A question on the translation of the Hegelian Aufhebung

What if we translated it as “upheaval”?

UPDATE: Or maybe “upheaving” would be better. Here’s my explanation.

I have been reading Derrida lately and was reminded of his proposal to translate aufheben as relever, which was not the standard translation at the time. Accordingly, sometimes relever is translated into English as “sublate” — which is essentially a placeholder word that we’re just supposed to know means aufheben, with the two contradictory meanings Hegel intends (elevate/conserve and abolish).

Since “sublate” is not among the standard dictionary translations for aufheben (judging from the unabridged Oxford-Duden), I figure that it’s okay to seek a word that is not a standard dictionary translation.

Just judging from its apparent etymology, “sublate” attempts to combine the two meanings — “sub” being down, “-late” being something like carry or lift. (I suppose I could read a translator’s introduction or something, but this is, after all, a blog.) Okay, fine — but aufheben does not mean “under-lift.” Heben is “lift,” but auf- is more like “up” (not simply “up,” but definitely more like “up” than like “down” or “under”).

So, just from the sound of the German words, I thought of “upheaval” — and lo and behold, the German translation for “heave” is none other than heben! The actual German word for “upheaval” is Aufruhr (also the word for “uproar”), which obviously includes the desired auf-. Aufhebung means more exclusively things like “abolition” or “cancellation,” just as “upheaval” has negative connotations — but with the verb aufheben, the dominant connotation appears to be positive (“lifting,” “preserving,” etc.), though with negative connotations also. (Interestingly, the noun das Aufheben means “a big fuss.”)

With all this in mind, I propose the neologism “to upheave” as the philosophical translation of aufheben. For the substantive Aufhebung, “upheaval” would work, but “upheaving” might be better in that it emphasizes the weirdness — while retaining the natural connotations of the word “upheaval.” Such a translation would have the advantage of reflecting a more contemporary understanding of Hegel (even thought would not be totally approved by any official translation agency), with greater emphasis on the negative and the contingent, as opposed to the more traditional understanding encoded in “sublate” (“lifting” what is “below” to a higher level).

35 thoughts on “A question on the translation of the Hegelian Aufhebung

  1. I saw “suspend” once. It does have the double meanings of “cancel” and “hold up”, and has some connotation of “raising”; when something is suspended in something, it’s floating in something (generally the air). It just sounds bad, though. “Suspension” has contradictory dictionary-definitions, but it is almost never ambiguous in English. While we want Hegel’s Aufhebung to be ambiguous.

    Interestingly, it appears that “sublate” originally had a solely negative sense. From the second translator’s intro to the Harris/Geraets/Suchting Encyclopedia Logic: “According to the OED, the term first appears in English about the mid-sixteenth century, with the meaning “remove”, including removing by destroying. It appears again in nineteenth-century logic books (as early as 1838) where it means “deny”, “contradict.” Stirling [the first to translate Hegel’s aufheben with “sublate”] simply imposed on it the extra semantic dimension of “include”, “preserve”, for the sole purpose of having an English word with a meaning to match the dual meaning of aufheben.”

    (Suchting then goes on to defend the use of “suspension” to translate Aufhebung. I suppose that must be where I recalled reading it. He notes that “auf” has the meaning “on”; “sus” is a form of “sub” and can mean “from below”, while “pend” is from “pendere”, “to hang” and “heben” is “lift”. So “hang from below” or “lift onto”. “A category that is aufgehoben “hangs” from the next higher one in the sense of being dependent on it, having been “lifted” into that position by the dialectical process.” Though his main argument for “suspend” is that we shouldn’t have to use a neologism to translate a perfectly ordinary German word.)

    I’m inclined to stick with “sublate”. Or just say aufheben.

  2. If you need to translate it, “suspend” doesn’t seem to bad to me. Less dramatic than “upheave,” I suppose, but perhaps more easily accessible. But, given that it is Hegel, a bit of drama might be more appropriate than accessibility.

  3. “upheaving”?

    Well, picking up the trail of an earlier exchange: I guess I’ll file that as the Hegelian equivalent of Kierkegaardian ‘preliminary expectorations’ – i.e. perfectly good translation that, on the other hand, is too suggestive of projectile vomiting or spitting. Heaving. Upchucking. (‘Upheaving’ sounds like vertical projectile vomiting – a medically counterindicated practice, I should think.)

    (Maybe we could start to translate “Elements of the Philosophy of Right” as “Aliments of the Philosophy of Right”, to get the proper connotation of food moving up and down, at some stage of digestion.)

    Upheave. Upheave. There’s a character named Upchuck on “Ben10”. (You could google and see whether you think he looks Hegelian.) On the other hand, there’s also a character named Benwolf. I can hardly blame Ben Wolfson for that, for example. So go ahead: ‘upheave’ it is.

    But then there’s this: ‘Aufhebung means more exclusively things like “abolition” or “cancellation,”’

    There is a German idiom, as you may know: “Aufgeschoben ist nicht Aufgehoben”. Delay is not cancellation. ‘Delay is not upheaval’ doesn’t really get at the same thought. But ‘delay is not suspension’ is actually even worse, since we are likely to hear ‘suspension’ as precisely meaning a kind of delay. ‘Belated is not sublated’, on the third hand, is just peculiar.

    “Gut aufgehoben sein” is ‘to be in good hands’. That doesn’t work with upheaval. It doesn’t real work with anything but the likes of ‘uplifted’.

  4. None of those idioms works with “sublate” either, of course.

    No one would think that we needed one word to correspond to even relatively uncomplicated German compounds (eg we don’t talk about naturalsciences or, what is more likely actually to happen, some ridiculous adaptation from Latin or Greek, but the natural sciences, for Naturwissenschaften). Consequently I propose the following radical translation for aufhebung: the preservation at a higher level of something abolished at a lower. Or as you prefer to gloss it. It could appear a few times in full and mostly in contracted form.

  5. I’m not the person to ask, but I’d be really surprised if aufheben is any more ambiguous in common usage than “suspend” is.

    i’m not the person to ask either but i’m wondering if, as good as the exercise might be, in the end, this is an impossible task? ambiguity is nothing new when it comes to languages, isn’t it? most common words have several meanings and to attemtp to translate one German word into one English word with an exact reproduction of all the German meanings into all the English meanings seems to be impossible. “aufheben/Aufhebung” means all these things (at least the two important ones) but clearly not in every single instance – context helps, both grammatical context and philosophical context… i think to try to mathematically calculate which prefix goes with which equivalent prefix is kind of silly, isn’t it?

  6. So you object in principle to the attempt to find the best possible translation for an important philosophical term? Not that I’ve found it, obviously, but it appears you aren’t objecting to the substance of what I’ve said — you’re objecting to the very fact that I’ve made the effort.

  7. I’m inclined to stick with “sublate”. Or just say aufheben.

    to keep aufheben would not qualify as translation then, would it? it would be like keeping Dasein – i’m sure there’s a good explanation for it in English, but still very perplexing…

  8. no no no – i simply noted that your observation about the ambiguity of “suspend” was how i felt about the ordeal, and if we really need just one word in English for aufheben/Aufhebung and not several depending on the context – i find that that seems to be the problem in many cases, i.e. the task is to find the exact or close equivalent or just keep the German – i think your “upheave/upheaval” idea seems plausible, i just don’t think that it needs to necessarily replace other terms. but you do raise an important problem of the need for a new translation due to our changing understanding of Hegel and maybe in that sense i might be read as objecting to the mechanics of the effort itself, but not in a dismissive way of objecting to your effort as in declaring it to be useless… but then again i’m not a translator and i might not approach this matter correctly

  9. I figure at this point “Dasein” is part of English. It’s a loan-word, but then so is “taco”. (It’s worth noting that “Dasein” in English has a narrow meaning, unlike “Dasein” in German. So it’s not “the same word” in English and German, in that sense, despite being a loan-word. Such is the way of translating.)

    I think the reason a one-to-one translation is desirable in translating Hegel is that you want to be able to trace when he’s using particular technical terms without tracking down the original German text. When such fine-grained textual work isn’t an issue, there’s not much of a reason to try to translate one word with one word.

  10. daniel, i understand the logic behind the need to consistently translate one technical German word with one technical English word – which also can be achieved with a use of simple parenthesis – i am simply wondering if the task at hand is that simple, i.e. if such correspondence really exists or can be forced upon languages. for one, if one really intends on being a Hegel (or Heidegger) scholar, then one will surely read him (them) in German, and if one simply wants to read Hegel for general education, then maybe one just needs to trust the translators and not be so concerned with technicalities. as per Dasein vs. taco, i don’t know much about either as English words, but i suspect they have a different history of being appropriated – it seems to me, again just as an observation, that the situation here is an eternal debate between “literal” translations and, may i interject an obvious expression of preference, “readable” translations, whether it is the bible or aeschylus…

    as per the task (and the need itself) of unambiguous correspondence, i wonder what motivates that desire for certainty? i think someone like Derrida who prompted the whole exercise, as Adam mentions, said plenty about it – i am not sure if this is an appropriate occasion to revisit…

  11. “That desire for certainty”? There’s this weird tone of moralization about all your comments in this thread, which at times verges on anti-intellectualism. (I presume that upon reading this, you will disclaim anything of the sort and claim to agree with me on everything.)

  12. no, i will not claim to agree with you “on everything,” and i will not disclaim that you perceive my comments to have a moralizing tone, however, as i myself do not see anything specifically moralizing about my comments and simply stating that you do so does not make them so – if you feel that they are “moralizing” and “weird” then i am genuinely puzzled – i suppose there is no reason for me to continue to comment as you do not seem to be interested in anything i have to say, only in the way i say it which you so perceptive to discern…

  13. actually that was pretty active-aggressive, passive-aggressive is when instead of “aggressing” you make remarks around the issue without any direct engagement like, for example, in unexplained accusations of “anti-intellectualism,” picking up fights over nothing, unnecessary rudeness, hostility but all without actually actively explaining yourself or exposing your real disposition. i’m sure this entry will send you off into the webworld of google and wikipedia, i hope it does not take too much of your time from noble pursuits of being rude to people you’ve never met…

  14. I don’t expect to gain much fame from this post, given that Holbo has levelled the decisive objection to my proposed translation: its vomit-related connotations.

  15. Adam, I don’t know German, so I’m of course going to suggest leaving it untranslated; but, since you mentioned the proposed Derrida translation, I thought I’d add something. In The Ear of the Other, Derrida claims that “Aufhebung” is untranslatable (at least as a single word) into other languages. What he says next I found to be interesting though: “[F]ar from being a limit on speculation, it is the chance for speculation. Thus, when Hegel writes ‘Aufhebung,’ when he makes use of ‘Aufhebung‘ as a word in a natural language which is supposed to be naturally speculative, at that moment one is dealing with something that goes toward Heidegger rather than moving toward Hegel” (130). In other words, the untranslatability of Aufhebung opens up to speculation, to infinite thought, as in Heidegger’s “Dichten ist Denken” (“to make poetry is to think”). Perhaps that is the only “translation” we can hope for: the translation/transition to thinking/thanking, building, dwelling. Spontaneous ejaculatory event over. carry on.

  16. I immediately thought of upchuck too. You know, from what I hear, one common usage for Aufhebung is leftovers from a meal (so then we could have real fun with the possibility of leftovers gone bad).

  17. Adam, I just wanted you to know that I’ve already begun using “upheave” and included it in a paper–not necessarily as a direct translation of aufheben, but to convey similar meaning. It will spread like wildfire.

  18. My house has been in upheaval the last 24 hours. I was in handcuffs for 1/2 hour yesterday while on one of my street walks, a racoon fell through the ceiling of J. and I’s bedroom right above our bed, and yes, of course, lots of projectile vomitting (all of which is why a day care co-op conversation on homosexuality proved quite tame).

  19. I’m not scholar, no expert, so I’m sure someone has suggested this before and it has been ruled out by whatever criteria one uses to judge such things, but “sublimation” has always seemed to me a fruitful translation, with its sense of both “elevating” and “transcending”, with its powerful and to my mind entirely appropriate alchemical (and simply chemical) meanings, even with its Freudian sense (which brings out the “negation” aspect) and its modern turn into “subliminal”, and of course with its literal definition as “to make sublime”.

  20. Or you could all go here
    to get a clear explanation of the meanings of the German word and their probable origin (instead of fantasising about “auf” meaning “on” or “up” etc: “upheaval” is grotesque). Michael Caplan’s suggestion of sublimation is the only sensible one here, if people can sublate the Freudian sense.

  21. “Upheaval” is a brilliant suggestion — to call it “grotesque” is just plain stupid. My own paper on the topic (suggesting ‘boot’ in the computer sense, and the English word ‘relieve’ following Derrida) appeared as the “Hegel” chapter in Roffe&Reynolds(ed) Understanding Derrida (Continuum, 2004) — now posted online here:
    If Hegel had meant “sublimate” he would have written “sublimieren,” a perfectly good German word. Freud got this word from Nietzsche who had gotten it from Goethe, and gave it a very different meaning which now is the dominant meaning in English: another reason why sublimate is not an accurate English translation. Freudian sublimation has nothing to do with Hegelian Aufhebung. Furthermore, as aufheben is NOT a neologism in German, it should not be translated by a neologism in English.
    Dr. David Rathbone, Philosophy Dept, University of Melbourne, Australia.

  22. It is just plain ignorant to attribute plain stupidity to my characterisation of “upheaval” as a grotesque transaltion of “Aufhebung”. The English word in question commonly denotes “1. A violent or sudden change or disruption to something. 2. An upward displacement of part of the earth’s crust”. Both these meanings would excite grotesque (in the strict sense of the word) associations if the translation were adopted in English editions of Hegel or references by philosophers.
    The German word “aufheben” has contradictory senses, though it is not in my extensive experience ever ambiguous i.e. context is all. Nowadays it tends to mean “save for later”, but in a legal context “lift i.e. abolish” (a ban, prohibition). In Luther’s day it still meant to collect (interest), therefore to gain something; the philosophical meaning of “aufheben” was derived from Thomas Aquinas’s “modus tollens” or “sublatio”, mediation between opposites, which Kant (who associated it with “Aufhebung”) opposed but Schiller (who also used the earlier sense of “aufheben”) made use of in his *Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen* (see Marc Shell’s *Money, language and thought* pp.139 ff. on this).

  23. I like the idea of following Derrida and translating it as “relieve.” It feels right somehow.

    What I found convincing in this thread was the notion that the verb form “to upheave” was evocative of vomiting.

  24. Ignorant, yes, no doubt, but not plain ignorant so much as that fancy ignorance which knows that it knows nothing (much). But what I do know is that ‘grotesque’ means bizarrely misshapen, and upon that meaning, ‘upheaval’ is not at all a grotesque suggestion. Not that it would be the right suggestion in every context – as has been pointed out, translation must always be context-sensitive, which is why its an art as much as a science. Since I can see that this is a critical forum, I’ll just say hope I wasn’t out of line with calling people stupid for being non-dialectically negative, and negate that negation with a dialectical handball across to the Zusatz to Encyclopedia §363:

    “Attempts have been made to reduce digestion to a matter of pressing, pumping, and so on; but in that case it would imply an external relationship of inner and outer , whereas the animal is the absolute self-identity of life, not a mere composition or aggregate. Recently, chemical relationships have been employed; but assimilation cannot be a chemical process either, because in the living being we have a subject which preserves itself and negates the specific quality of the other, whereas in the chemical process, each of the substances taking part, acid and alkali, loses its quality and is lost in the neutral product of the salt or returns to an abstract radical. There the activity is extinguished, but the animal on the contrary is a lasting unrest in its self-relation. Digestion can, indeed, be grasped as a neutralising of acid and alkali; it is correct to say that such finite relationships begin in life, but life interrupts them and brings forth a product which is other than chemical. Thus there is moisture in the eye which refracts light; these finite relationships can therefore be pursued up to a certain point, but then there begins a quite different order of things. … Chemistry only applies to what is lifeless, and animal processes always sublate the nature of what is chemical. The mediations which occur in the living being, like those in the meteorological process, can be followed up for some distance and demonstrated; but this kind of mediation cannot be imitated. … [into §364] … As mediation, assimilation is digestion – opposition of the subject to the outer world, and, as further differentiated, the process of animal water (of the gastric and pancreatic juices, and animal lymph as such) and of animal fire (of the gall, in which the accomplished return of the organism into itself from its concentration in the spleen is determined as being-for-self and as an active consuming).”

    But naturally sometimes the sublation mis-fires, and the merely chemical is not taken up into the organic life of the whole: we call this indigestion and at its worst, vomiting. Now if the word ‘upheaval’ was being used to translate ‘aufhebung’ instead of ‘sublate,’ then digestion itself would in that case be the “upheaval,” and vomiting the failure of this upheaval (i.e. of heaving the nutrient load up out of the chemical food and into the blood of the organism). In English, vomiting is usually called “throwing up” or “chucking up” but not usually “heaving up.” So that would work fine here: food is either “heaved up” (or perhaps better ‘hauled up’ into the blood in digestion, or else “thrown up” undigested. And digestion is indeed an upheaval, although we only notice that when it goes wrong in indigestion and illness. Only then do we think about the intensity of the upheaval which relieves the chemical of its stored energy by breaking its molecular bonds and liberating the sugars, proteins and elements to their higher purpose of giving me the energy to write. And when indigestion goes away, it is a great releif.

    “The organic fluid which remains selfsame is the ‘fiery’ nature of the inorganic which therein directly returns to its concept… The fundamental relation of the organism is this simple contact in which the other is transformed directly and at a stroke… The concept of digestion therefore is that after its mediating process has explicated what already exists an-sich, the triumph over the food which has entered the Dunstkreis of the living animal – the organism, returning into itself out of opposition, now concludes by comprehending itself.” (§365, Zusatz to Remark.)

  25. I like this: “stupid for being non-dialectically negative” – a very good way to shut people up, must remember that if I ever want to become a commissar.
    Of course “grotesque” can imply “bizarrely misshapen” (can a word be misshapen?), but its primary meaning is of an aesthetic origin (Roman grotto art) and signifies “fantastic, incongruous” etc, also “simultaneously invok[ing] in an audience a feeling of uncomfortable bizarreness” (Wikipedia). That would be the effect the translation would make, and footnotes would have to be added explaining the appropriateness in each case of use while indicating (for the unlearned) the other translations of Aufhebung/aufheben given elsewhere in the text. I know that as a translator myself I would get into trouble if I kept offering different “case-sensitive” translations of key terms. But have it your own way – would you like to bet on the general adoption of the term in future Hegel translations?

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