German-English translation problems

In his paper on Alfred Lorenzer [1], Tobias Vollstedt uses the expression “scenical comprehension” to translate the German “szenisches Verstehen“. I feel that this translation might lead to misunderstandings, for two reasons:

1) The word “scenical” in English is closely connected with associations of pittoresque landscapes etc. The German association of “putting on stage” is only vaguely addressed by the word “scenical”, the meaning “drawing attention to sth.” not at all. (The same applies to “scenic understanding”, a term which has also been used to translate “szenisches Verstehen“.)

2) The word “comprehension” appears awkward, in that it is hardly ever used in connection with psychoanalytic practise – we do not “comprehend” our patients but we understand them.

As Vollstedt states, Lorenzer’s term “szenisches Verstehen” has a lot in common with Betty Joseph’s “total situation”, although her theoretical interest is strictly restrained to technique while Lorenzer is developing a meta-psychoanalytical framework. Nevertheless a term hinting at this connection could be useful.

Hopefully native speakers will eventually find an appropriate solution to this problem of translation.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Tobias Vollstedt: The Work of Alfred LorenzerThe Other Scene, N°1, 2013.


  1. I am not a native English speaker, but having translated Lorenzer’s  Sprachzerstörung und Rekonstruktion (1) (Destruction of language and reconstruction) into French, I’ve had to struggle with similar difficulties. Obviously, I cannot contribute an answer to your questions, but I would like to share some further thoughts.

    Lorenzer is obviously not an easy thinker and his writing style does not facilitate the task of translating or even understanding. Fortunately, the French translation of “szenisches Verstehen” was quite easy, as there is only one french candidate for the job: “compréhension“. So that in French “compréhension scénique” seemed quite natural. “Scénique” indicates the stage and relates to theatre.  I did not feel as fortunate with Lorenzers distinction between “Teilhabe” and “Teilnahme” which, even in German, can be synonyms.

    Having also worked for quite some time on the Erklären-Verstehen debate and its relation to Psychoanalysis, I have also read some of the English-speaking literature on the topic. From Collingwood’s The Idea of History to von Wright’s Explanation and Understanding, up to the discussion between Peter Litpton and Michael Strevens (2), ‘explanation’ and ‘understanding’ seem to be the established translation of the German Erklären and Verstehen.

    However, the wish to distinguish Lorenzer’s conception of Verstehen from the more traditional, philosophical or epistemological concepts of understanding seems interesting. For Lorenzer, szenisches Verstehen does not simply refer to a cognitive activity in the mind of the person who understands. Lorenzer concieves of understanding in psychoanalysis as a complex transferential interaction scenes. From this perspective, the standard translation – understanding – might in turn encourage a misunderstanding. I don’t know however, whether this would be a sufficient reason for a non-canonical translation of Verstehen.

    To get back to your two points of discussion:

    1.) I have never discussed the question with native English speakers, but I can easily see how the different meanings, connotations and associations you mention can induce misunderstanding. Your observations made me curious and I looked up the word « scenic » in the Oxford English Dictionary where I found out that scenic can be a noun or an adjective.

    The OED defines the noun scenic in the following way:

    1. scene

    2. a scenic film or movie

    3. short for ‘scenic wallpaper’

    4. Short for scenic railway

    5. A scenic pattern or design

    As a noun, scenic does indeed mean « picturesque landscapes » or « beautiful natural scenery ». This is why, I suppose native speakers think of landscapes.

    I found a quite different definition for scenic as adjective:

    1. a. Of or belonging to the stage, dramatic, theatrical.

    b. Represented on the stage

    c. fitted for the stage

    d. of or belonging to stage scenery or stage effect

    2. fig. resembling, or likened to, stage representation and stage effect; dramatical or theatrical in style

    3. a. of or belonging to natural scenery

    b. applied to a road that has been planned and landscaped so as to provide fine views. orig. and chiefly N. American.

    4.a. With reference to a painting or a sculpture: representing a ‘scene’ or incident in which several persons are concerned

    b. with reference to wallpaper: creating a continuous scene or landscape on the walls of a room.

    Looking again at the OED definition for scenical, I thought this might be an interesting choice after all:

    1. a. of or belonging to the stage

    b. with special reference to stage-scenery

    2. fig. a. (Chiefly in bad sense) Resembling, or likened to, stage-representation and stage-illusion; theatrical in style

    b. Fictitious, pretended; illusory, imaginary; not real or genuine

    c. Resembling a stage-scene

    This would mean, at least according to the word definitions, that scenical strictly refers to stage or at least stage-scenery avoids the possible ambiguity that one might find in scenic (adj.). In that sense, scenical understanding would be a quite accurate translation of Lorenzers concept.

    Not so long ago, in 2010, the psychoanalytic review Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society (4) published a special issue on Alfred Lorenzer. And in fact, the authors of the issue systematically translated “szenisches Verstehen” as “scenic understanding ». However, since the authors are mostly German, their use does not answer to the question you raise.

    2.) I absolutely do share your hesitation about “comprehension”. I have probably never met the word in this context in psychoanalysis or even in the context of the epistemological discussions about understanding. You are right too in mentioning that psychoanalytic papers systematically use the term “understanding”.

    Interestingly enough, a quick text search also shows that some authors seem to use understanding and comprehension as synonyms, while others even seem to distinguish understanding from comprehension, as two different mental activities. But these uses do seem quite uncommon.


    (1) Lorenzer, A. (1973). Sprachzerstörung und Rekonstruktion : Vorarbeiten zu einer Metatheorie der Psychoanalyse. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.[[1]]

    (2) Lipton, P. (2009). Understanding without explanation. In: Scientific Understanding: Philosophical Perspectives, 43–63. Strevens, M. (forthcoming). No Understanding Without Explanation. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A. [[2]]

    (3) Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, 2010, 15 (3). See… for the table of contents.[[4]]

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