Day 2026, translation.

If truth is a woman, does that then mean that truth is just beautiful or difficult, fleetingly or any other prejudice a slightly misogynistic man has about woman.  If truth is a woman, does it give birth to new truths and untruths? If truth is a woman, does truth then hit that glass ceiling and never reach her full potential. If truth is a woman, do you expect her to fall for you because you treat her as equal, or do you attempt to lure her with your strength, your good looks, your brain, or your money.  

Vorausgesetzt, daß die Wahrheit ein Weib ist — , wie? (Friedrich Nietzsche, 1885)

This is the first sentence of the book Beyond good and evil by Friedrich Nietzsche. I want to use this short text to illustrate how difficult it is to interpret what a philosopher wants to say. Like always, I looked up the different translations to English, and you can see for yourself that even the translators can’t agree what these few words suppose to say when translated to English.

Suppose that truth is a woman – and why not? (Judith Nordman 2002)

Assuming that truth is a woman – what then? (Marion Faber 1998)

Suppose truth to be a woman – what? (R.J.Hollingdale 1973)

Supposing truth is a woman-what then? (Walter Kaufmann 1966)

SUPPOSING that Truth is a woman–what then? (Helen Zimmern 1909)

This sentence in Dutch is translated like: “Aangeneomen dat de waarheid een vrouw is – wel? This is more in line with the translation by Hollingdale.

I personally like Googles translation: Google, and all the people that have contributed refining the translation engine, came up with this: Assuming the truth is a woman – eh?

You might think, what does it matter, but these few lines at the beginning of this book are interpreted for more than a hundred years. Nietzsche is hated for it by feminists but also praised for it by feminists. You can find all kinds of different interpretations if you want to; thousands upon thousands of hours are spent writing and pondering about these words because Nietzsche scribbled something on a piece of paper in 5 minutes 140 years ago.

Let us dive a little deeper. The first part is all more or less the same; it is the part after the hyphen that is confusing to me. This first sentence is, of course, not standing alone; the sentence after it will point in a specific direction, which might influence the way you interpret and translate. This is the difficulty with translating philosophy books; all these translators know, of course, that you don’t translate a book word by word; you have to translate in the context, what is the philosopher talking about now, but also further on. Seeing these different translations, you might think they disagree with what Nietzsche says in the following text.  

Judith Nordman askes, “why not,” while four years earlier, Marion Faber translated the German “wie” as “what then,” and Hollingdale acts as if he is deaf. Let’s see what the text says next:

Vorausgesetzt, daß die Wahrheit ein Weib ist –, wie? ist der Verdacht nicht gegründet, daß alle Philosophen, sofern sie Dogmatiker waren, sich schlecht auf Weiber verstanden? daß der schauerliche Ernst, die linkische Zudringlichkeit, mit der sie bisher auf die Wahrheit zuzugehen pflegten, ungeschickte und unschickliche Mittel waren, um gerade ein Frauenzimmer für sich einzunehmen? Gewiß ist, daß sie sich nicht hat einnehmen lassen – und jede Art Dogmatik steht heute mit betrübter und mutloser Haltung da. Wenn sie überhaupt noch steht! Denn es gibt Spötter, welche behaupten, sie sei gefallen, alle Dogmatik liege zu Boden, mehr noch, alle Dogmatik liege in den letzten Zügen (Read it here :https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_YIURAAAAYAAJ/page/n7/mode/2up)

This is the translation by Hollingdale, free to read at: https://archive.org/details/nietzsche-beyond-good-evil-penguin/page/n21/mode/2up Hollingdale is best known for his more literal translations.

Supposing truth to be a woman – what? is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? that the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have hitherto been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench*? Certainly she has not let herself be won – and today every kind of dogmatism stands sad and discouraged. If it continues to stand at all! For there are scoffers who assert it has fallen down, that dogmatism lies on the floor, more, that dogmatism is at its last gasp.

*a young woman

Judith Nordman does the following translation.

Suppose that truth is a woman – and why not? Aren’t there reasons for suspecting that all philosophers, to the extent that they have been dogmatists, have not really understood women? That the grotesque seriousness of their approach towards the truth and the clumsy advances they have made so far are unsuitable ways of pressing their suit with a woman? What is certain is that she has spurned them – leaving dogmatism of all types standing sad and discouraged. If it is even left standing! Because there are those who make fun of dogmatism, claiming that it has fallen over, that it is lying flat on its face, or more, that dogmatism is in its last gasps.

I hope you can see that though there are differences in translation, Judith Nordman’s translation reads much nicer for a modern reader than Hollingdale’s translation. Does it matter which translation you read to understand the text correctly?

A side note: I started using this program Grammarly to help me with my terrible grammar, I think it does a good job, but I have, of course, no way of checking it. But the funny thing is that every time I put in a text from some philosopher or other published writer, Grammarly points out loudly at me all the wrong things with these texts. It makes me wonder what the value is of these grammar checkers.

Does it matter what translation you read? Should you learn how to read German if you want to understand a philosopher who writes in the German language? In regards to this last one, many snobbish people think it is necessary to read the books in their original languish. I can’t entirely agree with that; first of all, it is hard enough for a native speaker to understand these complex texts, let alone for someone who is still learning the languish. I speak Dutch because I come from the Netherlands, and though I read most of my books in English, I live with an American, and at home, I speak English, and everything else is in English, I still fall back on Dutch translations just as an assurance. I can speak German and read it, but I know that these professional translators do a much better job than I ever could do. And does it matter what translation you read? Well, if you don’t want to spend money on these sometimes expensive books, you can read them copyright-free on sites like the internet archives. The only thing is that you can’t read the more modern books because they often have copyrights on them. There are, of course, many places where you can find the book you want to read for free; someone scanned the book, for instance, this is not legal, but they don’t sell it. It is like finding a book on a table in a café, and you start reading it then end there without taking it home.  So, sometimes necessity determines what book you read; if you have a choice, I would go for the more modern translations, but in the end, it doesn’t matter; each translater might differ in detail. How you interpret the book has a far more significant say, and how you interpret a book depends largely on your background and knowledge of the matter.

If someone asks me what kind of Nietzsche book to start with, I would first ask what they know about philosophy. If they know hardly anything about it, I will recommend one of the many books about the history of philosophy.  I have had discussions with people that insisted that they want to read one of the original books of whatever philosopher, end I can’t stop them, of course, so I try a comparison: Let’s say you know nothing about cars and you want to learn, you ask if this book is helpful, end you show the book “Numerical and Experimental Study of Fuel and Air Flow in Carburetors for Small Engines.” I would say that it is an interesting book but do you even know where the carburetor is in a modern car? (trick question). I hope you get my point. Reading any philosopher’s own work requires some preparation; you more or less need to know where their philosophy falls within the whole of (their own)philosophy to be able to appreciate it fully.  

What if you know something about philosophy but have never read Nietzsche. I would still be hesitant to recommend Nietzsches own books. When I started reading philosophy, I had some respect for these books, I tried them, of course, but I put them away pretty soon. I realized that we all might philosophize in our free time, and we take this seriously, but if I have to stick with the car metaphor from above, we all also draw cars, but most of us don’t draw cars as an engineer does. Philosophy is not that easy if you want to do it correctly. So if you know something about Nietzsche but are not studying philosophy at school, I would recommend reading as many books about Nietzsche and his philosophy. These books are often written by professors that teach and know how to introduce a philosopher, and they will give plenty of example text for you to read.

After several of these books, you could start reading the books the philosophers have written themselves. But don’t be In a hurry, the most famous philosophers have written many really thick books like Kant’s Critique of pure reason or Arthur Schopenhauer The world as will and representation, but if you gather all the people that factually have read these books and are still alive, you could probably put them all in one Boing 747. These books are what the bible is for Christians; we all praise them and base our conviction on them, but who has the time to read the dam books.

But in all honesty, reading the books written by these philosophers is important, but it is only one part of understanding what they talk about. It would help if you also learned about the times these philosophers lived, their society, their own histories. Nietzsche is one of those philosophers that believes that who the philosopher is, where they come from, are they rich or poor all these things shape the philosopher and thus the philosophy they “invented”. So if you read Nietzsche to understand our time, I also recommend reading about the 19th century because that is the parent of the times we live in now.

To recap. Translations differ, and it can matter which translation you read, but the most important conclusion that I take out of these comparisons is: if you discuss a philosopher with someone else, make sure you read the same translation.

It is more important to know your limitations and start reading philosophy books at the appropriate level. As I said above, thinking about life is something we all do, the first thought we have as a baby are probably: what the f…is all of this. Our private thoughts and philosophies are probably with us for many years, so we see them as complex and valuable, perhaps as complex and valuable as any other philosophies we encounter. If you want to be serious with philosophy(love of wisdom), you have to understand that you, at least, have to postpone your opinions. Every opinion you have comes from somewhere, and that is one of the main tasks of philosophy; finding out where your opinion comes from.

If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail. Heraclitus

 

 

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