follow and sometimes skip over major sections of the text.

There are two presses that tend to specialize in translations:

  1. Hackett specializes in contemporary translations that are very inexpensive for students and sufficiently good to teach the issues. I've used their Plato, Aristotle, and Analects (Confucius) translations. In your case, their translation of Rousseau is: https://www.hackettpublishing.com/on-the-social-contract.

  2. Cambridge university press is the gold standard for high quality translations for use in scholarly philosophical research. They've managed versions of Kant's work, Hegel's works, and others from the modern period that I highly recommend. In your case, their work is https://www.amazon.com/Rousseau-Contract-Political-Writings-Cambridge/dp/0521424461 .

There are of course other good translations out there, but it's always good to start with one of these two depending on your goals.


Cole was sympathetic towards Rousseaus political ideas which makes for a good translation

This suggests then that this is a good translation as Cole has all the virtues of a good translator, a good and fluent command of both languages and an appreciation of the ideas and language at stake. What else does one require?

but not a very objective analysis

This confuses the job of translator and critic; a critic surveys the ideas against those of others (and sometimes, rarely, his own), he relies on the work of sympathetic translators and the work of other critics and commentators. It's not really a criticism of Cole to say that his translation is not objective. One does not require a translation and a translator to be objective but to have fidelity towards the originary text. However, it is true that one ought to read around a text, to get a fuller picture of the issues at stake, but one would hardly expect to find a full picture of this even in the introduction of a major translation.

  • Thank you. I interpreted the first block quote as follows: Cole understood Rousseau's ideas very well. In this respect, he was in a better position to translate Rousseau's works. However, I wasn't sure whether the second block quote referred to Cole's translation or Cole's somewhat lengthy (over forty pages) introduction in the book. Hence my question. – user1551 Jan 17 at 3:24

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