What is the definitive text of "The Spirits’ Book" by Allan Kardec?

When we started the project of translating Allan Kardec’s books into Chinese, the first question that came up was to determine which editions of his works should be used as source text, starting, naturally, with The Spirits’ Book.

In the case of The Spirits’ Book, the differences between the first edition (1857) and the second (1860) are substantial. The total of numbered questions go from 501, in the first edition, to 1019 questions in the second. When we take into account the additional comments and essays that Kardec included in the second edition, the total size of the book more than doubled.

The second edition established the structure with which readers are familiar today, including the division into four books (or parts), the order of topics covered and the effective number of questions (numbered and unnumbered). Later editions that were released while Kardec was still alive incorporated a number of changes that should be reflected in modern editions and translations as well.

Having begun the translation work in 2017, we analyzed the changes made in subsequent editions, be it digital versions or original copies that we have personally collected over the years.

This effort led us to identify sixteen numbered editions that were released while Kardec was still alive, in addition to a Nouvelle édition released in 1861. It should also be mentioned that the second edition (1860) had a print run that featured 1018 numbered questions (instead of the standard 1019 questions). The seventeenth edition (1869), was released after Kardec’s passing, as can be inferred from the comment in the May 1869 edition of La Revue spirite.

By the time we started the translation of The Spirits’ Book, we had been able to retrieve copies of all the identified editions, except for the seventh, eighth and twelfth editions. After we had already finished the translation of the book (both into English and Chinese) the digital versions of those three editions were finally made available by the National Library of France. As we will see further below, however, the fact that we could only analyze the three missing editions after the translation had been finished, did not require any rework.

We list below all the editions of The Spirits’ Book that came to light between 1857 (first edition) and 1869 (the year of Kardec’s passing), with their respective links, so that readers may also study them:

How many numbered questions are there in The Spirits’ Book?

The first issue we would like to address is the total of numbered questions that exist in The Spirits’ Book, a theme that generates frequent discussions.

At the center of the discussion is the fact that the original French text skips question 1011, and whether or not that number should be attributed to the unnumbered question that immediately follows question 1010.

In a thorough article written for the newspaper Mundo Espírita, from the Spiritist Federation of Paraná, Enrique Baldovino analyzes a copy of the second edition that he understands to be the first run of the second edition of The Spirits’ Book. In this particular run, questions 1012 through 1019 are renumbered, becoming questions 1011-1018. From the second run (of the second edition) onward, the total of numbered questions goes back to 1019.

As the colophons of the copies do not show the dates when they were printed, it is not possible to know which one came out first by simply inspecting them.

It makes sense to assume that the run with 1018 numbered questions came first, because, starting with the third edition (1860), the total of 1019 numbered questions did not change, except for the Nouvelle édition of 1861. This particular edition was apparently released between the fourth and fifth editions, and it once again brought back the total of numbered questions down to 1018, but it is identical to the fourth edition in every other respect.

The fifth edition, in addition to returning to the count of 1019 questions, features an Errata page, which includes a comment about question 1015, which deals with tormented souls (which goes to show that Kardec was likely aware of the numbering issue). Since, from the fifth edition onward, the total of 1019 questions no longer changed, it is reasonable to think that Kardec implicitly assumed that the unnumbered question that follows question 1010 is indeed question 1011, justifying the total of 1019 numbered questions that has prevailed since.

Changes Made to the Text in Later Editions

As our goal was to identify which edition should be considered as the model text for the translation of The Spirits’ Book, we limited our analysis to the comparison of the text of the second edition with that of later editions. The specific comparison between the text of the first and second editions can be found in a very informative article by Gustavo Daré and Vital Ferreira, as well as in the newly released book by Luís Jorge Lira Neto, The Spirits’ Book, a Comparative Analysis, an excellent work which we cannot recommend enough.

Indeed, we looked forward to the release of the latter, to see if the author had identified any changes that might have eluded us. Except for the fact that Luís Jorge Lira Neto had already taken into account the editions that we only had access to after the translation was finished (which did not result in any required rework, as mentioned before), there was not any change which we had not already pointed out in the appendix to our English translation of The Spirits’ Book, released in March 2019.

We list below the all the identified changes, according to the publishing date of each edition:

  • Third edition (1860): On the last page (p. 107, question 222) of chapter five, part 2, a total of four new paragraphs (on the passage of the Gospel of John that describes the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus) are included, in addition to minor modifications made to the previous two paragraphs.
  • Third edition (1860): Kardec added four new paragraphs at the end of his comment to question #613. (pp. 263–264)
  • Fifth edition (1861): In Part 3, Chapter 12 (p. 337), the first section was originally called “Questions morales diverses” until Kardec changed it to “Les vertus et le vices”
  • Fifth edition (1861): In Part 3, chapter 12 (p. 384), question 911, the subjective pronoun of the last sentence of the first period (the sentence after the semicolon) was changed from “ils” to “elles”, as it referred to the word “personnes”, which is feminine in French. This change is not relevant to translated versions, which have always fixed that inconsistency as a matter of course.
  • Fifth edition (1861): Kardec included an Errata page, retained in the 6th edition, but not in later editions.
  • Fifth edition (1861) and eighth edition (1862): Of the changes listed in the Errata page, only the last one (question 586, p. 252, where the phrase “et intuitive” was deleted) was incorporated to the definitive text, starting with the eighth edition. It should be noted that the sixth and seventh editions, released after the initial appearance of the Errata page, did not incorporate the change. In our English edition, we include a facsimile of the Errata page (and its translation) in the form of an appendix. In addition to its historical value, some of the modifications proposed by Kardec in the Errata, discuss very relevant points, even if most of the suggested changes ended up not being incorporated to the final text of later editions.
  • Fifth edition (1861): Kardec modified the comment in parentheses at the end of the answer to question 137 (p. 59). Notice the absence of a closing parenthesis, an oversight that was never corrected in later editions.
  • Fifth edition (1861): In the footnote to question #139 (p. 60), the specific reference to Section II of the Introduction was only included from the fifth edition (1861) onward.
  • Fifth edition (1861): In question 988 (p. 427), the preposition pour (meaning for) was replaced by par (meaning by or for). This hardly changes the overall meaning of the sentence, and has no material impact on versions in other languages, which will change according to how the expression “avoir besoin de faire” is translated.
  • Eighth edition (1862): In the last sentence of his comment to question #51 (p. 20), starting with the eighth edition (1862), Kardec included the appositive comment “et cela avec plus de raison.”
  • Eighth edition (1862): In the answer to the second subquestion of question 218 (last line before question 219 on p. 94), Kardec replaced the initial capital “E” of the word Esprit with a lowercase “e” (esprit). This change has no impact on translated versions, which will seek to preserve consistency with previous occurrences of the word in that particular sense. In our English translation, the word is spelled with a lowercase “s,” in line with every other English version. In Chinese there is no distinction between uppercase and lowercase characters.

To the best of our knowledge, therefore, the text of the eighth edition (1862) appears to not have undergone any further modification made by Kardec, and can probably be considered the model text for future translations. We could only confirm that the text of the eight and ninth editions are identical after our English and Chinese translations (based on the text of the latter) had already been finished.

The fact that the eighth edition can be used as the model text is extremely convenient, as a digital copy of this specific edition can be retrieved directly from the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (which at the time of Kardec was called Bibliothèque imperiale): https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k322467k.pdf?download=1 

Not only it is a document of unquestionable authenticity (it was the very copy that Kardec submitted as the official version of that particular edition), but it is also a high resolution PDF file.

Copy Editing Inconsistencies

In addition to the changes mentioned above, we also needed to deal with a few inconsistencies that exist in the French text (that persisted through all editions of the book):

•             Part 2, Chapter 3: In Section 1, we repeat in the body of the text the full translated section name as it appears in the chapter heading, “L’âme après la mort, son individualité; vie eternelle” (The soul after death and its individuality; eternal life), rather than simply “The soul after death.”

•             Part 2, Chapter 6: In the chapter heading, Section 7 is listed as “Rapports sympathiques et antipathiques des Esprits,” whereas in the text it is appears as “Rapports sympathiques et antipathiques des Esprits. Moitiés éternelles.” We chose to use the longer, more complete translated section name in both places.

•             Part 2, Chapter 7: In the chapter heading, Section 2 is listed as “Union de l’âme et du corps. Avortement,” whereas in the text it appears simply as “Union de l’âme et du corps.” We chose to use the longer, more complete translated section name in both places.

•             Part 2, Chapter 9: The original text contains thirteen sections, but the seventh section, “Pressentiments,” was skipped in the listing at the beginning of the chapter (which consequently included only twelve section names). We included the translated section name in the chapter heading, renumbering the subsequent sections accordingly (Sections 7 to 12 in the French original are thus renumbered 8 to 13 in the translated versions).

•             Part 3, Chapter 1: In the chapter heading, Section 2 is listed as “Source et connaissance de la loi naturelle,” whereas in the text it is appears as “Connaissance de la loi naturelle.” We used the longer, more complete translated section name in both places.

•             Part 4, Chapter 1: In the chapter heading, Section 3 is listed as “Déceptions. Affections Brisées,” whereas in the text it appears as “Déceptions. Ingratitude. Affections Brisées.” We used the longer, more complete translated section name in both places.

•             Part 4, Chapter 2: The original text contains nine sections, but the eighth section, “Résurrection de la chair,” was skipped in the listing at the beginning of the chapter. We included the translated section name in the chapter heading, renumbering the subsequent section accordingly (Section 8 in the heading of the French original is thus renumbered Section 9 in the translated text).

•            In the table of contents of the original French edition, the last section of Chapter 2 of Part 4 is listed as “Paradis, enfer, purgatoire. Paradis perdu. Péché original.” However, in the body of the text, as well as in the chapter heading, that section is called simply “Paradis, enfer, purgatoire.” This discrepancy seems to have remained in all editions of the book until Kardec’s death in 1869. In this instance we considered that between the two options, primacy must go to the section name as it appears in the text.

We do this because sections within each chapter are numbered (using Arabic numerals as in the original) not only in the beginning of each chapter, but also in the body of the text (unlike in the original) for easier reference.

From what we could observe, existing translations do not openly discuss this issue, treating it diversely, either replicating the inconsistencies in the translated text, or sidestepping the issue by numbering sections neither in the chapter header, nor in the body of the text.

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