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On how we gradually make up our thoughts while we are talking.

Translator's Preamble

During the course of an email correspondence on the subject of Heinrich von Kleist's short essay "Uber die allmahliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden" (1805-6?), translation and Shakespeare scholar Jurgen 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.

Kleist's German is as notorious for its density as it is for its preciosity. The long sentences of his novellas each contain a paragraph's worth of detailed information, so that their translator has no choice but to break them into shorter syntactic units. Noun phrases laden with attributive adjectival and participial phrases contribute substantially to this Kleistian style. A few otherwise low-frequency expressions also find disproportionate favor in Kleist's usage, notably "dergestalt, dass" ("in such a way that"). While it is true that "Uber die allmahliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden" is not one of Kleist's eight novellas--it is, in fact, a letter written to his friend Otto August Ruhle von Lilienstern when Kleist was about twenty-eight--it nevertheless bears many of the same stylistic hallmarks. At the same time, the tone is familiar and light, in the way that close school friends, whose chosen paths separated a decade earlier, might correspond. General references in the letter to teachers and examinations reflect this shared experience.

The premises for this translation derive from both the desire to experiment--to the extent possible where choices presented themselves--with Germanic vocabulary in preference to Romance (the "Gutsch impulse") and the wish to convey the sense of an informal, familiar relationship between young people whose bond rests on shared schooldays. To this end, verbal structures are privileged over nominal ones; the literary inclination to favor abstract nouns here yields frequently to the dynamism of an active verb; and verb phrases using prepositions and particles (talk about, draw out, etc.) are often selected where other legitimate possibilities (discuss, extend, etc.) exist. Just as the letter-to-a-friend genre may be understood as an oral monologue captured in writing, so the language of this translation draws on conversational discourse, albeit one informed by a high level of education. And here a circle closes, as the form of Kleist's piece can be seen to be congruent with its content: Kleist gradually builds his general idea into an organized thought by talking/writing about it.

Of course, it is neither possible nor desirable to banish Romance elements from an English text completely and that is not the goal here. However, by predicating translation decisions on the premises outlined above, this English version of Kleist's text introduces, in the opinion of the translator, a directness often missing in earlier renditions. But it is for the reader to decide how this experiment has turned out. The English-speaking student of our time will probably find a more easily accessible point of entry into Kleist's thinking through the language of this translation, and if that is the case, then the translator will consider it a success.

Previously published English translations of "Uber die allmahliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden" include (based on a list provided by Jurgen Gutsch):
"On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking," trans. David
Constantine, in Heinrich von Kleist: Selected Writings (London: J. M.
Dent, 1997; repr. Boston: Tuttle, 1999), 405-9.
"On the Gradual Formation of Thoughts in the Process of Speech," trans.
Christoph Harbsmeier (Oslo, 1996). Online at
"On the Gradual Construction of Thoughts during Speech," trans. Michael
Hamburger, German Life and Letters 5 (1951): 42-46.
"On the Gradual Fabrication of Thoughts While Speaking," trans. Philip
B. Miller, in An Abyss Deep Enough: Letters of Heinrich von Kleist,
with a Selection of Essays and Anecdotes (New York: Dutton, 1982),
"On the Gradual Completion of Thoughts During Speech," trans. John S.
Taylor (2006), in Uber die allmahliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim
Reden, ed. Erik Spiekermann (brochure, 2011),
"On the Gradual Formulation of Thoughts While Speaking," trans. Peter
Wortsman, in Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist (Brooklyn, NY:
Archipelago, 2010).

If there is something you want to know about and cannot find out by just thinking about it, then my advice to you, my dear and bright friend, is to talk about it with the next acquaintance you come across. It doesn't even have to be someone with a clever head on their shoulders; and I am also not suggesting that you ask them about the matter: no! Just talk to them about it yourself. (1)

I imagine your eyes are wide with amazement and you will answer me by saying that you were advised long ago not to talk about anything unless you knew what you were talking about. But then you were probably being a smart-aleck intent upon teaching others something. This time I want you to talk to teach yourself something. Different situation, different purpose. Perhaps both principles can exist happily side by side. The French say your appetite comes as you eat, and this motto is still true if we parody it and say, your thoughts come as you talk.

I often sit at my desk with files in front of me, figuring out which angle is best for looking at some complicated case. I usually look directly into the light where it is brightest in the attempt to enlighten my innermost being as it grapples with the problem. Or, if I am presented with an algebra problem, I look for the place to make a start, the equation that expresses the given relationships and from which the answer then easily emerges by calculation. And lo and behold, if I talk about it to my sister, who is sitting behind me working, then I discover what I would perhaps never have learned even after hours of brooding over it. It is not as if she would actually tell me the answer, because she doesn't know the legal code, nor has she studied Euler or Kastner. (2) It is also not as if she would lead me to the relevant point by asking skillful questions, even though this may often be the case. But because I have some vague notion or other that is linked in some distant way with what I am looking for, the mind turns that fuzzy idea into absolute clarity while I continue to talk because it needs to finish what it has begun. I just have to be bold enough to make a start. To my amazement, the result is that the thought is complete by the time I reach the end of the sentence. I mix in inarticulate sounds, draw out the conjunctions, use an extra descriptive phrase where it isn't necessary, and make use of other tricks to prolong my speech in order to gain the time I need to build my idea using the tools of reason.

Nothing helps me in this process more than a movement on the part of my sister, as if she were about to interrupt me. My mind, already under stress as it is, is stimulated even more by this attempt from outside to grab attention and speak, and like a great general, it is pushed to raise its game by one more notch when the circumstances force it to.

In this sense, I understand what use Moliere's maid could be to him. This is why: When he allowed her to offer an opinion, so he puts it, which could correct his own, this is a level of modesty I do not believe existed in his heart. When a human face is looking at you while you are talking, it acts as a strange source of inspiration; and a look that announces to us that a half-expressed thought has already been understood, often saves us the trouble of expressing the whole of the other half.

I believe that many a great orator did not know what he was going to say at the moment he opened his mouth to speak. But because he was convinced that the circumstances and the associated stimulation of the mind would create for him the necessary wealth of thoughts, he was emboldened to take a chance and begin speaking.

It puts me in mind of Mirabeau and that "thunderbolt" he used to silence the master of ceremonies, who, after the adjournment of the king's final royal session on July 23rd at which the king had ordered the estates to disperse, returned to the council chamber, where the estates were still present, and asked them if they had heard the king's command. (3) "Yes," Mirabeau answered. "We heard the king's command"--I am certain that when he began his reply in this genteel way he was not thinking of the bayonets that he ended with. "Yes, my lord," he repeated, "we heard it"--you can tell that he still doesn't know exactly what he wants. "But what gives you the right"--he continued, and he now suddenly feels a welling up of mighty ideas--"to issue orders to us here? We are the representatives of the nation."--That is what he needed! "The nation gives orders and does not take them"--raising himself to the pinnacle of impudence. "And just so that I make myself absolutely clear"--and it is only here that he finds what expresses all the contrariness for which his soul has steeled itself: "Go and tell your king that we will not leave our places unless forced to do so with bayonets." At which point, satisfied with his performance, he sat down on a chair.

If we turn our thoughts to the master of ceremonies faced with this display, we cannot help imagining him in a state of complete mental bankruptcy. According to a similar law, when a body where the electrical charge is zero comes close enough to a charged body, a corresponding charge is suddenly aroused in it. And just as the level of electricity is magnified again in the electrified body by a reciprocal effect, so the courage of our speaker escalated to reckless enthusiasm at the total defeat of his opponent. Perhaps it was ultimately the twitch of an upper lip or an ambiguous fiddling with the shirt cuff that brought about the collapse of the established order of things in France.

We read that as soon as the master of ceremonies had removed himself Mirabeau stood up and proposed that they immediately constitute themselves 1) as a national assembly and 2) as inviolable. For now that he had released his charge, like a Kleistian jar, (4) he was neutralized once again and having laid aside his earlier audacity he suddenly made way for caution and fear of the Chatelet. (5) This is a curious congruence between the phenomena of the physical and the moral world, which would also be shown if we looked for it in the accompanying circumstances. But I am going to set aside my comparison and go back to the subject at hand.

In his fable The Animals Stricken with the Plague, (6) La Fontaine, too, gives a curious example of the gradual completion of thinking that had begun out of unexpected necessity. The fox is forced to deliver an apologetic speech to the lion without knowing where he might find the material for it.

This fable is well known. The plague is rampant in the animal kingdom. The lion assembles the leaders and reveals to them that if the heavens are to be appeased then a sacrifice must be made. There are, he says, many sinners among the population, and the death of the greatest of them must save the others from their demise. They should therefore confess their transgressions honestly to him. He, for his part, so he continues, confesses that he, suffering pangs of hunger, had finished off many a sheep; the sheepdog too, if he came too close; it had even happened to him that in a delectable moment he had eaten the shepherd. If nobody had been guilty of greater weakness than this, then he was ready to die.

"Sire," said the fox, wishing to divert the storm from himself. "You are too generous. Your noble zeal pushes you too far. What is it to throttle a sheep? Or a dog, that worthless beast?" And: "As for the shepherd," he goes on, and this is the main point: "one can say"--although he does not yet know what, "that he is deserving of all bad things"; taking a gamble, and then he is committed: " being"--a poor word, but one that gains him time, "one of those people"--and only at this point does he find the thought that gets him out of the hole: "who make for themselves an imaginary dominion over all animals." And now he proves that the ass, that bloodthirsty creature! (which devours all plants), is the most suitable victim, at which point everybody pounces on the ass and tears him apart.

A speech like this is really thinking out loud. The sequences of ideas and their expression run concurrently, and the mental activity for one and for the other are congruent. Language is not an impediment then, like a brake on the wheel of the mind, but rather a second wheel running parallel on the same axle.

It is a completely different story when the mind has the thought finished before any speaking takes place. For then it has to slow down just to find words for the ideas, and this action, far from stimulating the mind, has no other effect than to diminish its creative energy.

So, if an idea is expressed in a confused way, that does not mean that it was also thought up in a confused way. Instead it might easily be that the ones expressed in a confused fashion are precisely the ones that are thought out most clearly. In social situations we often see cases where an ongoing cross-fertilization of minds by means of ideas takes place through lively conversation. People who as a rule otherwise keep themselves to themselves because they do not feel comfortable speaking, suddenly take the initiative and launch into a speech, moved by a flickering fire, and produce something incomprehensible. They even seem, once they have drawn everybody's attention to themselves, to indicate with an embarrassed show of gestures, that they themselves are not sure any more what they wanted to say. It is likely that these people had a truly relevant and clearly thought out idea. But the sudden switch of activity, the transition in their mind from thinking to expression of the idea, destroyed the entire impulse necessarily required to hold the thought and to convey it.

In cases like this, it is all the more indispensable that we have language readily at our disposal to allow those things that we have thought of simultaneously, but cannot express simultaneously, at least to follow each other as quickly as possible. And, of course, someone who speaks faster than their opponent, even though their thoughts are equally clear, will have the advantage because they, so to speak, bring more troops to the battlefield.

We see frequently just how important a certain energetic arousal of the mind is, even if only to recreate ideas that we have had before, when open and learned minds face academic examinations, and when we ask them, without any preceding introduction, questions like this: What is the state? or: What is property? or something similar. If these young people were placed in a social group where people had already been talking about the state or property for a while, then they would perhaps easily have discovered the definition by comparison, isolation and combination of the concepts. But here, where the preparation of the mind is totally absent, we see them hesitate, and only an ill-informed examiner will conclude from this that they do not know. For it is not us who do the knowing but, above all things, the condition we are in that does the knowing. Only mediocre minds, people who yesterday learned by heart what the state is, and tomorrow have forgotten it again, will have an answer ready at hand.

Perhaps there is absolutely no worse time to show one's best side than in a public examination.

Apart from the fact that it is repulsive and offends the sensibilities, and that it is fun to be mischievous when a learned horse trader is trying to test our knowledge of perhaps just five or six things so that he can make a decision whether to buy or reject us, it is so difficult to play the human mind like a musical instrument and to tease from it its particular sound. It gets out of tune so easily in untalented hands, so that even the most skilled observer of humans, the most adept in the midwifery of thoughts, as Kant puts it, could make mistakes in this situation, because he is unfamiliar with his exam candidate. (7)

By the way, the thing that earns young people like this a good examination result, even the most ignorant of them, is the fact that, when the examination takes place in public, the minds of the examiners themselves are too inhibited to be able to make an independent judgment. For it is not only that they frequently feel how indecent this whole procedure is--you ought to be ashamed to demand of someone that they pour out the contents of their purse in front of you, let alone their soul--but their own intellect has to survive a risky inspection. And it might be that they often give thanks to their God if they themselves can leave the examination without having made a fool of themselves, perhaps an even bigger one than the young person fresh from the university whom they have been examining.

(To be continued) (8)

Translated from German by Christopher J. Wickham

(1) Punctuation and paragraph breaks have been adjusted for greater clarity. The translator is grateful to Jurgen Gutsch for his preparatory work and insightful comments on this project. Responsibility for its inadequacies rests solely with the translator. The notes to Kleist's text draw on the annotations of Peter Goldammer in Heinrich von Kleist, Werke und Briefe in vier Banden, ed. Siegfried Streller et al. (Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1986): vol. 3, 722-24. Kleist's German text may be found at

(2) Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) was a Swiss mathematician and physicist who authored numerous works basic to modern mathematics. Abraham Gotthelf Kastner (1719-1800) was a mathematician, Professor at Leipzig and Gottingen, also known as an author of epigrams.

(3) Preceding the French Revolution, Honore-Gabriel-Victor Riquetti, Count of Mirabeau (1749-1791), was elected to the Assembly of the Estates-General at the beginning of May 1789 as a representative of the Third Estate.

(4) A condenser (capacitor) in the form of a jar, usually called Leyden jar. It was developed in the mid-eighteenth century almost simultaneously by Pieter van Musschenbroek in Leyden and Ewald Georg von Kleist.

(5) Seat of the royal court of justice in Paris.

(6) Jean de La Fontaine, Fables, VII.1. Available in in French at and in English at

(7) Alluding to Socrates, Kant (Metaphysics of Morals, 1797) refers to the teacher who guides the thought process of a student by means of questions.

(8) There is no evidence that Kleist ever wrote a continuation.

doi: 10.5744/delos.2019.1025
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Author:von Kleist, Heinrich
Publication:Delos: A Journal of Translation and World Literature
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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