The Schopenhauerian Problem of Untranslatability: Language as Representation1

Benjamin Campbell (2020)

Is Equivalence Possible in Translation?


Is an equivalent translation possible? In a broad sense, a translation is when a word’s meaning is converted into another language. An equivalent translation would be a conversion that makes the meaning of two words—the original word and the translated word—equal. If a person who speaks Gujarati hears sapharajana and an English speaker hears the translation, apple, and the two listeners garner the same meaning, that is an equivalent translation. Prima facie, there is no reason to doubt that equivalent translations can occur. When a French speaker says cœur, a translator can easily declare, heart! Unfortunately for the amorous translator, an issue soon arises in the concept of meaning.

Meaning is agent-based. The word “cow” bears no meaning in itself. The animal which we term a “cow” has no name absent humans naming it. The word “cow” is a stand-in, a symbol for the picture of a cow, or, maybe, this discrete instance of a four-legged mammal with a white body and black spots all over it. The possibility of an equivalent translation is contingent upon two individuals deriving the same meaning out of the word “cow.” Our question, therefore, is whether two individuals will derive the same meaning out of the same word.

Schopenhauer and Linguistic Perspectivism

The philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer is helpful in answering whether meaning can be equal between two people. In his book, The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer divides reality into two parts: Will and representation. Will is the force that underlies all things: “the force that shoots and vegetates in the plant, indeed the force by which the crystal is formed, the force that turns the magnet to the North Pole…” (Schopenhauer 110). Representation, from the German, Vorstellung, is a “mental-image” (Wicks, “Arthur Schopenhauer”). The world, as Will and representation, is therefore the dual-aspect of reality as an underlying force and its corresponding, subjective mental-images.

From this distinction, between the world as Will and representation, Schopenhauer homes in on the world as representation. Schopenhauer states, “[t]herefore, the world as representation, in which aspect alone we are here considering it, has two essential, necessary, and inseparable halves” (Schopenhauer 5). These halves are “the object” (5) and “the subject” (5). A heuristic way of thinking about the object and the subject is, respectively, as the perceived and the perceiver. The subject is you, the subjective ego which perceives objects. The objects are the things you see and think about. Your body, while the “immediate object” (5), or in your mind, the subject, is an object to other subjects. Conceptually, “they [the object and subject] limit each other immediately; where the object begins, the subject ceases” (5). Because one subject (you) cannot insert itself into the world of another subject (someone else)—and only sees that other subject as an object—it is impossible for one subject to know what it is to be another subject. In Schopenhauer's view, there is a fragmentation of our wills: the unified drive, the Will, is split up into individual subjects. This separation of the egos means that no one can perceive in the same way. Different experiences and the entropic conditions of life cause us to perceive differently from one another. It is on the basis of this differing perception that the possibility of an equivalent translation diminishes in persuasiveness.

To underscore why perceptual differences rule out equivalent translation, turn to the word “tree.” When one considers what a tree is, most will imagine a brown stump, leading to a shaft, and then to branches, twigs, and leaves. But do they imagine it the same way? Some may see the leaves as green, some may see them yellow, others red. Within those colors, some may envision a dark red and some may imagine them a light red. Those leaves may or may not have holes—the size of those holes may also vary. Is the trunk textured? Can we see roots coming out from it? Are there lines going up the tree shaft? If so, how many? There are a nearly infinite number of variations in how we perceive or could perceive what a tree looks like. Our meaning of “tree,” or, in Schopenhauerian terms, our representation of “tree,” differs. In less concrete instances, like an emotion, will there ever be an identical representation? Can two people ever be said to consider “anger” in the same way? If meaning is a representation of what a thing is, then it cannot be detached from the unique conditions of individual perception.

If there are differences between our representations of words, then there can be no equivalence. Under the logical principle of the Indiscernibility of Identicals, notated, x=y → ∀F(Fx↔Fy), if two things are identical, then they do not vary in their properties. In other terms, “if, for every property F, object x has F if and only if object y has F, then x is identical to y” (Forrest, “The Identity of Indiscernibles”).2 That is to say that, logically, if our perception of the meaning of a word differs even to a small degree—for example, if my representation of a tree is the same as another’s, only my tree’s leaves are a darker shade of red, then those two mental-images are not identical. If a translation were to exist that could somehow render identity, which would require that two people be the exact same to prevent any difference in perception, then that translation would be one that renders meaning equivalent.

A consequence of this argument is that each individual has a unique language with their own set of meanings attached to symbols. If we are not to use the word language, if we consider its social usage as a necessary element of the word language itself, then at minimum, each person has their own linguistic situation. Even between one moment and another, a person’s representations may differ, based on their individual time and circumstance. If individual languages are not equivalent, then cultural difference will only compound such representational inequalities.

Incommensurability and Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn’s concept of incommensurability is useful in the context of equivalent translation. Incommensurability is the lack of a common measure. Kuhn posits that where there is no common measure, one cannot render equivalently. He applied this doctrine to scientific paradigms. If scientists are operating under different paradigms, they are, at best, talking past each other when considering a concept. The same applies to language. When we operate under different representational measures, we are talking about different things. When we talk about trees but have different conceptions of what a tree is, we are not talking about the same thing. No matter how hard I try to explain to you what my tree looks like, what it feels like, what it sounds like, you will never have the same qualitative or representational understanding of that tree. You will never truly know what I mean when I say tree. An equivalent translation seems practically impossible, whether it is an ethnic language, a dialect, or my own language.

The Axiological Response to Untranslatability

The Groundwork

If we are to value translation as an enterprise, the focus of our analysis becomes: how should we translate if not for the goal of equivalence? We need a new goal; as Aristotle put it, “Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?” (Ethica Nicomachea 1.2 1094a24-25). This question implies an axiological and a functional dimension, as in, how ought we to translate and how might we translate with sound methodology? A good answer is a goal that meets both of those criteria.

Referring to equivalence, we can derive a goal that is sufficient to fulfill both criteria. The idea of equivalence is, despite its metaphysical flaws, attractive. Why is equivalence attractive? Because it is supposed to equalize meaning. It makes A=A between languages, between individuals. Equivalence, as a goal, is little more than the pursuit of understanding. For why do we wish sapharajana to be equal to apple? If they were not, then there would be a disconnect between the two groups of readers, one of incomplete understanding. The desire underlying equivalence is therefore for comprehensibility—understanding.

Translation is, in a sense, a statement that not enough people can understand a text, that the readership of a work must be expanded to include more people. For what other reason would we translate? The desire to translate literature, “for the record,” in an archival fashion, comes not as much from a place of obsession with completion, but more so from a desire for the wisdom or the technical knowledge of an author to be understood by future and contemporary readers. The consistent theme, endemic to many perspectives on translation, is comprehension.

In the form of the first criterion: we ought to translate for comprehension. This answer is not a moral, objective representation of what we ought to do. The first criterion falls more along the lines of a hypothetical imperative. If one rejects this argued function of translation, seeking understanding, as erroneous, so too would this answer follow, as erroneous. I am confident, nonetheless, that translation does seek to achieve comprehension as its fundamental goal.

Concerning the second criterion, a sound methodology of translation is one that can achieve comprehension. Through one avenue or another, this pursuit of comprehension becomes a psychological issue.

If we are to accept the utility of comprehension in addressing the first criterion, or, if we are to say that we ought to translate in service to comprehension, then our analysis herein then turns to the methods of translating for comprehension.

For conceptual clarity, comprehension will be divided into two interactive components, neither having rigid boundaries: aesthetic and message-based understanding. Aesthetic understanding is when a person “gets” the artfulness and/or the qualitative experience of reading a text. Message-based understanding takes on a more literal function, or “getting” what the author is saying.

Given an idea of what comprehension means in translation, namely aesthetic and message-based understanding, we can now engage the relevant psychology.

This psychological question is in many ways a referendum on one’s theory of learning—or what factors give rise to understanding. I reject any one answer here because multiple theories have degrees of empirical success on the question of comprehension. Examples include: constructivism, which posits that “learners use their previous knowledge as a foundation and build on it with new things that they learn” (“What Is Constructivism?”), and humanism, which considers students as humans striving for self-actualization, paying special emphasis to the emotional well-being of the student. We best aim for our mark of comprehensibility by taking an open approach to comprehension and looking for areas that seem to bear significance, rather than fitting our observations in service to a rigid theory. In line with that thinking, I stipulate that a consideration of culture and emotion, two paradigms of our experience, must take place.


In the constructivist vein, cultural familiarity is important in comprehension. Familiarity with the cultural context of a text statistically increases inferential (what the text means) and literal (understanding the words) comprehension (Liu 74; Gürkan 1204; Dehghan and Sadighi 103; Davoudi and Ramenazi 66; Hj. Shah Yusof 10; Fikray and Habil 622). A lack of cultural familiarity likewise confuses and obscures aesthetic appreciation (Glenn 39). If people understand texts better when they are culturally familiar, what do we do to embolden cultural familiarity? I propose two answers: nativization and education.

Nativization is “the pragmatic and semantic adaptation of the textual and contextual clues of the original story into the [reader’s] own culture, while keeping its linguistic and rhetorical content essentially intact” (Alptekin 497). Nativization is the process of grooming a piece of literature for cultural coherence. Reading comprehension improves when readers are exposed to the nativized versions of a text (Jalilifar and Assi 60; Tavakoli et al. 154; Rokhsari 63).

Nativization does not have to be an imperialistic, overarching corruption of a text. Unimportant details can be adapted for cultural understanding. There is some debate to be had on the extent that nativization should take place, and translators should act prudently to determine which elements can remain foreign, and which elements (especially idioms), if left foreign, would be incomprehensible. The role of nativization is contingent on the likelihood that the target community (the community into which the text is being translated) knows of, or can easily make sense of those foreign elements.

Translation theorists like the author Vladimir Nabokov would almost certainly object to the use of nativization. Nabokov argues that “readable” translations “substitute[] easy platitudes for the breathtaking intricacies of the text” As a consequence of his desire for “intricac[y],” Nabokov maintained that non-native texts should appear foreign (Nabokov 71). Nabokov’s vision of a complex text is not incompatible with the goal of comprehensibility. Translation seeks to tear down barriers between languages to expand the readership of a piece of work. Achieving that goal by making minute functional changes for comprehensibility is hardly destructive to the notion of an intricate text. The intentional appearance of a text as foreign is usually less indicative of the intricacy of a text than of an aspiration for obscurantism. There are texts where a sense of unknown and alien is necessary, like the orientalist “Kubla Khan” or the Egypt-inspired “Ozymandias.” Translators should be hesitant to nativize such texts because to do so would be to sacrifice aesthetic understanding for message-based understanding. In cases where foreignness is tangential, rather than a diligent and artful component of a text, translators should seek to simplify. This interpretation is in line with the two-fold nature of comprehension as based in meaning and in aesthetics. Nativization ought to act as a knife, one which cuts cultural fat and reveals the essential components of a text. Translators should be butchers, familiar with their target culture to know which cultural references are excess—or, how to use the knife.

Rather than conforming the text to the context of the reader, translators could educate the reader as to the context of the text. Education is likely insufficient to eliminate some problems, like idiomatic expressions and small cultural nuances. Nativization should be used in those microcosmic spaces. Nonetheless, to avoid mangling the story of the source text, translators should employ education. I note here that Nabokov’s vision of “footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers”—footnotes operating to explain cultural and linguistic nuances—is not ideal for the purposes of comprehensibility (83). That type of embodied education is not preferable to unembodied education. I therefore advocate for the use of prefaces and introductions that explain the context surrounding a text. An analysis of 800 contemporary fictional works translated from major foreign languages into English found that only 10% had prefaces that contained “information about the source culture that might be unknown to the target audience” (McRae 41). Acknowledging the limitations of McRae’s study given its age, the use of prefaces as a mode of cultural education is underutilized in spite of its actionability. If nativization is a knife, then education is a cookbook. When the devices of nativization and education are used in conjunction, the cultural barrier degenerates, if only slightly.


Understanding takes place in the mind. Given understanding’s location, an awareness of the conditions of the mind are necessary to ensure that comprehension can take place. We must be aware of how our mental states impact understanding. Cognition is influenced by emotion (Tyng et al. 1), and reading comprehension, as a cognitive task, is no exception. Translators should be judicious in their translation of emotionally charged words and phrases because language has the capability to influence emotion. Studies of amygdala and heart activity in response to positive and negative words support that premise (Herbert et al. 44; Wallentin et al. 971; Lieberman et al. 426; Tabert et al. 570; Ilves and Surakka 3). Because language can induce or change emotion, the words that authors use are relevant in considering how to optimize comprehension.

The relationship between reading comprehension and emotion is complicated. Emotional involvement, through some combination of story, character, and perhaps emotional words, tends to increase engagement and therefore comprehension (Hamedi et al. 228; Gaskins 399). Attention also plays some role in comprehension. Negative moods tend to defocus one’s attention by way of intrusive and irrelevant thoughts (Seibert and Ellis 511; Hecker and Thorston 462). Positive moods seem to increase attention and creativity (Wadlinger and Isaacowitz 98; Davis 35). Just on those studies, we may predict that people in positive moods have greater levels of comprehension than people in negative moods. However, positive moods can also increase irrelevant thoughts (Seibert and Ellis 512). The accuracy of the hypothesis that happy moods are conducive to comprehension is muddy and unclear. A study by Bohn-Gettler and Rapp found that happy and sad-induced readers remembered more details from texts than neutral-mood readers, but happy readers made more text-based connections than both sad and neutral-mood readers (572). The question of how to translate emotion is difficult. Because of the complexity of human emotion, there are an infinite number of ways that the use of emotional language could affect comprehension.

Concrete answers about the way that the use of a “good” versus a “bad” word will affect a reader base are scant, if at all existent. That, however, should not encourage nihilism toward the subject. Translators must be aware of the extent to which a reader may be emotionally involved at each point in the text, how many emotional words are being used, what type of emotional words are being used, the individual potency of each emotional word, and should diligently predict whether those words will bolster or weaken comprehension.

A Recommendation

A hybrid-model of translating for comprehension is accommodating to the multiplicity of factors that influence one’s ability to understand a text. Culture, representing in part the environmental, and emotions, representing in part the bodily, are part of a broad continuum of elements that affect message-based and aesthetic understanding. Translators, so long as they keep their eyes on the goal of comprehension, paying special attention to the appropriate balance between message and artfulness, can achieve nuanced and complex, yet readable texts. I call for translators to become interdisciplinary experts and wisdom-seekers, such that their decisions are marked with prudence in measure and broadness in scope. It is through this wisdom that a translator may be Aristotle’s archer: shooting toward understanding, and the intellectual and aesthetic appreciation of literature.

Taking Stock

On the point of appreciation, we may turn, in closing, back to Schopenhauer. What is the point of it all? Why do we care so much about appreciating art, about deconstructing ideas of equivalence?

Schopenhauer appears to provide an answer. If we are, in fact, fragmented manifestations of the Will, desirous, acting with force, egotistical; if our Will is unsatisfied, unsatiated, always wanting a new goal, a new thing to do, then what are the consequences of that desire? To Schopenhauer, our perpetual want causes suffering. Even if we are not to accept Schopenhauer’s metaphysical claim that the world is actually composed of this longing force, we can all, to some extent, understand how some desire has caused us pain. Unrequited love, want for material objects—it is not particularly controversial to say that there may be some gap between what we want and what we get, and that such a disparity causes pain. If we accept this view, it makes sense to look for ways to alleviate that suffering. Schopenhauer believed that art, its appreciation and production, were primary ways in which the pain of want may be curbed. Art has the ability to distract us, to enthrall us in beauty or sublimity. We can take solace in something other than our unique want, to confide in the “world of representations.” Why is it that sad songs, sad novels, and other sad art are so helpful and appealing to those suffering? As the contemporary aesthetic philosopher Andrew Bowie puts it, “Schopenhauer…regards art as the only means of temporarily escaping the fundamentally futile nature of reality. Art’s essential role is…to enable us to escape what we already intuitively know about the irredeemable nature of what we are” (Bowie 262). A weaker version of that thesis is that art is therapeutic in getting our minds off our feelings and to instead focus on another’s.

Embracing either Schopenhauer’s metaphysical claim or the weaker, more common-sense based claim, a need to translate responsibly soon arises. Artistic literature deserves good translation because art is one of the ways in which we relieve pain. Less artistic literature deserves good translation because we value understanding information in itself. Either way, we reach the need to translate, the importance of it all, by recognizing understanding for what it is: a tool to bridge representations, to get close to knowing another, whether to avoid suffering, or to make scientific and humanitarian progress. The method I have proposed here is to translate for comprehension, sensitive to the factors that disconnect individual comprehensions.

Conceding the Point

For a moment, I want to highlight some assumptions I have made in this argument.

There is this intuitive sense that peoples’ experiences differ. Schopenhauer tries to explain this difference. We can assent to that point while still rejecting the final conclusion: that meanings are idiosyncratic. The assumption such a conclusion seems to make is that difference in experience creates difference in representation. It seems to be true that most do think there is a bridge between experience and representation in the sense that we develop an expectation of what a thing is. It is conceivable that if our minds have a first-person ontology, meaning that their contents cannot be accessed, then we cannot be certain as to whether individual representations differ. There is a chance that we all have some identical representation of a tree, though I personally doubt it. Saying that difference in the world gives rise to difference in representation is an assumption at play here.

Another assumption I have made is that the meaning is representational. There are a myriad of views about meaning in debates found in the philosophy of language. Meaning could be something like use, the pragmatic conception of consequence, or a certain kind of Austinean picture.

I have also assumed what equivalence is. Leibniz’s law is controversial. Philosophers have leveled counterexamples and arguments against it for centuries. Though I ultimately agree with Leibniz, I am making an assumption in doing so.

The axiological response to representational inequality I have proposed is an assumption in itself, as is the methodology. I am embracing the assumption that psychology, science, and empirical reasoning are good ways to figure out how the world is. I am also using that assumption to figure out how we should shape our actions.

The point I am trying to convey by highlighting these assumptions, after making very provocative claims about translation theory, is that my analysis is not exhaustive nor does it begin to scratch the surface of whether meanings can be equal. In a similar sense, I am not claiming that I am right or have reached the “truth.” This argument is therefore both ironistic and sartorial: I am trying on different assumptions, seeing how they fit, and acknowledging that this “vocabulary” of difference and meaning may not be my or the final one.

This last-minute concession of just about everything I have argued acts as a challenge to the discipline of translation theory: a challenge to reflect on the assumptions we make, both individually and collectively.


1. This paper is slated for publication in the 2021 edition of the Journal of Undergraduate Research at Ohio State (JUROS). Per JUROS policy, I have the right to reproduce this paper here. Abstract available upon request. Note that, since writing this paper, I have come to disagree with just about every point I made. In particular, my analysis of Schopenhauer is far too cursory and contains some exegetical errors—I did not acknowledge the significance of causality in Schopenhauer's view of perception and understanding and my exegesis of his views on art was limited and unsatisfactory. I abused Schopenhauer for my own purposes, essentially, not unlike Drefyus or Kripke did to their respective authors (though mine is much less interesting and productive). This is certainly a piece written by someone in their philosophical infancy. In the future, I may write a more detailed and sustained critique of this paper.

2.There are two principles discussed here that are, unfortunately, equivocated in the phrase, "in other terms." This is not true. The indiscernibility of identicals and the identity of indiscernibles are two separate concepts. The former merely states that those things which are the same must have the same properties, the latter affirms that those things which have the same properties are identical. There is a difference between these two claims, even if they may both be true (I suspect they are and this intuition is shown in the meshing together of these two conjunctory principles). Leibniz' relation to this principle is disputed. I recommend reading the Forester article I cited for further clarification. Nonetheless, I think this argument still has force if we take the stance of the indiscernibility of identicals and leave the identity of indiscernibles to the side for now.

Works Cited