Wittgenstein and the Question of Poetic Translatability

“But Isn’t The Same at least the Same?”:

Wittgenstein and the Question of Poetic Translatability

Marjorie Perloff

in The Literary Wittgenstein, ed. John Gibson and Wolfgang Huemer (eds.), (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 34-54. Trans. In Wittgenstein und die Literatur, trans. Martin Sahr (Suhrkamp, 2006): 58-83.

—The only way to do philosophy is to do everything twice.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, LWL: 75

—Poetry is a sort of inspired mathematics.

Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance, 14

We usually think of the “poetic” as that which cannot fully translate, that which is uniquely embedded in its particular language. The poetry of Rainer Marie Rilke is a case in point. The opening line of the Duino Elegies Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus den Engel Ordnungen? —has been translated into English literally dozens of times, but, as William Gass points out in his recent Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, none of the translations seem satisfactory. Here are a few examples:

J. B. Leishman (1930) Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders? A. J. Poulin (1977) And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those angelic orders? Stephen Cohn (1989) Who, if I cried out, would hear me—among the ranked Angels?

Gass is very critical of these translations, but his own is, to my ear, no better: “ Who if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions of Angels?” (Gass 57-8). The difficulty, as I have suggested elsewhere, (Perloff 2001 91-3) is that English syntax does not allow for the dramatic suspension of Wer, wenn ich schriee. . . and that the noun phrase Engel Ordnungen, which in German puts the stress, both phonically and semantically, on the angels themselves rather than their orders or hierarchies or dominions, defies effective translation. Moreover, Rilke’s line contains the crucial and heavily stressed word denn (literally “then”), which here has the force of “Well, then” or, in contemporary idiom, “So,” as in “So, who would hear me if I cried out. . .?” But “So” sounds too casual in the context of Rilke’s urgent meditation, and translators have accordingly tended to elide the word denn completely, thus losing the immediacy of the question. And further: denn rhymes with wenn as well as with the first two syllables of den En-gel, the rhyme offsetting the intentionally contorted sound of the verb sequence schriee, hörte so as to create a dense sonic network which is inevitably lost in translation. The same holds true when the German-into-English process is reversed. Here, for example, is the famous fifth stanza of Robert Lowell’s Skunk Hour


One dark night, my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull; I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down, they lay together, hull to hull, where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . My mind’s not right. (Hesse & Ickstadt 374)

Manuel Pfister translates this as follows:

In einer dunklen Nacht erklomm mein Tudor-Ford des Hügels Schädel; ich hielt Ausschau nach Liebesautos. Scheinwerfer ausgeschaltet, lagen sie beieinander, Rumpf by Rumpf, wo der Friedhof such zur Stadt neigt. . . . Mein Geist ist wirr. (Hesse & Ickstadt 375)

This strikes me as a perfectly intelligent translation, without any of the obvious glitches we find in, say, William Gass’s rendering of Rilke’s Ich verginge von seinem stärkeren Dasein as “I would fade in the grip of that completer existence,” or Stephen Cohn’s, “I would die of the force of his being” (Gass 62-3). But what eludes Pfister is Lowell’s particular tone. “One dark night,” for starters, has a fairy-tale quality (as in “Once upon a time”) that gives an ironic edge to the reference to St. John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul”—a quality lost in the German In einer dunklen Nacht.. In line 2, the pun on “Tudor (“two-door”) Ford disappears even though Pfister retains the absurdly pretentious brand name. And his rendition of the third line is at once too specific and too long-winded: Lowell’s casual “I watched” becomes the emphatic Ich hilt Ausschau , and Scheinwerfer ausgeschaltet (“headlights turned off”) does not allow for the resonance of “lights” or of “turned down,” which here connotes beds as well as the lights themselves. In the next line, the image of love-cars lying together Rumpf bei Rumpf is that of the trunks of two bodies or torsos locked together. But the punning “Hull to hull,” is more sinister, referring as it does to empty vessels as well as to empty plant husks. Love making, in this context, is itself a form of death. And the death motif is underscored in the next line, where the verb “shelves” suggests that the graveyard is emptying its contents (the dead) on the town itself. The force of “shelves” is dissipated in the German neigt, which means “inclines” or “bends.” Finally, “My mind’s not right” is not just the poet’s cri de Coeur but an allusion to Satan’s jealous response when he spies Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. Thus, although Pfister’s translation—Mein Geist ist wirr –is accurate enough, the ironic self-deprecation of the poet-voyeur is absent. Then, too, Lowell’s semantically charged rhyming lines—“One dark night” / my mind’s not right”, or again, the rhyme “hill’s skull”/ “hull to hull”—have no counterpart in Pfister’s unrhymed version. Translation, it seems, inevitably involves such slippage of meaning, especially in the case of poetry. Why is it, then, that the modernist philosopher perhaps most sensitive to such slippage, the philosopher who insisted that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (TLP §5.6), that indeed “Language is not contiguous to anything else” (LWL 112), is read around the world in dozens of different languages, without much concern as to the translatability of his propositions? I am speaking, of course, of Wittgenstein, whose writings on how words mean are not only judged to be reasonably translatable but were originally known—indeed largely continue to be known— not in the author’s own German, but in the English of his Cambridge translators—G. H. Von Wright, G. E. M. Anscombe, Alice Ambrose, Rush Rhees—years before his native Austria took him quite seriously. Then, too, most of these “writings” were not “writings” at all but transcriptions of Wittgenstein’s Cambridge lectures as recorded by his students—lectures or, rather, “remarks” delivered in Wittgenstein’s rather awkward, non-idiomatic English. Yet volumes of analysis have been based on such sentences as “A picture held us captive,” where “picture” is not the only (or even necessarily the most adequate) translation of the German word Bild. Do the “limits of language,” as Wittgenstein construed them, then have nothing to do with the actual language being used? The answer is perhaps so obvious that we don’t usually take it into account. In formulating his aphoristic propositions, Wittgenstein is not interested in connotation, nuance, or in word choice based on considerations of rhythm and sound, but in the uses of the denotative properties of words, phrases, and particular syntactic constructions. Hence, although, as in the case of any discourse, there are more and less adequate translations—translations that render as fully as possible the author’s intended meaning—Wittgenstein’s propositions are by no means untranslatable in the sense that Rilke’s Duino Elegies or Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” are untranslatable. Consider the following from the facing pages (German-English) of Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe in 1958:

Warum kann ein Hund nicht Schmerzen heucheln? Ist er zu ehrlich? Könnte man einen Hund Schmerzen heucheln lehren? (PI §250) Why can’t a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest. Could one teach a dog to simulate pain?

Or again:

Warum kann meine rechte Hand nicht meiner linken Geld schenken?— Meine rechte Hand kann es in meine linke geben. Meine rechte Hand kann eine Schenkungsurkunde schreiben und meine linke eine Quittung.— Aber die weitern praktischen Folgen wären nicht die einer Schenkung (PI §268) Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money?—My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt. — But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift.

And, for good measure, here is §268 in French, as translated by Jacques Bouveresse:

Pourquoi ma main droite ne peut-elle pas faire don d’une somme d’argent à ma main gauche?— Ma main droite peut rédiger un acte de donation et ma main gauche un reçu.— Mais les conséquences partiques ultérieures ne seraient pas celles d’une donation. (Bouveresse 464)

In such cases, the issue is neither the connotative power of synonymous words (the difference between “orders of angels,” “hierarchies of angels” or “angel dominions”), nor syntactic suspension, as in Rilke’s opening construction Wer, wenn ich schriehe. . . ,” nor punning as in Lowell’s “they lay together hull to hull.” Rather, Wittgenstein is demonstrating the difficulties of pinning down the meanings of even the most ordinary, everyday words, such as believe, hope, give, pain, right, and left. If, as the central Wittgensteinian aphorism would have it, Die Bedeutung eines Wortes ist sein Gebrauch in der Sprache (“The meaning of a word is its use in the language,” PI §43), then these words have no fixed denotative meaning, but depend largely on the context in which they appear. If my right hand puts money into your left hand I am giving you something. But if the left hand is my own, the act of putting money into it is may be no more than a nervous habit, rather like playing with rubber bands. For both hands are mine and so the verb “to give” ( schenken, faire don ) does not seem applicable. Again, the word “pain” (Schmerzen) is one we all use regularly, but its simulation—perfectly understandable to a young child, who may well simulate pain so as to get attention or avoid having to do something—cannot be performed by a dog. And this is the case, whether the language in question is German, English, French, or Chinese. The logical implication of the distinction I have been drawing is that poetry is that which deals with the connotative and tropical power of words and the rhythmic and sonic quality of phrases and sentences, whereas philosophy (literally “the love of wisdom”) involves the conceptual and abstract language of making meaningful propositions. What, then—and this is my subject here—can Wittgenstein possibly have meant by the following entry (1933-34) in Culture and Value


Ich glaube meine Stellung zur Philosophie dadurch zusammengefaßt zu haben, indem ich sagte: Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten. Daraus mußs sich, scheint mir, ergeben, wie weit mein Denken der Gegenwart, Zukunft, oder der Vergangenheit angehört. Denn ich habe mich damit auch als einen bekannt, der nicht ganz kann, was er zu können wünscht. I think I summed up my position on philosophy when I said: One should really only do philosophy as poetry. From this it seems to me it must be clear to what extent my thought belongs to the present, to the future, or to the past. For with this I have also revealed myself to be someone who cannot quite do what he wishes he could do. (CV 24) [i]

What does this enigmatic statement mean? If we note that the cognate noun Dichtung also refers to fictionality, as in Goethe’s title Dichtung und Wahrheit, where Dichtung (“Fiction”) is opposed to “Truth,” why should philosophy, traditionally the search for truth, be presented as poetic fiction? Given Wittgenstein’s concern for “meaningful” statement, aren’t the two discourses antithetical? And why should as rigorous a thinker as Wittgenstein declare that he himself is not quite up to the task of formulating this new role for philosophy? Wittgenstein’s overt commentary on poetry sheds little light on this question. His impatience with aesthetic theory is legendary: in the Lectures on Aesthetics, for example, he declares “One might think Aesthetics is a science that tells us what’s beautiful—it’s almost too ridiculous for words. I suppose this science would also be able to tell us what sort of coffee tastes good” (LC §160). And the notebook entries collected in Culture and Value are given to statements like the following:

If I say A has beautiful eyes someone may ask me: what do you find beautiful about his eyes, and perhaps I shall reply: the almond shape, long eye-lashes, delicate lids. What do these eyes have in common with a Gothic church that I find beautiful too? Should I say they make a similar impression on me?” (CV 24)

“The concept of ‘the beautiful’,” says Wittgenstein, “has caused a lot of mischief” (CV 55). And again, “Am I to make the inane statement, ‘It [the musical theme] just sounds more beautiful when it is repeated’? (There you can see by the way what a silly role the word “beautiful” plays in aesthetics.) And yet there is just no paradigm other than the theme itself” (CV 52). At the same time, the Wittgenstein who refused to theorize about art was quite ready, in his letters, journals, and conversations, to pronounce on a given work with great conviction. The words großartig and herrlich appear again and again with reference to a Mozart symphony, a Mörike poem, to Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, or Dostoievsky’s Brothers Karamazov . Schubert’s Quintet in C Sharp, op. 163 is von phantastischer Großartigkeit (“exhibits fantastic brilliance”), Mozart and Beethoven are called die wahren Göttersöhne (“the true sons of God”), the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica is unglaublich (“unbelievable,” “fabulous”), Brahms’s “Handel-variationen,”unheimlich (“uncanny,” “sublime”). [ii] Negative judgments are just as emphatic: Alfred Ehrenstein’s poetry isein Hundedreck (“dog shit”), Mahler’s music is nichts wert (worthless”), “the characters in the second part of ‘Faust’ erregen unsere Teilnahme gar nicht (“are ones with whom we can’t identify at all”). [iii] The recitation of a fellow officer at Monte Cassino was so unbearable in its “false pathos,” that it was like “receiving an electric shock” (Parak 146, 152). And so on. The almost comic vehemence of these extreme aesthetic judgments is a function of what we might call le côté Viennoise of Wittgenstein—the social code of his time whereby those who are gebildet (cultured, well educated) took it to be incumbent upon them to pronounce on the given art work or performance or concert as großartig or schrecklich, and so on. In this respect, as in his actual tastes for classical music and literature, Wittgenstein was very much of his time and place. To understand what he meant by the proposition that “One should only do philosophy as a form of poetry,” we must, accordingly, look elsewhere—not at what Wittgenstein said about the poetic but at the example his own writing provides. In the Preface to what was, with the exception of the Tractatus, his one consciously designed book, the Philosophical Investigations (1953), he notes:

I have written down all these thoughts as remarks [ Bemerkungen ] short paragraphs, of which there is sometimes a fairly long chain about the same subject, while I sometimes make a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another. . . the essential thing was that the thoughts should proceed from one subject to another in a natural order and without breaks. After several unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks. . . . And this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction. . . . Thus this book is really only an album. (PI v, my emphasis)

Such commentary cleared the way for the publication for the many fragments found after Wittgenstein’s death, some in notebooks, some on separate scraps of paper or Zettel, as a further assortment of Wittgenstein’s remarks, this one left in a single box-file, is called. As G. H. von Wright, the editor of the Vermischte Bemerkungen (“Assorted Remarks,” which came to be translated under the misleading title Culture and Value) explains:

In the manuscript material left by Wittgenstein there are numerous notes which do not belong directly with his philosophical works although they are scattered amongst the philosophical texts. Some of these notes are autobiographical, some are about the nature of philosophical activity, and some concern subjects of a general sort, such as questions about art or about religion . It is not always possible to separate them sharply from the philosophical text . . . . Some of these notes are ephemeral; others on the other hand—the majority—are of great interest. Sometimes they are strikingly beautiful and profound. (Foreword, my emphasis)

Here Von Wright seems to be following Wittgenstein’s own lead that “philosophy” shades into “poetry” and vice-versa. But how and why? Some early entries in Culture and Value (see CV 2-7) may be apropos:

Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed. A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion. When we think of the world’s future, we always mean the destination it will reach if it keeps going in the direction we can see it going in now; it does not occur to us that its path is not a straight line but a curve, constantly changing direction. Each of the sentences I write is trying to say the whole thing, i.e. the same thing over and over again; it is as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles.

The thread that runs through these aphorisms and propositions is on the need for what Gertrude Stein had already called, in her “Composition as Explanation” (1926), beginning again and again. Truth is not something that can be uncovered; it can only be rediscovered, day after day. The value of breaking through the dead rubble each morning and in viewing each object from as many angles as possible is that one keeps one’s mind open, that conclusions are always tentative, and that the process of discovery is always more important than any particular end result. Not a straight line but a curve constantly changing direction . Theoretical formulation, generalization, moral injunction: these, for Wittgenstein, are dangerous. “Philosophy,” we read in Lectures 1930-32, “is not a choice between different ‘theories’. It is wrong to say that there is any one theory of truth, for truth is not a concept” (LWL 75). At the same time, the process of investigation is itself of value, provided one is able and willing to revise one’s ideas and suppositions when necessary. “I find it important in philosophizing,” says Wittgenstein, “to keep changing my posture, not to stand for too long on one leg, so as not to get stiff. Like someone on a long up-hill climb who walks backwards for a while so as to refresh himself and stretch some different muscles” (CV 27). And further:

If I am thinking just for myself, not with a view to writing a book, I jump all around the subject; this is the only natural way of thinking for me. With my thoughts forced into line, to think further is torture to me. Should I even try it? (CV 28)

This is, on the face of it, a very odd statement, for why should it be “torture” (eine Qual) simply to organize one’s thoughts, to produce a coherent linear discourse? Isn’t this precisely what we expect an “investigation,” especially a philosophical investigation to do? Here we must come back to the 1933 statement about philosophy’s link to poetry, in which Wittgenstein “reveals” himself as “someone who cannot quite do what he wishes he could do” (CV 25). If we read this mysterious paragraph biographically, it would seem that the student of Bertrand Russell, who had set out to become the mathematical logician that we find in the opening sections of the Tractatus (1922) — although even here the eccentricity of the numbering is a kind of poetic clinamen [iv]— had discovered, by the early thirties, that his métier was a mode of writing that depended on constant revision, a casting off of the “egg-shells of the old, sticking to” his prior formulations (CV 43). Such writing inevitably takes the form of short fragmentary and often gnomic utterance. Not the “Tractatus” or linear discourse, not even the essay in the spirit of Montaigne or the Heideggerian meditation, but a sequence of “criss-cross” aphorisms, sometimes self-canceling or even self-contradictory. Indeed, it is discourse less designed to say than to be seen as showing something. And we think of the following aphorism in Zettel


Das Sprechen der Musik. Vergiß nicht, daß ein Gedicht, wenn auch in der Sprache der Mitteilung abgefaßt, nicht im Sprachspiel der Mitteilung verwendet wird. (Z §160) The way music speaks. Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information. (Z §160)

But, although this proposition allies poetry to philosophy in that neither is characterized by the information-giving function of the sciences or social sciences, our initial question remains: how can Wittgenstein’s “philosophical remarks” be taken as poetic when they are so markedly stripped of the usual “poetic” trappings? And further: given that Wittgenstein’s propositions seem to have the same force whether we read them in the original German, or in English, French, or Japanese, what is the relation of “poetic” to “philosophical” meaning? One possible answer—and this case is often made—is that what makes Wittgenstein’s writing ` “poetic” is his use of homilies and proverbs animated by metaphors of charming and almost childlike simplicity: for example, “Talent is a spring from which fresh water is constantly flowing” (CV 10), “Ideas too sometimes fall from the tree before they are ripe” (CV 27), or the famous lines “What is your aim in philosophy?—To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” in the Investigations (PI § 309). But such figurative language may well have more to do with rhetorical strategy—the ethical argument that gives Wittgenstein credence as someone we can trust — than with the enigmatic nature of Wittgenstein’s real questions, which, whatever homely metaphor is used for pedagogical purposes, ultimately revolve around the literal meaning of everyday words. “Why can’t a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest?” (PI § 250). A better clue to Wittgenstein’s concept of the poetic is provided by the distinction he repeatedly draws between science andmathematics. “Man, we read in a 1930 entry in Culture and Value, “perhaps populations in general— must awaken to wonder. Science is a way of putting him back to sleep” (CV 5). And again:

People sometimes say they cannot make any judgment about this or that because they have not studied philosophy. This is irritating nonsense, because the assumption is that philosophy is some sort of science. And it is talked about almost as if it were the study of medicine.— But what one can say is that people who have never undertaken an investigation of a philosophical kind, as have, for example, most mathematicians, are not equipped with the right visual organs for this type of investigation or scrutiny (CV 29).

Indeed, there is a “strange resemblance between a philosophical investigation (especially in mathematics) and an aesthetic one” (CV 25). And in 1946, when the first part of the Philosophical Investigations was finished, Wittgenstein noted in his journal, “My ‘achievement’ is very much like that of a mathematician who invents a calculus” (CV 50). Invent is the key word here. Philosophy, as Wittgenstein sees it, is a form of continual re-invention with a view to making language more functional, the ideal being the precision of numbers. Language can never, of course, approximate that precision which is why the process of removing its false “signposts,” its mistaken assumptions and usages, is so endlessly fascinating. And, as in mathematics, this is the case, regardless of time and place, regardless therefore of the specific language in question:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. As long as there continues to be a verb “to be” [sein] that looks as if it functions in the same way as “to eat” [essen ] and “to drink [trinken}, as long as we still have the adjectives “identical” [identisch] “true” [wahr], “false” [ falsch] “possible” [möglich], as long as we continue to talk of a river of time [einem Fluß der Zeit], of an expanse of space [einer Ausdehnung des Raumes], etc. etc., people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up. (CV 15)

I have put in some of the German terms here so as to show that indeed language, at the level Wittgenstein studies it, has “remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions.” The poetic, as I remarked earlier, is not, for Wittgenstein, a question of heightening, of removing language from its everyday use by means of appropriate troping or rhetorical device. Rather, what makes philosophy poetic is its potential for invention, its status as what we now call conceptual art—the art that, in Sol Lewitt’s words, “is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye”—or, more broadly speaking, his senses—the art, as it were, that tracks the process ofthinking itself. [v] In Wittgenstein’s practice, conceptual art begins with the investigation of grammar, the description of the actual relations between words and phrases in the larger unit in which they are embedded. The surface word order, of course, will vary from language to language, according to the rules that language prescribes for the relationship between parts of speech. But the basic relationship of parts of speech—nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions— to one another will remain the same. Thus, if we take the earlier example “Why can’t a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest?” the original German, Warum kann ein Hund nicht Schmerzen heucheln? Ist er zu ehrlich? has a slightly different word order in English, where the noun “pain” follows the transitive verb whose object it is, and the negative (“can’t”) comes first in the sentence. But the basic syntax of the question and answer structure is perfectly clear, whichever the language. In fact, given the notion that “There are no gaps in grammar;— grammar is always complete” (LEC1 16), the meanings of ordinary, everyday words becomes all the more tantalizing and a challenge to the philosopher as poet. Take the following entry from Culture and Value:

Die Philosophen, welche sagen: “nach dem Tod wird ein zeitloser Zustand eintreten,” oder, “mit dem Tod tritt ein zeitloser Zustand ein,” und nicht merken, daß sie im zeitlichen Sinne “nach” und “mit” und “tritt ein” gesagt haben, und, daß die Zeitlichkeit in ihrer Grammatik liegt. (CV 22) Philosophers who say: “after death a timeless state will begin,” or “at death a timeless state begins,” and do not notice that they have used the words “after” and “at” and “begins” in a temporal sense, and that temporality is embedded in their grammar. (CV 22)

In its scrutiny of something as seemingly minor as a tense shift, a shift that in English, as in German, requires such words as “after” [nach] and “at” [mit], this little fragment—not even a complete sentence—embodies Wittgenstein’s repeated insistence that “Language is not contiguous to anything else” (LEC 1 112). For it is only inside language that the basic paradox in question reveals itself—the paradox that the so-called “timeless state” [zeitloser Zustand] after death can be talked about only within the language of temporality which is ours, which is all that we have. Accordingly, as Wittgenstein had put it in the Tractatus, “Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through.” Indeed, “If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present” (T §6.4311). To take another, very different consideration of temporality, consider the following analysis of the meaning of the word interval in Lectures Cambridge 1932-35:

If we look at a river in which numbered logs are floating, we can describe events on land with reference to these, e.g., “When the 105th log passed, I ate dinner.” Suppose the log makes a bang on passing me. We can say these bangs are separated by equal, or unequal, intervals. We could also say one set of bangs was twice as fast as another set. But the equality or inequality of intervals so measured is entirely different from that measured by a clock. The phrase “length of interval” has its sense in virtue of the way we determine it, and differs according to the method of measurement. (AWL 13)

Here, Wittgenstein’s investigation examines the curious shift in the meaning of a single word—interval—depending on the context in which it occurs. The “interval” measurable by the passage downstream of logs does not have the same status as the “interval” measured by a clock. But the mystery of the word has nothing to do with the specific language in question: in French, for example, we read, Aussi les critères qui déterminent l’égalité des intervalles séparant le passage des rondins sont-ils différents de ceux qui déterminent l’égalité des intervalles mesurés par une horloge ” (Cours 26). Whether interval, intervalle, or the German Abstand, the argument as to the possible meanings of “interval” remains intact. “But isn’t the same at least the same?” Wittgenstein’s question in the Investigations (PI §215) elicits the “useless proposition” that, yes, “A thing is identical with itself.” Useless, because, as Wittgenstein has already argued earlier in the book (PI §61), we still have not come to a “ general agreement about the use of the expression ‘to have the same meaning’ or ‘to achieve the same’. For it can be asked in what cases we say: ‘These are merely two forms of the same game’.” Or consider the following from the so-called “Big Typescript” of the late thirties: “The man who said that one cannot step into the same river twice said something wrong; one can step into the same river twice” (PO 167). Literally this is the case: certainly, if Wittgenstein were walking along the banks of the Thames, he could easily step into the same river twice. But then Heraclitus, whose metaphorical aphorism Wittgenstein is calling into question, could respond that the second time round, it would not be quite the “same” river. Wittgenstein knows this but he also knows that the “same” in “same river” is not quite the same as the “same” of “I have the same pain you have.” For how can I judge the intensity of your pain? How do I know, for that matter, that you’re not just pretending to be in pain? What can “same” possibly mean in such verbal constructions? It is, as in the case of “interval,” the inherent difference between one same and another that makes language so mysterious. some     thing black An examination of Wittgenstein translations thus leads us to the understanding that, as David Antin has put it succintly, “Wittgenstein “is not a poet of the German language or the English language; he is a poet of thinking through language,” “a poet of nearly pure cognition (Antin 263; cf. Perloff: 2001b iv-v). As such, the Wittgensteinian language game paves the way for some of the most interesting poetic experiments of our own moment. The French Oulipo, for example, seems to have exerted as powerful a force in translation as in the original, even though a lipogram like Georges Perec’s La Disparition (1969), which excludes the most common of French letters, e, would seem to be entirely “untranslatable.” [vi] Interestingly, the English translation A Void (1995), rendered brilliantly by Gilbert Adair, has proved to be almost as popular as the original, the point being that the central motive and its working out are wholly translatable, whatever the surface details. In Oulipo, the essential analogy, as was the case in Wittgenstein, is between literature and mathematics, specifically with respect to the concept of configuration:. As Warren Motte puts it:

One looks for a configuration each time one disposes of a finite number of objects, and one wishes to dispose them according to certain constraints postulated in advance; Latin squares and finite geometries are configurations, but so is the arrangement of packages of different sizes in a drawer that is too small, or the disposition of words or sentences given in advance (on the condition that the given constraints be sufficiently “crafty” for the problem to be real). . . . Another way of considering the Oulipian enterprise is as a sustained attack on the aleatory in literature, a crusade for the maximal motivation of the literary sign. (Motte 16-17)

Let us see how this works in practice. In 1986, the French Oulipo mathematician/poet/novelist Jacques Roubaud published a long poetic sequence, Quelque chose noir, prompted by the tragic death of his young wife, the photographer Alix Cléo Roubaud. The English translation, made by Rosmarie Waldrop, was published in 1990 as some thing black. [vii] Formally, the sequence is based on the number nine: there are nine sections, each having nine poems, and each poem has nine strophes, ranging from a single line to a paragraph made of phrases and clauses, oddly punctuated by periods rather than commas and avoiding all initial capitals. The number scheme—9 x 9 x 9— gives us 729 sections, which, together with the final poem Rien, makes 730 or precisely 2 x 365 or two calendar years. Rien (“Nothing”) is dated 1983 and marks the event of death itself, whereas the first poem of Part I is “Meditation of 5/12/85, evidently written two years later. The course of the painful two-year passage is noted throughout, thus fulfilling Roubaud’s axiom that “A text written according to a constraint describes the constraint” (Roubaud: 1991 38). But there is more. For nine is of course Beatrice’s number in Dante’s Vita Nuova . The first chapter opens with the sentences “Nine times the heaven of the light had revolved in its own movement since my birth and had almost returned to the same point when the woman whom my mind beholds in glory first appeared before my eyes. She was called Beatrice by many who did not know what it meant to call her this” (Dante 29). The poet first lays eyes on his donna ideale at the start of her ninth year and “almost at the end of his ninth.” He finally meets her exactly nine years later, when he is eighteen, and she greets him for the first time on the ninth hour of that day. So it goes through a series of visions associated with #9 until we come to Chapter 29 and read:

Now, according to the Arabic way of reckoning time, her most noble soul departed from us in the ninth hour of the ninth day of the month; according to the Syrian method, she died in the ninth month of the year (June), because the first month in that system is Tixryn the first, which we call October; and according to our way of reckoning, she departed this life in the year of our Christian era, that is of the years of Our Lord, in which the perfect number had been completed nine times in the century in which she had been placed in this world; for she was born a Christian of the thirteenth century. Why this number was so closely connected with her might be explained as follows. Since, according to Ptolemy and according to Christian truth, there are nine moving heavens, and according to common astrological opinion, these heavens affect the earth below according to their conjunctions, this number was associated with her to show at her generation of nine of the moving heavens were in perfect conjunction one with the other. This is one reason. But, thinking more deeply and guided by infallible truth, I say that she herself was this number nine; I mean this as an analogy, as I will explain. The number three is the root of nine, because, independent of any other number, multiplied b itself alone, it makes nine, as we see quite plainly when we say three threes are nine; therefore if three is the sole factor of nine, and the sole factor of miracles is three, that is, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, who are three and one, then this lady was accompanied by the number nine to convey that she was a nine, that is, a miracle, of which the root, that is, of the miracle, is nothing other than the miraculous Trinity itself. Perhaps a more subtle mind could find a still more subtle reason for it, but this is the one which I perceive and which pleases me the most.

Roubaud’s 9 x 9 x 9 structure at once pays homage to and inverts the Dantean cosmos. Like the Vita Nuova, Quelque chose noir memorializes the beloved dead woman, but Roubaud’s love is not an idealized image of female perfection but his actual wife, whose body he knows intimately and whose photographic representations, both her own and those of others, are all too “real.” In Roubaud’s secular cycle, there is no afterlife for “you,” no vision beyond material death. Accordingly, the number nine shifts from referent to hidden formal principle, the two-year cycle moving to the near silence of the Coda Rien (“Nothing”), whose page is all but blank, its nineteen minimalist lines, justified at the right margin, representing a short-circuiting of speech itself:

Ce morceau de ciel désormais t’est dévolu

où la face aveugle de l’église s’incurve

compliquée d’un marrionnier,

le soleil, là hésite laisse

du rouge encore, avant que la terre émette

tant d’absence

que tes yeux s’approchent

de rien

Rosmarie Waldrop’s translation follows the original closely, even as she can reproduce the page layout of the original to create a near match:

this patch of sky henceforward your inheritance

where the blind façade of the church curves inward

complicated by a chestnut tree

here the sun hesitates leaves

some more red

before the earth emit

so much absence

that your eyes approach


Lines like “tant d’absence / que tes yeux / s’approchent / de rien” can be translated quite precisely: “so much absence / that your eyes / approach / nothing.” But, as in Wittgenstein’s riddling propositions, Roubaud’s “simple” diction is nothing if not slippery. How does the earth “emit / so much absence”? How do the eyes of the dead approach “nothing”? Eyes, nails with blood caked underneath them, arms, legs—these appear again and again in Quelque chose noir but remain elusive . In Antin’s terms, Roubaud’s is a poetry of cognition rather than of texture. Or consider Irresemblance (“Unlikeness”), which is the fourth prose lyric of Part I.

L’irresemblance: Le résultat de l’investigation était celui-ci: le précipité des ressemblances. la toile de la ressemblance. ses fils croisés et recroisés. Parfois la ressemblance de partout. parfois la ressemblance là. Ensuite que toi et ta mort n’avaient aucun air de famille. Cela semble simple. alors: il n’y avait plus lieu d’une réquisition difficile. d’aucune interrogation rude. simplement le bavardage douloureux, inutile. superficiel et trivial. “Un chien ne peut pas simuler la douleur. est-ce parce qu’il est trop honnête?” Il faillait faire connaissance avec la description. En quelque mots ce qui ne bougeait pas. Car cela m’avait été renvoyé reconnu, alors que rien ne s’en déduisait de mon expérience. Tu étais morte, et cela ne mentait pas. (Q 17) The result of the investigation: a deposit of likenesses. weave of likeness. threads crossed and recrossed. Sometimes likeness from anywhere. sometimes this likeness here. Then, that you and your death shared no family trait. It seems simple. hence: no grounds for difficulties or demands for rude interrogation. just painful chatter, useless. superficial and trivial. “Why can’t a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest?” I had to make friends with description. In so many words, what did not move. For this I recognized. Though none of it derived from my experience. You were dead. this was no lie. (SB 15)

Here, Roubaud’s “investigation” into the response of the living to death begins by probing le précipité des ressemblances, since any word or image, as Wittgenstein taught us, is part of a language game made up of family resemblances. If the body in question could only be like something familiar, it would not seem dead. But by the third sentence, the poet has recognized that Ensuite que toi et ta mort n’avaient aucun air de famille. There are no family resemblances between a person and a state of being or non-being-—in this case, death. One recalls the aphorism in the Tractatus, “Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through.” “None of it,” we read in the penultimate line, “derived from my experience” ( Rien ne s’en déduisait de mon expérience”). And yet there is more than “painful chatter,” for relationships between items do manifest themselves, even if they are negative ones. In the fifth strophe, Wittgenstein’s “Why can’t a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest?”, which I cited earlier, is given an ironic twist. For since, in this case, the poet himself seems incapable of simulating feeling, for example, even the slightest pleasure, perhaps Wittgenstein’s distinction between man and dog must be qualified, at least so far as human “honesty” is concerned. Given these circumstances, there can only be resignation—the recognition that Il fallait faire connaissance avec la description (“I had to make friends with description”). Philosophy, Wittgenstein was fond of saying, leaves everything as it is; it can only describe. The same, Roubaud suggests, may be said of poetry. And even then, the poet can only describe the physical facts—the ce qui ne bougeait pas or “what did not move.” The ninth sentence is thus the flat recitation of fact: Tu étais morte, et cela ne mentait pas (“You were dead. this was no lie”). It is a statement that takes us back to the question of the dog’s “honesty” above. Indeed, the beloved who has become a “black thing” is not, like Beatrice, “a nine, that is a miracle, of which the root, that is of the miracle, is solely the miraculous Trinity.” She merely is or rather was. Here is what we might call a conceptual poetry à la lettre— a set of strophes, largely written in denotative language, that modulate familiar abstract nouns, personal pronouns, and adverbs of time and place (Parfois, ). The network of likenesses and differences, so subtly articulated in the tension between numerical base and linguistic construction creates what is a highly wrought poetic text that is nevertheless quite amenable to translation. Rosmarie Waldrop, herself an important poet who might well deviate from the original, were it desirable to do so, has here produced a remarkably literal translation. But then what were her alternatives? Take the line Tu étais morte, et cela ne mentait pas, which Waldrop renders as “You were dead. this was no lie.” Grammatically, one can’t say, following the French, “this did not lie.” The construction “this was no lie” is thus the proper translation any textbook would use. Cela, of course, is normally translated as “that” rather than “this” (perhaps Waldrop chose “this” for intimacy), but otherwise the line offers no other translation possibilities. Or again, Waldrop’s translation of Il fallait faire connaissance avec la description” as “I had to make friends with description” is not wholly literal (e.g., I had to get to know description), but “make friends” alludes slyly to Roubaud’s own veiled reference to Gertrude Stein’s important essay-poem “An Acquaintance with Description.” There are, in other words, alternate possibilities available to the translator even in the case of Roubaud, but only within rather narrow perimeters. And there, of course, is the rub. Precisely because Roubaud’s poetry is, at one level, so translatable, it doesn’t give the translator very much scope. And this is the case even for the Oulipo lipogram, where the translator must be extremely gifted so as to match the original. To translate texts like Quelque chose noir or La Disparition is to subordinate oneself to the original, even as Wittgenstein’s translators devote themselves to approximating the language of their master, so that there is surprisingly little talk, in Wittgenstein criticism, of the relative merits of translation A versus translation B or of the English translation of the Tractatus versus the French. The case of Rilke is the opposite. To speak of a translation of the Duino Elegies is to begin with the premise that X’s version cannot be commensurate with the poem itself. Wittgenstein himself would no doubt have preferred Rilke’s poetry to Roubaud’s, even as he preferred Brahms to Bruckner. But ironically, his own understanding of poetry as invention, as conceptual art, became an important paradigm for those writers and artists who came of age in the immediate wake of the Philosophical Investigations. Consider Samuel Beckett, whose great Trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) was published, first in French, then in the author’s own translation into English between 1951 and ’58. The relationship of the French to the English version of these short poetic novels raises interesting stylistic questions (see Beer 209-21), it also the case that Molloy, say in the German translation made by Erich Franzen, is quite true to the spirit of the original. Here is the opening page of what was originally a French novel, first in English, then in German:

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. Perhaps I got here thanks to him. He says not. He gives me money and takes away pages. So many pages, so much money. Yes, I work now, a little like I used to, except that I don’t know how to work any more. That doesn’t matter apparently. What I’d like now is to speak of the things that are left, say my good-byes, finish dying. They don’t want that. Yes, there is more than one, apparently. But it’s always the same one that comes. (Beckett 7) Ich bin im Zimmer meiner Mutter. lch wohne jetzt selbst darin. Wie ich hierhergekommen bin, weiß ich nicht. In einer Ambulanz vielleicht, bestimmt mit irgendeinem Gefährt. Man hat mir geholfen. Allein hätte ich es nicht geschafft. Vielleicht habe ich es diesem Mann, der jede Woche erscheint, zu verdanken, daß ich hier bin. Er streitet es ab. Er gibt mir etwas Geld und nimmt das Geschriebene mit sich. So viele Seiten, so viel Geld. Ja, ich arbeite jetzt, ein wenig wie früher, nur verstehe ich mich nicht mehr aufs Arbeiten. Das macht nichts, wie es scheint. Ich möchte jetzt gern von dem sprechen, was mir noch übrig bleibt, Abschied nehmen, aufhören zu sterben. Das wollen sie nicht. Ja, es sind mehrere, wie es scheint. Aber der eine, der herkommt, ist immer derselbe.

Beckett’s seemingly basic vocabulary, made up largely of personal and demonstrative pronouns, and ordinary verbs like “live,” “know,” “give,” “take,” and “work,” applied to basic nouns like “mother,” “money,” “things,” “pages,” most of these organized into simple declarative sentences, translates neatly into German. And yet, like those propositions about “pain” or “colour” Wittgenstein lays out for us, Beckett’s statements are highly elusive, indeterminate, and mysterious. The reference to the “ambulance” or “vehicle of some kind” in the fourth sentence suggests that it was at birth the narrator arrived in his mother’s room and so he has been there ever since, but the reference to “It is I who live there now” (Ich wohne jetzt selbst darin) suggests that this hasn’t always been the case. In Wittgenstein’s terms, the meaning can only be established by studying each word group or sentence in the larger context in which it occurs. What does “now” ( jetzt) mean in “It’s I who live there now”? In Philosophical Investigations §383, Wittgenstein writes:

We are not analyzing a phenomenon (e.g. thought) but a concept (e.g. that of thinking), and therefore the use of a word. So it may look as if what we were doing were Nominalism. Nominalists make the mistake of interpreting all words as names, and so of not really describing their use, but only, so to speak, giving a paper draft on such a description.

Most modernist poets, we might note, are, in one form or another, nominalists: Ezra Pound, for example, builds his Cantos using collocations of proper names—a proliferation of restaurants, churches, frescoes, Provençal castles, Roman deities—so as to create a dense network of meanings. In more recent poetry, such nominalism has been practiced with beautiful irony by Frank O’Hara in poems like “Khrushchev is coming on the right day!” But nominalism, as Wittgenstein understood so well, is a way of avoiding the concept, “the use of a word.” Unlike Pound, Beckett uses generic Irish names like Molloy, Malone, and Moran, and foregrounds everyday language—“Yes, I work now, a little like I used to,” puncturing this matter-of-fact statement with the qualification, “except that I don’t know how to work anymore.” No names, no data, only concept. What does it mean not to know how to work any more? Is it just an excuse? A loss of a particular ability? A consequence of old age? Such language games will become increasingly prominent in an age of globalization where the availability of translation is taken for granted. Poets and fiction writers, I predict, will increasingly write in what we might call, keeping Wittgenstein’s example in mind, a language of translatability. This does not mean that poetry will become “easier” and more “accessible”; quite the contrary. It simply means that the focus will be on language rather than on a specific language. As Wittgenstein reminds us, “You learned the concept ‘pain’ when you learned language” (PI §384).


[i] There is no exact English equivalent of the German verbDichten. The closest would be something like poetize, but this is not an actual English word. Peter Winch translates the sentence in question as “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition.” This seems to me to rationalize the German excessively, so I have used, for this passage, David Antin’s idiomatic translation (Antin 161). The verb Dichten also means “to make thick or dense” and “to fictionalize.” But these denotative meanings are all part of the same complex, the point being that Wittgenstein is saying he wants philosophy to be more like its seeming opposite—poetry or fiction—the thickening of language.
[ii] See Briefe 47, 22, 47, 78, respectively.
[iii] See Briefe 78; CV 67, 41.
[iv] See Wittgenstein’s Ladder 42-43.
[v] LeWitt 80. There are, of course, other important aspects of Conceptualism: see the excellent entries on “Conceptual Art” in Kelly I, 414-27. “The grand strategy,” writes Yair Guttmann, “was to resist the attempts to sever the art object from its context” (I 422). The relation of Joseph Kosuth to Wittgenstein is discussed in I,426-27.
[vi] The Larousse defines a lipogram as “a literary work in which one compels oneself strictly to exclude one or several letters of the alphabet.” See Matthews 174-75.
[vii] Note that the space between “some” and “thing” (like “quelque” and “chose”) suggests that the reference is not only to something black but to some black thing.


Wittgenstein Published Texts in order of Composition

With Abbreviations

GT          Geheime Tagebücher [1914-16], ed. W. Baum, Wien: Turia & Kant, 1991. TLP          Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [1922] [German-english parallel text], trans C. K. Ogden. London: Routledge, 1991. References [§] are to numbered sections. CV          Culture and Value [German-English parallel text], ed. G. H. von Wright, In collaboration with H. Nyman, trans. Peter Winch, Oxford: Blackwell, 1980. LWL          Wittgenstein’s Lectures, Cambridge 1930-32. From the Notes of John King and Desmond Lee, ed. Desmond Lee, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1989. AWL          Wittgenstein’s Lectures, Cambridge 1932-35, from the notes of Alice Ambrose and M. MacDonald, ed. Alice Ambrose, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19 . BB           The Blue and Brown Books. Preliminary Studies for the “Philosophical Investigations [1933-5]. 2d ed. New York: Harper. 1960. LC            Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief [1938-46], ed. Cyril Barrett, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966. PI          Philosophical Investigations [German-English parallel text] [1953], ed.. G. E. M. Anscombe and Rush Rhees, 2d ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. References [§] are to sections of Part 1, and to pages of Part II. Z          Zettel [1945-48] [German-English parallel text]ed. G. E. M. Anscombe & G. H. von Wright, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. Referencess [§] are to numbered sections. PO          Philosophical Occasions 1912-1951 [German-English parallel texts where appropriate, ed. James Klagge and Alfred Nordmann, Indianopolis: Hackett, 1993. Briefe Briefe, ed. B. F. McGuiness and G. H. von Wright. Correspondence with B. Russell, G. E. Moore, J. K. Keynes, F. P. Ramsay, et. al. In German, with original version of wittgenstein’s own letters (wh in English), in an Appendix; German translations J. Schulte, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980. Cours Les Cours de Cambridge 1932-1935, ed. Alice Ambrose. traduits de l’anglais par Elisabeth Rigal, Mauvezin: Trans-Europe Express, 1993.


Antin, David (1998), “Wittgenstein among the Poets,” in Modernism, Modernity 5, no. 1 (Jaunary 1998): 149-66. Bouveresse, Jacques (1987), Le Mythe de l’interiorité, Paris: Editions de Minuit. Beckett, Samuel (1989), Molloy, 1955. New York: Grove Weidenfeld. ____________ (2001), Molloy, 1955, trans. Erich Franzen, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. Beer, Ann (1994), “Beckett’s Bilingualism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, ed. John Pilling, Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 209-21. Dante (1969), La Vita Nuova, trans. Barbara Reynolds, New York: Penguin. Gass. William H. (1999), Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Hesse, Eva and Ickstadt, Heinz (eds.) (2000), Amerikanische Dichtung von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, München: Beck. Kelly, Michael (ed.) (1988) , Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 4 vols. New York: Oxford. LeWitt, Sol (1967), “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in Artforum, 5, no. 10 (Summer 1967): 79-83. Matthews, Harry and Brotchie, Alastair (eds) (1998), Oulipo Compendium, London: Atlas. Motte, Warren F. Jr. (ed. and trans.) (1986), Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Parak, Franz (1991), “Wittgenstein in Monte Cassino,” in GT 146-52. Perloff, Marjorie (1996), Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary , Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ____________ (2001a), “Reading Gass Reading Rilke,” in Parnassus, 25, no. 1 & 2 (2001): 486-508. ____________(2001b), Introduction, David Antin, Talking (1972), Chicago: Dalkey Archive, pp. i-viii. Pound, Ezra (1968), The Spirit of Romance, 1910, New York: New Directions. Roubaud, Jacques (1986), Quelque chose noir, Paris: Gallimard. Cited in the text as Q. ____________ (1991), “The Oulipo and the Combinatorial Art” in Mathews, Oulipo Compendium, pp. 37-44. Waldrop, Rosmarie (1990), some thing black (translation of Roubaud, Quelque chose noir), Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive.