Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

Inquiry into the french translation that added the term "équilibre" (equilibrium) to the Wealth of Nations.

Justine Loulergue, Centre Walras-Pareto (Lausanne University); Centre d'économie de la Sorbonne (Paris 1)

This paper starts with the observation that although the word “equilibrium” only appears once in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, many different expressions have been rendered in French by “équilibre” in Germain Garnier’s translation of this masterpiece (1802), and many explanations use this word in the critical apparatus. Germain Garnier’s translation spreads all across Europe, either to be read directly in French or to be used as a basis for retranslating Smith’s work into other languages–French was more commonly read than English at that time. Garnier’s translation has quickly been republished and took the lead over any other French translation until Paulette Taieb’s in 1995. Hence, all French readers have read the Wealth of Nations with the notion of “équilibre” in mind, though it was extremely secondary in Smith. This paper compares the original to the translation, in order to show the reduction from Smith’s very rich and complex semantical scope to the semantic of one single–though powerful–term. Adding the word “équilibre” to Smith influences a French reader’s understanding of the Wealth of Nations. In 1802 and until the second third of the XIXth century, “équilibre” was not an acknowledged concept in French economics, but was only in the process of becoming so. This translation accompanies such a process.


Keywords: equilibrium; équilibre; Adam Smith; French political economy; Germain Garnier