Friday, November 08, 2013

The German Self, The German Soul: Notes on Ambiguity and Translation

One of the things I like about teaching at a liberal arts college is the way the small scale of the place throws me together with people from other departments.  The things I've learned about communications theory and intellectual history from such encountershave always felt like the secret weapons in my critical arsenal. Alvin Gouldner, for example, may be one of the heroes of communications, but hardly anyone in literary studies cites him, and I was able to import his insights into my own field and land an article in a very fancy journal indeed.

Recently, I've been privy to a discussion between a colleague of mine in Asian Studies and a professor of German about the words "soul" and "self" in Hilda Rosner's translation of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha.  My Germanist colleague, Richard Fisher, was kind enough to allow me to reproduce some of his comments on the meaning of various German words that might be translated as self and soul—comments that go beyond mere issues of translation to get at the language, and linguistic technique, of German philosophical and theological writings.  Here is how the tremendously learned Fisher addressed the question:

[This is] a perenially interesting and vexed question, as many German concepts are a bit slippery in English, that is they can be ambiguous or ambivalent. This is because these concepts are already multi-valent in German, being lexically 'diverse' and for precise connotation depending a lot on specific context. To communicate intention, connotation and the penumbra of meanings is part of the translator's job, but this will always involve choices and, likely, compromise to render into English. So, atman will be mediated at least twice before appearing in an English context as self or soul.
The German word for soul is 'Seele'; the word for self is das 'Selbst' or 'das Ich' (ego). When it comes to palingenesis [reincarnation] or anything metaphysical, the terms, contexts and meanings are all over the place, depending in part on which aspect is stressed. The word 'Geist' is a good example: it can mean mind (as in the Greek noos or nous), spirit, intellect, sense, ghost, anything numinous or epiphenomenal or paranormal; but, with a bit of literary leeway, it might also mean 'the mind's eye' or 'soul' or 'self' or 'character' or 'inner life' etc. 
This polyvalency is dear to Hesse, and all German writers, because very often more than one meaning is intended, but which particular set of meanings is not linguistically specified--so the term retains, intentionally, a flexible range of meanings not strictly delimited--that's part of what Geist means--but all these meaning explicitly also contain and imply not being their opposites: matter, materiality, corporeality, substance, tangibility, concreteness, sensual reality etc. Importantly, Seele and Geist are also seen as modes of perception or apperception.
All Germans are dialecticians, so das Ich or das Selbst also implicate, by negation, the non-self or not-Self. And these slippery terms and pairings are, of course, everywhere in Hesse, notably among the novels also in Narziss and Goldmund, his medieval incarnation of the spirit-matter dichotomy or polarity. 
As with Hegel and Kant, translators make it easier for non-German readers by making the choice among denotations, and reserving the discussion of ambiguities for learned footnotes. In a way, the German terms do not want to be pinned down (Goethe uses the term 'bephählen' or hitting the bull's eye when talking about Schiller) making the suggestiveness richer, more complex, and less determinate; in English we seem to think and visualize more concretely, and find this cloud of extra meanings a bit vague and unclear, whereas for German readers this haze is part of exactly a not-unclear but multi-dimensional set of references. Seele or Geist immediately confront a reader with the entire metaphysical panoply of existence--a bit like quantum mechanics--but in English the terms are more circumscribed, more on the order of organs in the body or the abstract regions of an otherwise tangible-concrete or substantive hierarchy. 
So yes, the meanings of soul and self in German can often spill over into each other, but the contexts can render the degree or direction of this overlapping quite variously. Specifically Christian meanings can usually be detected by context, and in fact represent a narrowing of the otherwise amorphous, even aniconic use of the term in poetry and philosophy or speculation. For Hesse, the soul is not only that reflective part, capable of transcendence or salvation or communion with the divine, but also an autonomous entity partaking in the dynamic of all existence, phenomenal and numinous, spiritual and corporeal--and the same for the self. These are, a priori, epistemological terms in German, and not static states or entities. 
Some English readers will share this expansive, delimiting German understanding; others will find the terms fuzzy or messy.


  1. The remark about all Germans being dialecticians is pretty extreme, but I'm actually quite skeptical about the whole thing: I dislike the way it seems to imply that German words are especially ambiguous. My students are translating C. Dale Young into German, and words like "mind" and "soul" are just as fuzzy in English as they are in German! And fuzziest of all is the way that "things" is used in English, in ways that simply cannot be translated as "Dinge" or "Sachen."

    I'll probably get dismissed as someone who finds this supposed feature of German "fuzzy and messy," but this glorification of German's supposed "expansive" nature appears to ignore how other languages also use their words in wide-ranging ways that make straightforward translation by one term in every context problematic.

    1. I can't dismiss you, or Richard, having no German myself. I hope someday to have both of you nearby -- one at each elbow as I sit at a bar, perhaps — and listen in as you hash things out.

    2. I agree with him that Geist is a tricky word to translate, but disagree with him about its being a special case, or something special about German itself.

  2. hi its great and its amazing how simple to communicate with people and have them understand a certain topic like , you made my day.

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