On “Deutsche Sprache und Philosophie”: A Small Inquiry about German Language and Philosophy

By James

Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.

“The limit of my language is the limit of my world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Recently I have developed a habit of reading German every day, aside from two once-a-week lessons I am having at the university. Despite little idea whether my Deutsch excels more than it was three months ago, apparently the formation of German words and sentence structure appears to me more functional, and purer than those of other European languages. Each Zusammensetzung (compound of word), as though being made up of Lego bricks, can be broken down into two or more words. For example, Umstand (circumstance) can be separated into um and Stand, the former of which signifies “around” while the latter of which can mean “status” or “stand”. Astonishingly “status/stand around us” explains exactly the connotation of Umstand. Another instance includes Unsterblichkeit which can either be decomposed into Un- and sterben (to die), or into Un- and sterblich (moral). Literally and possibly translated as “un-dead” or “not mortal”, the word has “immortality” as its English equivalent. A bit exaggerating as it seems, I come to believe, nonetheless, the impressive logicality of this Indo-Germanic language is perhaps one of the reasons why Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), a great German philosopher in the 18th century, could develop his Kategorien des Denkens (Category of Thoughts) in which he distinguishes analytisches Urteil – analytical judgement – from synethtisches Urteil – synthetic judgement in terms of human knowledge.

Viewed in this light, language does play such a big part in shaping people’s thoughts that unless one becomes able to think as a German does, s/he might find comprehending its culture and philosophy strenuous. Once a German friend of mine asked aus Neugier if I started concurrently learning both German literature and language, or I read literature in translation first, and acquired the language later. Frankly I replied, that I preferred and did learn Deutsch until my linguistic competence allowed me to read, however langsamer Leser – slow reader – I am. Of course a possible option to me would be to read Die Leiden des Werthers – The Sorrow of Werther – in English or Chinese, but always I frowned in distaste whenever someone advised me to read in translation. I feels like Goethe either becomes an Englishman, or wears traditional Chinese garment. How extremely incongruous that is!

But I have no intention to disavow the contribution of all translators, for I myself once studied the technique of translation, and am working on translating few pieces of literary works, too. Readers, nonetheless, should bear in mind from time to time, that those translated works they flip through, are reflections, over rough, bumpy surfaces, of the original. An avid, good reader should be motivated, after finishing the translated piece, to learn the language to enable himself to know more, or he is disqualified to talk about it. Yes, Nicht mehr qualifiert!

P.S.: Below is my translation attempt of Paul Celan. While reading the English version, I hope you will be inspired to find the true meaning in its origin.


—————–Paul Celan (1920 – 1950)

Eyes in eyes, in coolness

let us thus begin like that:


let us breathe the veil

which hides us from each other,

if the dusk prepares itself to measure

the distance still borne,

from every form she expects,

among all forms,

the two of which she loaned to us.



—————–Paul Celan (1920 – 1950)

Aug in Aug, in der Kühle,

laß uns auch solches beginnen:


laß uns atmen den Schleier,

der uns voreinander verbirgt,

wenn der Abend sich anschickt zu messen,

wie weit es noch ist

von jeder Gestalt, die er annimmt,

zu jeder Gestalt,

die er uns beiden geliehn.[1]

[Translated from German on 13th May, 2016; Photo taken by James on 15th Nov, 2015]

[1] Paul Celan. Choix de poèmes : réunis par l’auteur (Édition bilingue) Jean- Pierre Lefebvre. Galliard (1967) p. 86 – 87.


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