Le Corbusier, grammar and the city

Translating a manuscript and accompanying essay

A book translation of mine was recently published as Le Corbusier’s Practical Aesthetic of the City: The treatise ‘La Construction des villes’ of 1910/11. This was a complex translation project!

To begin with, it’s worth noting that the manuscript was written when Le Corbusier was known by his birth name: Charles-Edouard Jeanneret. He began writing it because his teacher at art school asked him to prepare a study on the current state of city planning. The project expanded until the planned study had become a 600-page book in draft form, yet Jeanneret did not end up publishing the manuscript.

The publication saga began much later, after Le Corbusier’s death. American historian Harold Allen Brooks discovered 250 pages of the abandoned manuscript in Switzerland in the late 1970s. Swiss architect Marc Emery published these in French in 1992. In the late 1990s, a German PhD candidate, Christoph Schnoor, discovered another 350 handwritten pages of the same manuscript – which was then reassembled. Schnoor published this commercially in Switzerland in 2008, alongside his own analysis of it. The new Routledge edition contains this analysis plus the full manuscript, both in English for the first time.

The author asserts that La Construction des villes represents some of Le Corbusier’s most successful writing. My aim was to achieve a careful translation into English of this important manuscript, which Le Corbusier never published, and the essay about it. Both would extend current knowledge about his work to readers of English.

The manuscript and essay combine to show that, when working on his manuscript, the young Le Corbusier studied space in urban areas; this taught him new ways of seeing space in terms of architecture, which in turn informed his later work. He also developed a ‘grammar of the city’, breaking it down into individual constituent parts.

La Construction des villes is remarkable as it shows Le Corbusier’s intellectual influences and documents the contemporary discourse. Le Corbusier emphasises the idea of space in the city as a prerequisite for aesthetic urban planning – this is noteworthy since he later reversed his position. Le Corbusier ultimately abandoned the manuscript, partly because he wasn’t satisfied that it was sufficiently avant-garde.

There are several reasons why translating this manuscript was particularly complicated. It quotes from numerous sources, some referenced and some not. Aspects of the French manuscript remained somewhat opaque. Some areas were unclear because the manuscript remained unfinished. Other challenges included the use of terms specific to Swiss French, and language interference from the German Jeanneret is quoting from.

It was also a challenge to properly pick out Jeanneret’s unique voice from among all the references, and convey this in my English translation. I was delighted to be able to attend the Translating History workshop, where I gained insights into the manuscript from native speakers of French and English, both history scholars and translators. Christoph Schnoor’s translation of the same material into German was also very useful as reference material.

Translating the essay about the manuscript, written by Christoph Schnoor, required a different and perhaps more conventional approach. He had commissioned the translation and was available to answer queries on the project. And as luck would have it, he works in and English-language environment in New Zealand, so had ready access to subject-specific colleagues and reference materials.

Further information

If you are interested in reading a bit more about this translation project, there’s a video of me reading from both essay and manuscript on the Translators Aloud YouTube channel. Pages 7-10 of the preview pdf provide more information about the decisions taken when translating the manuscript. The book itself and other information are available on the publisher’s website. My article about the use of terminology when translating La Construction des villes, In pursuit of the intangible, was published in the French translators’ association journal Traduire as À la poursuite de l’intangible.