The Influence of Translations in Philosophy: The Case of the Tractatus

You know that famous last line of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”? That’s not quite what he said, according to Damion Searls, whose new translation of the book comes out this month. It was more like,  “We mustn’t try to say what cannot be said.”

[Note: This was originally posted on February 15, 2024, 8:15am, but was lost when a problem on February 17th, 2024 required the site to be reset. I’m reposting it on February 18th with its original publication date, but I’m sorry to report that the lively, interesting, and critical discussion that took place in the comments may have been lost; I’m looking into the matter.]

And the book’s famous first line, “The world is everything that is the case”?  That’s like translating “Yup, I’m sick” as “It is the case that I am sick.” A better translation would be, “The world is everything there is.”

In an essay at Words Without Borders, Searls discusses the “normalcy” of his translation, and how odd its normalcy sounds compared to the well-known translation owed to “credited translator” Charles Kay Ogden and “actual translator” Frank Ramsey.

Searls says:

Overall, the language of my new translation makes more sense than the Ogden version. Such normalcy might be off-putting to anyone who knows and loves the Tractatus in English already, but this is indeed how Wittgenstein originally sounded, even the Wittgenstein of much of the Tractatus

The formality and weirdness of the writing of the Ogden translation, Searls argues, is in part owed to a failure to appreciate how differently German and English work:

The German reliance on nouns is why English translations of German philosophy can be so turgid: complicated nouns with bland or impersonal verbs don’t capture in English the precision and intensity of the German, they clog it up and slow it down. You don’t want to say in English that an object “has a usefulness-nature that allows it to be . . . ,” you want to say “people use it to . . . ,” with a human subject and active main verb (“people use it,” not “it has a quality”)… the temptation among academic philosophy translators is to be extra-literal about the nouns, especially in crucial moments of the German, precisely where the English most needs verbal energy.

[W]e find the Tractatus full of sentences like “The possibility of a state of affairs is contained in a proposition about that state of affairs.” This “possibility” is expressed as a noun—compare Mann’s “independence” and “self-sufficiency”—but it doesn’t belong as a noun in English: the sentence means “You can’t have a proposition without the state of affairs it describes beingpossible.” In other words, the proposition implies or presupposes that what it states is possible, even if it turns out not to be actually true. To avoid the direc­tionality of either “implies” (a proposition yields a possibility) or “presupposes” (the possibility yields the proposition), I use the word “entails”: “A proposition entails that the state of affairs it describes is possible.”…

[T]he English translation of the Tractatus credited to C. K. Ogden and approved by Wittgenstein is inadequate. Per­haps in the grip of Wittgenstein’s model of language, Ogden (or Frank Ramsey) does indeed, as it were, replace every “Möglichkeit” with “possibil­ity” and leave it at that. The translation very often preserves the incessant nominalization, passive syntax, and inverted word order that are fine in German but confusing and bad writ­ing in English.

Here are some examples of that “bad writing” and Searls’ new translation:

Ogden 3.1: In the proposition the thought is expressed perceptibly through the senses.
Searls 3.1: A thought is expressed, and made perceivable by the senses, in a proposition.

Ogden 3.13: To the proposition belongs every­thing which belongs to the projection.
Searls 3.13: Everything that is part of the projection is part of the proposition.

Ogden 4.0641: The denying proposition deter­mines a logical place other than does the proposition denied.
Searls 4.0641: The negating proposition defines a logical place that is different from the negated proposition’s.

Ogden 4.466: To no logical combination corre­sponds no combination of the objects.
Searls 4.466: There is no logical combination to which no combination of objects corresponds.

Ogden 5.3: According to the nature of truth-operations, in the same way as out of elemen­tary propositions arise their truth-functions, from truth-functions arises a new one.
Searls 5.3: Elementary propositions produce truth-functions and truth-functions produce a new truth-function in the same way: this is the nature of truth-operations.

Searls knows that his translation will have to contend with “the prevalent idea that the English which Wittgenstein saw and approved is his—that the Ogden version is the book Wittgenstein himself wrote.” To this he responds:

The fact that Wittgenstein approved the translation of Bild as “picture” doesn’t mean that “picture” is what he was really saying: his English wasn’t good enough to make that decision. Any literary translator of living authors into a widely known language like English will have had the experience of an author who knows the translating language more or less well trying to meddle in the translation and insist on saying things a certain way, despite it often being not quite right. If the author has repeated a term, for instance, they will have had a powerful lived experience of using “the same word” each time; they are likely to underesti­mate the extent to which words in the other language create a kind of Venn diagram with the original word (cf. “book” and “livre”), and they will want the same English word for a usage of the original word in the nonoverlapping sliver of its circle (cf. “I have read all the books”). The translator has to insist on his or her feel for the translating language; in the end, the author isn’t writing a book in English, the translator into English is writing a book in English. For all of Wittgenstein’s stature and genius, I nonetheless include him among this perfectly ordi­nary class of not fully bilingual authors, whose input into the translation is not gospel and whose judgment of a translation is often plain wrong. Meanwhile, Ogden and the book’s other translators were operating in an academic framework of trans­lation that didn’t attend to the different ways English and Ger­man work—for instance, the different amounts of dynamism in a Bild and a picture. Decades of accrued tradition, of philosophy professors and their students grappling with the English of the Ogden version and building arguments and interpretations upon it, don’t change these facts, although of course they do make it harder to accept that the existing translation is flawed.

The whole article is here.

It would be interesting to hear both what Wittgenstein scholars think of all this and of other examples of significant philosophical works whose influence is in part bound up with (supposedly) faulty translation.


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Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
2 months ago

Reposting my comment

It seems to me that there is an anti Kantian ambiguity in the last line of the Tractatus that is captured by Ramsey but is missing in Searls. Here is the German text:

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. 

Here is Ramsey’s almost word-for word translation:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. 

And here is Searls

We mustn’t try to say what cannot be said

I suggest that in the original and in Ramsey’s translation, the ‘muss’/‘must’ is ambiguous between an alethic and a deontic reading. Is Wittgenstein saying that we *ought* to be silent about the we cannot speak about or that it is *necessary* that we be silent about what we cannot speak about? I think the text is ambiguous and indeed equivocal, a point that is preserved in Ramsey’s translation and to lesser extent in Pears/McGuinness’s less pithy ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’. (For what it is worth the ambiguity is also preserved in Gauker’s suggested “One must be silent about those things of which one cannot speak”.) But Searls plumps for the deontic reading – we must not *try* to say what cannot be said. This converts what may be an alleged impossibility into a prohibition, or an equivocal impossibility/prohibition into an unambiguous prohibition. Either way it seems to me an obvious mistranslation of Wittgenstein’s text. If I am right about this – and I stand to be corrected by the native German speakers – and if it is like this all the way through, then Searls translation can be safely dismissed.

Okay, now why do I say that the ambiguity is anti-Kantian? Kant subscribes to two principles that might be construed as a threat to No-Ought-From-Is in their contrapositive forms: Ought-Implies-Can and Ought-Implies-Not-Necessary.  Now consider the last line again. On the alethic reading what Wittgenstein is saying is that what we cannot speak about, we necessarily *do not* speak about, which means presumably that we are necessarily ‘silent’ about it. So long as not speaking about something is equivalent to being silent about it, this is, of course true. But Searls is at least right in detecting a prohibitive push in Wittgenstein’s dictum. Wittgenstein *also* seems to be saying that if we cannot speak about something then we *ought not* speak about it. . But if Kant is correct, this just does not follow. Indeed the reverse holds. If we cannot do something – if it is necessary that we don’t do it – then is not obligatory for us not to do it.  We can’t speak about what we can’t speak about, but it doesn’t follow that we *should* not speak about what we can’t speak about. Indeed for Kant it *does* follow that it is NOT the case that we should not speak about what we cannot speak about. 

Now an obvious objection is that there is a missing qualifier in Wittgensteins dictum that is implicitly understood. What he is saying is that what we cannot *meaningfully* speak about, we must be silent about. (I am not sure which equivalent of ‘meaningfully” would be the correct one in German.) Now obviously what we cannot meaningfully talk about we necessarily do not meaningfully talk about. But it does not follow that we are silent about it in the ordinary sense of the words, but only that what we say about it will not be genuinely meaningful. So if Wittgenstein is saying that we ought not talk bout what we cannot talk about meaningfully, his prohibition is not knocked out by Ought-Implies-Not-Necessary. Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that the prohibition derives rhetorical support from the tautological claims , wrapped up in the same dictum, that we cannot talk about what we cannot talk about or that we cannot meaningfully talk about what we cannot meaningfully talk about.  

2 months ago

I believe that it is important to discuss the merits of translations of German philosophy into English. Yet I would find it important to highlight the institutional issues of translations. How much funding is available for translations? How much do we value the work that goes into translations? Here I think of both the craft of translators (a notoriously precarious and underpaid job) and the recognition of editorial work. Doing editorial work doesn’t count much when it comes to applications, tenure, or promotion. Yet it’s the collaboration between editor and translator that makes or breaks a translation. But I would even go deeper: I observe a disregard, maybe even contempt of formal qualities in academic philosophy. Translation is about form, not only content. Who cares about writing well in academia? How many real books (not compilations of previously published papers, as is common now, especially at the top presses) are published in philosophy? To sum up, I find two things important when we discuss about translations in philosophy: 1. the institutional value of the work that goes into translations; 2. the appreciation of the aesthetic value of philosophical writing.