I just learned a new word, and I rather wish I hadn’t. Reading an interview with Mahmood Mamdani, an Indo-Ugandan scholar who’s currently Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and and Director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University and has written what sounds like a very interesting book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, I hit the following rough patch:

I do acknowledge the importance of the nativist critique that calls for a fuller grasp of historicity, but one also needs to understand its weakness, because its sense of historicity is compromised by its search for authenticity. The point is not to just to sidestep the nativist critique but to sublate it, in the manner in which Engels understood sublating Hegel in his critique of Ludwig Feuerbach; to take into consideration that which is relevant, effective and forceful in the critique but at the same time to break away from its preoccupation with origins and authenticity.

That’s classic High Academic dialect, but I was able to hack my way through most of it; the verb “sublate,” however, defeated me. It turns out that, although it has been used by logicians to mean simply ‘deny,’ it has a more specific meaning: ‘to negate or eliminate (as an element in a dialectic process) but preserve as a partial element in a synthesis,’ in the admirably clear words of Merriam-Webster. I say “admirably clear” because the OED throws up its hands and says simply “see quots. 1865.” You want to see quots. 1865? Here they are:

1865 J. H. STIRLING Secret of Hegel I. 354 Nothing passes over into Being, but Being equally sublates itself, is a passing over into Nothing, Ceasing-to-be. They sublate not themselves mutually, not the one the other externally; but each sublates itself in itself, and is in its own self the contrary of itself. Ibid. 357 A thing is sublated, resolved, only so far as it has gone into unity with its opposite.

Got that? Me neither. The Secret of Hegel could remain a secret forever with explanations like that. But why “sublate”? Here the OED is more forthcoming: “rendering G. aufheben, used by Hegel as having the opposite meanings of ‘destroy’ and ‘preserve.’” And yes, aufheben is a many-splendored word; the basic meaning is ‘pick up’ (heb es auf ‘pick it up!’), but it also means ‘keep, put aside,’ ‘abolish, do away with,’ ‘raise, lift’ (eg, a blockade), and ‘offset, make up for.’ So if you’re translating dear old Hegel, how do you render it in English, given that English does not have a word with that particular combination of senses?

Well, there are several approaches. You could keep the down-to-earth, colloquial nature of the word and render it “pick up,” letting the reader get used to the specialized usage and forcing future writers to say “to pick it up, in the Hegelian sense.” Or you could keep the sense of the word in context, giving up on the basic-vocabulary aspect; you could, for instance, render it “supersede,” which I think conveys the meaning well enough. But James Hutchison Stirling (for I assume it was he who set English Hegelianism on this contorted course: “his style, though often striking, is so marked by the influence of Carlyle, and he so resolutely declines to conform to ordinary standards of systematic exposition, that his work is almost as difficult as the original which it is intended to illuminate”) chooses to reach into the grab-bag of Latinity he doubtless picked up at Glasgow University and pulls out sublate (from sublatum, the past participle of tollo ‘pick up’), a verb that will convey absolutely nothing to the average reader and thus is catnip to a certain type of scholarly mind. It’s the same mentality that chose to render Freud’s Besetzung by “cathexis,” Fehlleistung by “parapraxis,” and Ich by “ego.” I wish translators would make the reader’s comprehension their main goal rather than seize the opportunity to show off their classical education.


  1. Uh-oh. I remember coming across “sublate” in some English-language discussion of Hegel. And finding this particular Hegelian/dialectic sense of aufheben anything but transparent even in the original German. (Much as I like some philosophy otherwise considered abstruse, I’ve always found Hegel imbuvable, as the French say).
    In present-day German, “aufheben” does indeed carry the two separate senses; and they are hardly ever confused. To translate it, I find it odd to resort to latiate neologisms. “Lift” would do rather adequately, since e.g. restrictions or limitations are being aufgehoben (past participle of aufheben, i.e. “lifted”) in German.

  2. “Lift” is excellent. I should have thought of it, but my mind was muddled by Hegelian fog.

  3. “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” is an good and important book, but it is best when he is discussing Africa. his section on Afghanistan criminally downplays the extent of Soviet violence against the Afghans, and the role of the Soviet government in engineering the coup. This is too bad, because his more scholarly work is first rate.

  4. John Emerson says:

    In his translation decades ago, Kauffman talked about this problem. Hegel’s writing is difficult, but his language is far less jargon-laden than the translations, and in the case of aufheben, he was just skillfully using an ordinary but versatile German word in a good writerly way.
    The biggest crime is the mysterious word “Id”, which is the non-word which translates the simple German pronousn”es”, which is the common word meaning “it”. Desire, the “id”, even though it is part of ourselves, is like the “it” or thing which controls us and which we cannot control.
    I still have trouble learning certain very ordinary compounded German words because the seem so much like sociological jargon of the “Weltanschauung” type. I keep asking myself, “What is the ordinary everyday German word for this? ‘Beherbergungsgewerbe’ is just too clunky”.

  5. I would have no idea what “sublate” meant, even knowing Latin. That said, the meanings of tollo and aufheben do seem to correspond quite well. In addition to “pick up”, tollo also means “destroy” or “acknowledge a child” (i.e. it means “raise, raze, or raise” 😉 )
    The multiple meanings of this verb were frequently exploited by Roman politicians, most famously in Cicero’s description of Octavian: “Laudandus, ornandus, tollendus.

  6. Perhaps Hegel would make more sense translated into Latin.

  7. It’s interesting how the Latin verbs tollo and fero ‘bear, carry’ got confounded. Somehow, the perfect forms tuli, latus < *tlatus originally belonging to tollo got attached to fero instead, whereas tollo‘s perfect forms incorporated the prefix sub- to become sustuli, sublatus. Fortunately there is no verb *subtollo, though there is, e.g. transfero, transtuli, tralatus > Eng. transfer and translate. The English (now Scots) cognate of tollo is thole ‘put up with, endure (involuntarily)’.

    A familiar tag involving tollo is Tolle, lege ‘Pick it up and read it’. Supposedly St. Augustine heard a child’s voice crying this, which induced him to open the Scriptures, read Paul’s description of conversion, and so return to Christianity.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    The problems of translating verbs like (auf)heben and tolle which seem to have contradictory meanings arise from the fact that they originally describe actions which require a follow-up: if you pick up something, you can’t keep it “up” for long, at some point you have to do something with it, most often to put it somewhere, such as “down”, or in a more specific place. Some verbs will refer to just one piece of the action, another might describe the whole sequence. Verbs with multiple stem forms, like some Latin ones, are a consequence of the various stems having slightly different meanings or rather contexts of use. Bertween “pick up” and “put down” there could be a longish period of “carrying”, for instance. “Pick up” and “put down” take little time, but “carry” implies a certain duration, so the first two are more likely to be used in the tense implying punctual action than “carry”, which is more likely to be used in a tense implying an action sustained over time. Eventually the forms less commonly used are forgotten, so that each stem participates in an incomplete paradigm (one that is missing some tenses), while the missing tense forms are supplied by using the equally incomplete but complementary pardigm of another stem. Given the practical importance of common activities such as pick up, etc, it is not surprising that different stems end up specialized for only some of the tenses normally existing for each verb.

  9. ktschwarz says:

    It’s the same mentality that chose to render Freud’s Besetzung by “cathexis,” Fehlleistung by “parapraxis,” and Ich by “ego.”

    … and Chinese ts’ui 翠 by alcedine? So what you’re saying is, these guys would have gotten along with Boodberg?

    And that is one of marie-lucie’s greatest comments. Another famous use of tollō is “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi”, almost always rendered in English by “take away”. In John 1:29 the Greek was αἴρων, which (from a quick glance at the LSJ lexicon) seems to have a semantic range much like tollō, and you can trace the connections: original “pick up/lift/bear” leads in one direction to “hoist sail”, “get under way”, “draw water”, “raise a child”, and in another direction to “take away”, “clear away” and thus “destroy”.

  10. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Serendipity! I’ve been looking for a place to bung in this observation (sideways, if need be): illate should be a word.

    Also I just realized why Eucharist wafers are called oblater in Danish.

  11. Stu Clayton says:

    illate should be a word.

    With what meaning ? Pronounced as in cafe latte ? We already have illocution perlocution and allocution. So maybe we need allate too (prelate and percolate already exist, also ablate, prolate and oblate).

  12. Lars Mathiesen says:

    An illate would be a fact you’ve inferred. Just as an oblate is something you’ve offered.

    Opaque loan morphology FTW!

    (Also, English, what’s with the r’s?)

  13. January First-of-May says:

    Also I just realized why Eucharist wafers are called oblater in Danish.

    I’m in turn reminded of Karlovarské oplatky, the famous pressed wafers of Karlovy Vary.

    (I’ve mentioned them on LH before.)

  14. PlasticPaddy says:

    For me at least the doubled r tells me that is the stressed syllable. Why the stress pattern is different between suffered and conferred is not clear to me (but these are Romance loanwords and have stress or vowel/syllabic differences also in modern day Romance). Offer is even more complicated because there was interference between Old English and French, but French also treats it like suffer.

  15. Lars Mathiesen says:

    @PP, you’re likely right. Infer seems to be a loan directly from Latin into English, maybe the double rr is just a learned affectation.

    I don’t think percolate belongs here, though. Colum is ‘sieve’ in Latin.

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