The Hermeneutics of Translation

A Translator’s Competence and the Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer

by Beata Piecychna (Author)
Monographs 268 Pages

Table Of Content

  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Table of Contents
  • Chapter One: Gadamer’s Concept of Language
  • 1.1 How Did the Concept of “Language” Form in Western European Thought? according to Hans-Georg Gadamer
  • 1.1.1. Gadamer’s Reflections on Language in the Light of Greek Philosophy
  • 1.1.2. Language and the Christian Idea of Incarnation
  • 1.1.3. Language and the Conceptualization Process – Gadamer’s Reflections on the Achievements of Nicholas of Cusa
  • 1.2. Language and Hermeneutical Ontology
  • 1.2.1. Gadamer’s References to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Findings
  • 1.2.2. Language in Relation to the World and the Individual’s Environment
  • 1.3. Language in Relation to Understanding and Cognition
  • 1.4. Gadamer’s Reflections on Language and the Translation Process
  • 1.4.1. Aspects of Language
  • 1.4.2. The Speculativeness of Language
  • 1.4.3. The Historicity of Language
  • 1.5. Semantics and Hermeneutics
  • 1.6. Summary
  • Chapter Two: Translation as the Realization of a Circular Structure of Understanding
  • 2.1. Understanding, Interpretation, Application
  • 2.2. Structure and Elements of the Understanding Process – The Hermeneutic Circle
  • 2.2.1. Preunderstanding
  • 2.2.2. Fore-knowledge
  • 2.2.3. Prejudice (Vorurteil)
  • 2.2.4. Verification of Prejudices – The Translator’s Self-reflection and Self- criticism
  • 2.3. Summary
  • Chapter Three: Translation as a Concretization of Historically Effected Consciousness
  • 3.1. Translation as a Hermeneutical Experience – Introduction to the Notion of Historically Effected Consciousness
  • 3.2. Effective History
  • 3.3. Tradition
  • 3.4. The Horizon
  • 3.5. Hermeneutical Consciousness
  • 3.5.1. Translation and Tradition
  • 3.5.2. The Translator and Temporal Distance
  • 3.5.3. The Translator and the Horizon
  • 3.6. Summary
  • Chapter Four: Translation as a Hermeneutical Conversation
  • 4.1. Reading and Translation
  • 4.1.1. Text
  • 4.1.2. The Translator and the Text
  • 4.2. The Dialectics of Question and Answer – the Translator’s Dialog with the Text
  • 4.2.1. The Essence of the Question
  • 4.2.2. Reading in an Understanding Way
  • 4.3. Application
  • 4.3.1. Competences of the Legal Translator
  • 4.4. Gadamer’s Model of Knowledge
  • 4.4.1. Bildung – Who is an “Educated Translator”?
  • 4.4.2. Phronesis, Sophia, Techne
  • 4.5. Summary
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Coda: Hermeneutics of Translation, Where Are You Heading?
  • Hermeneutics of Translation Studies or Hermeneutics of Translation?
  • Hermeneutical Translation
  • Hermeneutics of Translation Studies and the Hermeneutics of Translation
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright

←44 | 45→ Chapter One:

Gadamer’s Concept of Language

Researchers describe Gadamer’s philosophy of language as “hermeneutic” and categorize it as a “continental, transcendental”108 philosophy that is part of “fundamental research tradition.”109 Moreover, Bronk perceives his philosophy as “Romantic” and “humanistic.”110 At this point, it is necessary to ask a question: what is the hermeneutic philosophy of language? Bronk gives an extremely apt description of it when stating that in the hermeneutical approach, language performs multiple functions of a holistic nature: its analysis takes into consideration both the linguistic and non-linguistic context.111 Language understood as ←45 | 46→ a specific medium is where understanding occurs. The focus is on the language’s relationship with cognition and the world.112

By a peculiar synthesis of language’s hermeneutical dimension, Aleksandra Pawliszyn stresses the importance of living speech as an important basis for the discussed phenomenon to occur. Pawliszyn states that the subjective content conveyed by a speaker to a great extent shapes the sense of their utterance. This subjective state of a person who utters certain words has a significant impact on the understanding of the content. Moreover, correct decoding of the message becomes possible only after taking into account the “subjective state” of the speaker. In this case, the relationship of language with the world and with the other person plays a crucial role.113 To sum up, the hermeneutical philosophy of language is primarily based on a holistic analysis of language, namely its relationship with human existence, the world, and other people. Nothing is said here once and for all: the meaning of a statement emerges only in a concrete situation, in the context of other words or expressions, because only then is it possible to understand. After all, Gadamer’s philosophy of language is – to recall the words of Baran – “the identity of the opposing elements … of the world and language.”114

As Bronk rightly points out, it is important whether Gadamer’s views on language may be treated as part of his own philosophy of language or whether they make up his particular theory of a holistic nature.115 Certainly, the foci of his interest were not “modern language concepts,” such as analytical philosophy ←46 | 47→ or structural linguistics. Since he often referred to authors like Cassirer and Lohmann, we may conclude that Gadamer once leaned toward transcendentalism in his reflections.116 Moreover, he did not intend to create a comprehensive or systematic theory of language. This may be related to his education, as he thought of himself more as a philosopher than a philologist. In his work, the linguistic aspect is simply an element in the broader context of philosophical reflection. In this case, language becomes a philosophically considered phenomenon, transforming into a universal medium in which understanding takes place and an entity reveals itself and can thereby exist. Nevertheless, we should not reduce Gadamer’s views to “the psychology or sociology of language or to linguistics.”117 Although he did not create a separate, exhaustive theory of language, he developed an interesting concept closely related to other concepts crucial for his hermeneutical philosophy, especially his views on translation.

Gadamer created his concept of language in the 1960s. As Jean Grondin rightly emphasizes, this theme belonged to the philosophical terra incognita at that time.118 At the time when Gadamer proposed his hermeneutical approach to language, it was truly unique and innovative. It is noteworthy, as Grondin emphasizes, that in the 1950s almost no one in Germany showed much interest in Wittgenstein. No one practiced analytical philosophy, considering it incomprehensible or only related to the activities of the Vienna Circle. Neither Husserl nor even Sartre engaged in language peregrinations.119

Gadamer included most of his considerations on language in Wahrheit und Methode120 and in subsequent works: Kleine Shriften and Gesammelte Werke. The thoughts presented in these works and in their translations serve as the basis for the analysis and interpretation of Gadamer’s concept of language in this chapter. ←47 | 48→

1.1 How Did the Concept of “Language” Form in Western European Thought? according to Hans-Georg Gadamer

It is worth starting with Gadamer’s famous words:121 “Being that can be understood is language.” In this sense, language is everything that can be understood. Such a perspective implies the universality of hermeneutics.122 In his work, language takes the form of art or history and everything that exists.123 It is a universal being:

The hermeneutical phenomenon here projects its own universality back onto the ontological constitution of what is understood, determining it in a universal sense as language and determining its own relation to beings as interpretation. Thus, we speak not only of a language of art but also of a language of nature—in short, of any language that things have.124

Quite frequently, Gadamer refers to language as word, but not in the sense of lexical units. Not only does a word mean a given thing, but it is also characterized by occasionality and always appears in a specific context, which at the same time indicates its fluidity.125 In this context, it is worth recalling Sołtysiak, who states that language in Gadamer’s hermeneutical philosophy functions in several meanings. In a narrow sense, it is the language used by man, founded on the basis of a word, and in a broader sense, it constitutes human communication, which includes not only articulation but also gestures. Furthermore, Sołtysiak distinguishes an even wider meaning of language and defines it as a conversation ←48 | 49→ that men can have with representatives of flora and fauna and even with works of art.126

All in all, in Gadamer’s hermeneutical philosophy language is not subject to analyses of a typically linguistic or logical nature. In fact, if we assume a holistic character, it constitutes the certain set of senses or meanings expressed in a message’s content. Of course, specific traces of language may be found in ordered collections of knowledge, literary works, or other forms of notation, but language is truly realized only in living speech. Therefore, it cannot be reduced to purely linguistic aspects.127 The focus here is primarily on issues related to the linguistic aspects of understanding and the relationship between language, man, and the world, to be discussed later in this chapter.

Moreover, Gadamer extensively reflects on the history of language research, especially from a philosophical perspective. These reflections are important as they make it possible to specify and understand how the philosopher defined language and its nature.

1.1.1. Gadamer’s Reflections on Language in the Light of Greek Philosophy

In the part concerning the development of the term “language” in the history of Western European thought, Gadamer devotes a great deal of attention to Greek philosophy. Referring to Aristotle’s thought, he recalls the distinction between the functioning of man and animal. According to Aristotle, animals have significantly limited communication skills whereas man has been given logos, thanks to which people can additionally decide what is right and wrong, reasonable and unreasonable. Gadamer sees great value in this view and emphasizes that it would be difficult to find it in the works of other philosophers.128 Only man was given logos129 – therefore, only man is able to think and speak, and thus, unlike animals, relate his actions to many temporal planes: past, present, and future. Moreover, man can share thoughts with other people and express the specifically ←49 | 50→ perceived intersubjectivity. As Gadamer contends, all this may be summarized in the following conclusion: man lives and uses speech.130

Aristotle’s thoughts on the process of speech assimilation – or more precisely, on the acquisition of concepts of a general nature – were another inspiration for Gadamer. While assigning great value to memory, he emphasizes that thanks to it man knows the world and organizes the reality in which he or she lives. Memory allows the consolidation and organization of experience, consequently, shaping a general knowledge about the world. We may say that memory binds human experience together, enabling people to communicate with each other, understand each other’s experiences and thoughts, reach conclusions, and make arrangements. Memory allows man to participate spiritually and intellectually in a certain community, and thus enables the intersubjectivization of the subject. The process is exactly the same as the process of language acquisition.131

Gadamer refers to specific works by ancient philosophers. Most frequently, he mentions the famous Platonic dialog, Cratylus, in which there is such a diversity of purely linguistic problems that subsequent deliberations on these subjects conducted by other Greek philosophers may only be regarded as secondary to the original Platonic thought.132 As he points out,133 Socrates’ conversation with Cratylus reveals the essence of a word: whether it remains only a formal reflection – a sign – of something, or perhaps creates a specific image itself. Gadamer observes that since the Cratylus dialog, the concept of image has been replaced by that of the sign. This conclusion is present in any subsequent discussion of the topic. In relation to a thing, the word takes on a secondary character, while thinking seems to have nothing in common with the existence of words, considering them only the signs by which an object, idea, or thing becomes visible.

Therefore, the word is understood as a certain instrument for the transmission of information. Gadamer rightly emphasizes that at this stage of development in Greek philosophy, we are dealing with the ideal of characteristica universalis,134 as clearly illustrated by the views later typical of Enlightenment philosophy and the ways so-called ideal languages function, as in the case of Leibniz135, or ←50 | 51→ scientific and technical terminology, invariably characterized by artificiality and fragmentation. After all, what is a term?

A technical term is always somewhat artificial insofar as either the word itself is artificially formed or—as is more frequent—a word already in use has the variety and breadth of its meanings excised and is assigned only one particular conceptual meaning.136

A term is a word, but one that is extremely precisely defined, framed in a rigid, methodical framework, detailed in meaning, semantically separated from neighbouring lexical units. Gadamer underlines that it is not possible to “speak terminologically” or to speak using terms, which leads to the clear conclusion that while terms may fall within the framework of a broadly understood word, the word itself is a superior unit to the term. Following this track, we may state that while the word bears signs of primacy, a term always indicates a kind of secondariness in various acts of communication. Although we may use terms in colloquial or spoken language, when we do so we must strongly emphasize that they have a specific linguistic function.137 This view is much in line with what modern linguists and translators say about terms.138

Essentially, this criticism of the ancient Greeks’ achievements and of Enlightenment ideals aiming to create an artificial language oscillates around his strongly articulated disagreement with putting language in an instrumentalistic, objective framework. Importantly, Gadamer’s hermeneutics of language, emphasizing the essence of the relation between language and the whole being, is the exact opposite of the attitude that considers language to be an object. He comes to the right conclusion, stating that the perception of language as a strongly ←51 | 52→ autonomous component unconnected with existence makes us slowly forget what language really is:

Language and thinking about things are so bound together that it is an abstraction to conceive of the system of truths as a pregiven system of possibilities of being for which the signifying subject selects corresponding signs. A word is not a sign that one selects, nor is it a sign that one or gives to another; it is not an existent thing that one picks up and gives an ideality of meaning in order to make another being visible through it. This is mistaken on both counts. Rather, the ideality of the meaning lies in the word itself. It is meaningful already.139

To Gadamer,140 the above considerations do not mean that the word should take on a primary character in relation to being. This is because within the framework of that being, we search for the right words to express the experience of existence to the fullest. The word has such a strong connection to a given thing that neither the word nor the being ultimately decide what character they take on separately, since they seem to exist only in relation to each other. However, as he repeatedly points out, the Greek philosophers did not link the word with the thing that language describes, nor did they link speech and thought. Instead, they sought to deal with onoma in a holistic way, focusing mainly on the perfection which, as they underlined, is typical of language. Thus, he considers criticism of the legitimacy and purposefulness of the names that can be read about in Cratylus as the first important step in the development of a modern theory of language, defined as a system of signs bearing the signs of perfection, which inevitably leads to covering language. However, his reflections refer to a period in history which brought out in a special way the essence of language, namely the idea of incarnation typical of Christianity.141 ←52 | 53→

1.1.2. Language and the Christian Idea of Incarnation

Gadamer says that the Christian idea of incarnation saved the essence of language from oblivion. Moreover, he suggests that the idea of incarnation may serve as a key to comprehending his theory of understanding,142 pointing out that Christianity stresses the transformation of God into man. However, that transformation comes with a price – the crucifixion of the Son of God. This is already very close to an explanation of the proper doctrine of the Holy Trinity.143 According to Gadamer, the idea of incarnation in Christian thought has much in common with the nature of the word, because the explanation of the Holy Trinity is based on the links between thought and speech. As he stresses, this issue is present in medieval Christian thought, in scholastics, and in Augustinism. At this point, some separation of Christian thought from ancient Greek thought occurs. Since the word became flesh, the world around us is filled with spirituality. Thanks to this transformation, language has been subjected to deeper philosophical reflection.144 In fact, in Christian thought, contrary to the views of the ancient Greeks, the word “is happening,” and thus, as Thomas Aquinas claims: verbum proprie dicitur personaliter tantum.145

The articulation (vox) Verbum dei is also of great value when it comes to Christian thought and faith in revelation.146 Verbum dei finds its full dimension in language. The existence of language is a kind of miracle, for the world was ←53 | 54→ created by the Word of God. Sometimes, the Word of God places itself on a par with the transformation of God into man. But as Gadamer rightly points out, it is not about the transformation or objectification of the inner word. It is all about a mystery: the mystery of the unity of the Father, the Son, the Spirit, and the Word:147

The greater miracle of language lies not in the fact that the Word becomes flesh and emerges in external being, but that that which emerges and externalizes itself in utterance is always already a word. That the Word is with God from all eternity is the victorious doctrine of the church in its defense against subordinationism, and it situates the problem of language, too, entirely within inner thought.148

St. Augustine is critical of the outer word per se. He denies the value of sensory data and perception and states that a real word is completely independent of the senses. For it is the inner word that indicates and reveals the image of God. (In scholastics, the essence of the word actually has a lot to do with revelation or unveiling.) As Gadamer points out, the case is similar to the mystery of the Holy Trinity, where it is no longer so much about the very moment and fact of Christ’s birth and His life on Earth, but rather about the nature of His relationship with God, about how much they constitute unity.149 On the other hand, in theology, the existence of Christ may be expressed in the phenomenon verbum intellectus,150 the “word of the intellect.” Therefore, the relationship between speech and thought corresponds to the mystery and nature of the Trinity. In a way, the inner word is equated here with thinking – this integrity brings to mind the relationship of God with the Son of God.151 ←54 | 55→

Against this background, Gadamer refers to the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, who seems to reject the integrity of the logos and verbum.152 The existence of a word that does not undergo articulation is characterized by processability and a tendency to change. However, importantly, we should not identify the inner word with elements of vernacular languages. For what one wishes to express with the inner word does not depend on the “form” in which a thought is articulated. It is also not about the phenomenon of realization. Thinking will always mean “inner speech.”153 In St. Thomas’s philosophy, the word is the “keystone” of cognition, and therefore, in a sense it shapes a specific perception of reality. This has nothing to do with the process of change. As Gadamer states:

Thus, we can see how the creation of the word came to be viewed as a true image of the Trinity. It is a true generatio, a true birth, even though, of course, there is no receptive part to go with a generating one. It is precisely the intellectual nature of the generation of the word, however, that is of decisive importance for its function as a theological model. The process of the divine persons and the process of thought really have something in common.154

Demonstrating this similarity, he reflects on the differences between man’s word and the Word of God, since the mystery of the Trinity is in fact unknowable. After all, the human mind is far from being perfect, which is how it differs from the Divine. The reference here is to Aquinas,155 who gives three differences between the human word and the Word of God. First of all, the human word always refers to the multiple possibilities of expressing reality, it is the building block of an utterance, and is subject to change. Therefore, a word is brought to life by thinking (or in thinking), but once it finally comes into existence, the process of creation comes to an end. In such a situation, we may say that a given thing ←55 | 56→ “becomes present” or manifests itself in a particular word. Aquinas compares this situation to the phenomenon of a mirror: the word “reflects” the object in an almost perfect way. Second, the human word, unlike the Word of God, is imperfect: the expressive abilities of the “human word” have clear limitations. However, the reason for this situation is the characteristic imperfection of the human spirit, because the word, at least in theory, is meant to translate into the “medium of articulation” what the human spirit wishes to express. Furthermore, there is only one Word of God – and in this unity, and at the same time, in this integrity, which is unprecedented anywhere, lies the Word’s uniqueness. On the other hand, human words are multiple and this multiplicity fully reveals how large the mind’s cognitive limitations are. There is also a third difference between the human word and the Word of God. Namely, God makes a word a kind of medium that lets Him express His nature and substance. Simultaneously, every thought that man calls to existence and every word that comes with that thought reflects only the situation in which man finds himself at a given moment of articulation. In fact, man is only able to glance at reality, but he certainly cannot grasp it in a holistic way – as God does.156

In his reflections, Gadamer gives great value to verbum theology.157 It is primarily about different interpretative optics. In this sense, the created word is understood as the mind’s product, and yet it has a lot of spirit. The inner word, leading to the inseparability and integrity of thinking and speaking, effaces the possibility of creating a word automatically and without deep reflection on the process itself. Thus the formation of such a word is not accompanied by “reflection,” because it indexically indicates what is being said by means of it or, as Bronk points out, “the creation of words does not happen through reflective acts.”158 The word is closely linked to the “view of the articulation process,” the thing to which it refers. Consequently, a word enables the creation of a specific “vision” of the world in the human mind. It reveals the veil of cognition and, to some extent, triggers the process of reaching concrete conclusions about reality. Moreover, the dynamics of the relationship between the unity and multiplicity of words is also of importance here. We should keep these characteristics in mind both in the case of the human word and in the case of the Word of God:

The difference between the unity of the divine Word and the multiplicity of human words does not exhaust the matter. Rather, unity and multiplicity are fundamentally in ←56 | 57→ dialectical relationship to each other. The dialectic of this relationship conditions the whole nature of the word. Even the divine Word is not entirely free of the idea of multiplicity. It is true that the divine Word is one unique word that came into the world in the form of the Redeemer; but insofar as it remains an event—and this is the case, despite the rejection of subordinationism, as we have seen—there is an essential connection between the unity of the divine Word and its appearance in the church. The proclamation of salvation, the content of the Christian gospel, is itself an event that takes place in sacrament and preaching, and yet it expresses only what took place in Christ’s redemptive act. Hence it is one word that is proclaimed ever anew in preaching. Its character as gospel, then, already points to the multiplicity of its proclamation. The meaning of the word cannot be detached from the event of proclamation.159

Thus, the meaning of a word is of a procedural nature. To illustrate this idea, Gadamer gives the interesting example of curses – they always occur in a specific situational context. We do not understand a curse as an abstract sense of a given statement, but as the very process of expressing the curse. In order to truly gain understanding of the curse, a person must be “immersed” in a given situation and, above all, understand it. The human word, which is an event conceptualized by means of speech, functions similarly.160 So far, however, these considerations have not exhausted the problem of language. It is necessary to look at conceptualization, which is the aspect that makes language meaningful. ←57 | 58→


This is the first monograph to examine the notion of a translator’s competence from the perspective of Gadamerian philosophical hermeneutics, an aspect not yet given rigorous critical attention either by translatologists or philosophers. The study’s main objective is to not only depict different conceptualizations of translation as based on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophy of understanding, but also develop a theory of a translator’s hermeneutic competences, a unique approach as contrasted with the main trends and tendencies in modern translation studies. It also delves into Gadamer’s reflections on understanding, history, text and interpretation. Finally, this monograph proves that translation studies and hermeneutics are more complementary upon closer inspection than one could think.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (June)
philosophy of translation translational hermeneutics deontology translation theory intralingual translation subjectivity
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 268 pp., 1 fig. b/w, 1 table.

Biographical notes

Beata Piecychna (Author)

Beata Piecychna is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Philology, the University of Bialystok (Poland). She has published papers on translational hermeneutics, philosophy of language, translation pedagogy, and cognitive translatology. Her research interests include: philosophical hermeneutics, the hermeneutics of translation, translation theory, and embodied aesthetics.


Title: The Hermeneutics of Translation