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This post comes from a comment Dirinella left me on one of my recent posts:
vielleicht kannst Du (oder andere) helfen, und zwar bei der Übersetzung des deutschen Begriffs “Wirklichkeit”. Das englische “real” trifft es leider überhaupt nicht, denn Wirklichkeit oder “das Wirkliche” sagt nur aus, dass etwas Wirkung hat, auch ohne dabei real sein zu müssen.
Ähnliche Schwierigkeiten ergeben sich auch bei den im Deutschen durchaus präzisen Begriffen “Gestalt” und “Gefüge”.
Hast Du Vorschläge?
To sum up, Dirinella wanted me to help find English translations of the German words Wirklichkeit, Gestalt, and Gefüge, as she finds these three particularly difficult to translate. When I started replying to Dirinella’s comment, I realised that my answer was too much to squeeze into a comment box, so I decided to make a post out of it. I won’t lie – these words are more complex than the usual words I translate on here (it took me a while to get my head around Gestalt, for one thing) but I wanted to challenge myself and give it a go. Here is what I came up with.
The Harrap’s dictionary translation of Wirklichkeit is ‘reality’. It then translates In Wirklichkeit to ‘in actual fact.’
There is confusion here because ‘reality’ is considered subjective, whereas ‘fact’ is not. As Dirinella points out, translating Wirklichkeit as ‘real’ is not accurate enough because „Wirklichkeit oder “das Wirkliche” sagt nur aus, dass etwas Wirkung hat, auch ohne dabei real sein zu müssen.“ (“Wirklichkeit or ‚das Wirkliche‘ only says that something is in effect, without it having to be real”).
So does it mean ‘reality’ or not? A distinction is often made between Wirklichkeit and Realität (which, confusingly, also translates to ‘reality’). The distinction is that Wirklichkeit concerns hard facts, and actuality. Realität, on the other hand, is as it looks: it means ‘reality’; and reality is considered subjective from one person to another. In other words, Wirklichkeit is considered similar to objectivity, while Realität is closer to subjectivity.
However, it is common to say “wirklich?” as an exclamation meaning “really?”, which suggests that Wirklichkeit also refers to reality, or your perception of it.
Although ‘actuality’ is probably more in line with its facual nature, I think both ‘reality’ and ‘actuality’ are acceptable translations, because even in English the meaning of those terms are often debated, as you can see. Sometimes it is not the word itself, but the stigma around its meaning that makes a word difficult to translate!
This is a tricky one.
The Harrap’s dictionary translates Gestalt as ‘build; shape; form’. The verb ‘gestaltigen’ is translated as ‘to form/shape someone/something’s personality; to create; to arrange; to organise’.
I have also seen it translated as ‘The essence or shape of an entity’s complete form’.
The word Gestalt is best known in the English language in accordance with Gestalt psychology.
The way I understand Gestalt is: When you put lots of individual elements together to create something (a ‘whole’), that thing takes on a new life that has nothing to do with the elements used to create it. For instance, a song has Gestalt because of its meaning, though that meaning has nothing to do with the individual letters, notes and instruments used to make it. The song takes on new life once it has been created.
For that reason, I think the word ‘characteristic’ might be appropriate to describe Gestalt. For instance, when saying that something has ‘good gestalt’ you may be implying that it has ‘good characteristics’.
The English phrase ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ is also appropriate.
However, Gestalt is a term now used in the English language, which hints that there is actually no equivalent in English, and that it might just be impossible to translate!
The Harrap’s dictionary translates Gefüge as ‘structure’. However, the word ‘structure’ has a very broad definition, so let me explain it in more detail.
Other words used as a translation of Gefüge are: framework, structure, system, formation, makeup of, fabric of. What that means is that the word Gefüge can be used to describe physical things, such as the composition of metal, or abstract things, such as the ‘structure’ of society.
One example sentence is:
Das wirtschaftliche und soziale Gefüge eines Staates: A country’s economic and social fabric (structure/makeup/formation).
I think that ‘structure’ is a pretty accurate definition in this case. The only thing is that the word ‘structure’ has many definitions and many appropriate synonyms, so it may seem a bit vague.
What I have learnt from writing this post is that some words are difficult to translate because the meanings of those words are ambiguous, subjective, or otherwise complex in themselves.
So here’s my little language-learning tip for the day: If you come across a word in German that you’re having difficulty translating and/or understanding, try to think about why that might be (ie. what is it about the word that makes it difficult?), instead of getting frustrated with yourself for ‘not being able to do it’. You never know – there may be a reason why you can’t find a clear definition for it. You may not come to any solid conclusions, but you will probably learn a lot more than you bargained for!
Finally, Thank you to Dirinella for providing these words. I hope I have managed to shed even a little bit of light on them. Of course, if anyone has any more advanced insights, please do leave a comment!
Bis zum nächsten Mal – Until next time!