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“On how we gradually make up our thoughts while we are talking” by Heinrich von Kleist

Christopher J. Wickham


During the course of an email correspondence on the subject of Heinrich von Kleist’s short essay “Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” (1805-6?), translation and Shakespeare scholar Jürgen Gutsch observed to me in passing that he was struck by how all the English translations of this title that he had located depended on words of French origin to render the German Verfertigung (preparation, formulation, construction, fabrication, formation, production, completion). What, I wondered, would be the effect if a translation of this essay deliberately set out to unleash the Germanic substrate of English, with all its informal, down-to-earth immediacy and the expressive potency of empirical Anglo-Saxon forebears who lived and communicated as peasants, farmers, tradesmen, merchants, and craftsmen? What would be lost if we minimized the abstractions of French and Latinate origin that derive from the language of administration, government, law, philosophy, and religion? That, then, is the backstory of this experiment in translation.

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