Zettelkasten Forum


What's the best translation for "Zettel"?

In German the ordinary word for note taking is "Notizen machen". Apps like Evernote or Bear Writer thus are usually called "Notizenapps". "Notizen" to me capture all sorts of stuff, e.g. meeting minutes, recipes, ideas, to-do lists, travel plans, wish lists etc.

But what this forum is about, what Luhmann's "Zettelkasten" was about is different from these kinds of notes/"Notizen". Still, though, the content of the "Zettelkasten" is called notes here, which to translates back to "Notizen".

"Zettel" are different from notes. "Zettel" are maybe very, very specific notes so they belong to the category "note". But to me at least "Zettel" are so specific they deserve their own term. In German I very much like "verzetteln" (pun intended :wink: to describe the activity while archiving stuff in this special form.

When speaking German there are "Zettelkasten", "Zettel", "verzetteln". As soon as we're using these terms we know exactly what we're talking about. It's almost a domain language to "Zettelkasten" afficionados :wink:

But what about English? Should we really be just talking about notes, note taking, and a notes archive? I find that sad and hindering. A rich and specific language is reduced possibly leading to misunderstandings.

Maybe the German words should be kept? If English speaking people understand rucksack, kindergarten, fahrvergnügen, angst, then why not zettelkasten, zettel, and verzetteln? Luhmann (and also Arno Schmidt) where titans of the zettelkasten and German, why not honor that? :wink:

Or maybe "note" should be replaced by "slip" (since it's a translation for "Zettel"). This would lead to terms like "slip archive", and "slip taking" (or "slipping"? :smiley:) Also "it slipped my mind" would be close to "verzetteln", because "verzetteln" also has a negative connotation.

What do you think?

Comments

  • One more thought: maybe a compound like "slip note" could help? Or would that be doppeltgemoppelt? :smile:

  • Since English is my 2nd language, I still have problems with some homonyms. I cannot help but think about underwear when I read "slip". Maybe that effect wears (haha) off with use?

    • Slip box/slip notes seems to be the term most widely used by Zettelkasten proponents in English, like Manfred Kuehn of takingnote. It's also the name of an app I reviewed here.
    • I always liked the combo "Zettel note" best. It's doppeltgemoppelt, too, of course :) We try to stick to "Zettel note" and "Zettel note archive" to establish the term on the blog.

    I'm looking forward to hearing native English speakers offer suggestions! :)

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • http://christiantietze.de/

  • I'd be most happy to first use "Zettel note" (instead of "smart note" or just "note"). It's doppeltgemoppelt, but also is a form of clarification: a certain type of note is meant. Like with "smart note" which refers only to specific kinds of notes, not just any. (Whatever "smart" is supposed to mean.)

    But over time I guess I'd reduce "Zettel note" to just "Zettel" and finally "zettel" :wink: And why not then also establish "zettelkasten" as the very specific term for what's meant here?

  • edited March 7

    IMHO 'zettel' and 'zettelkasten' (or keep the German capitalization von mir aus; I haven't yet settled on a consistent usage myself) are absolutely essential in English for these specific concepts. Any other existing words in English are either much more ambiguous or just as opaque as the German words on first encounter (what the heck is a "slip box"?) while being much more weakly linked to the ZK literature. ('Zettel note archive' is three words where one will do, and besides, your English-language blog and forum are called Zettelkasten, so the word has already escaped into the wild!)

    One side effect is that the word ends up being much more specific in the borrowing language than in the source language. Any slip of paper with writing on it is a Zettel in German, but in English it would pretty much only ever refer to a note in a Zettelkasten system. Just as 'angst' in English is a very particular sort of fear/anxiety.

    Where borrowing the German words breaks down for me is in the verb 'verzetteln' for distilling source material down into zettel notes. The original word and any derivatives I've been able to think of all feel weird in my mouth when speaking English.

  • As a native English speaker and fluent speaker of German as a second language, I pondered over this question after reading Ahrens (2017) in the original. Some thoughts:

    Zettel: “Slip” suggests greater impermanence than “note,” which is the opposite of what is needed here to distinguish Zetteln from Notizen. I suggest “card,” both because it connotes greater structure and permanence, and because it connects with the next translation I offer...

    Verzetteln: We just don’t have a causative/intensive prefix like “ver” in English that could be attached to “card” to mean “making/organizing/compiling cards” and not sound ridiculous to an English speaker. (“Becard”? “Benote”? Uh, no.) But we do have a verb that can mean “creating an organized collection of cards,” namely “cataloguing,” which is my suggestion for “Versetteln”.

    Lektüre/Lektüreerträge: This is a tough one. We don’t have a word that I know for “the act and subject matter of intensive reading” as such. “Study” comes to mind, though it is not as closely connected with reading as “Lektüre.” “Study extracts” would be a fair translation of Lektüreerträge” but it doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue. So I just call notes of this variety “extracts,” with the source and process of extraction being implied.

  • @ibcrosby said:
    Verzetteln: We just don’t have a causative/intensive prefix like “ver” in English that could be attached to “card” to mean “making/organizing/compiling cards” and not sound ridiculous to an English speaker. (“Becard”? “Benote”? Uh, no.)

    Well, we do have at least two suffixes. How about 'cardify'? 'Zettelize'? (I still prefer borrowing the German nouns, for the sake of specificity.)

  • edited April 18

    In the beginning, I thought: just use "Zettelkasten" and "Zettel [note]" consistently to establish fake termini technici.

    Last week, I heard Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin on their "Back to Work" podcast. They tried to dictate the URL to The Archive, zettelkasten.de/the-archive. It sounded super weird. "zettel" also sounds like it's written "zettle". These words are not made for English-speaking tongues. I begin to doubt their magic powers. :)

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • http://christiantietze.de/

  • If we can handle Schadenfreude, Weltanschauung, and Fahrvergnügen, we'll manage Zettelkasten! :-D

  • I am very hesitant to just import some words to another language. English and German a very, very different languages. English is pretty pragmatic. It is easy and gets the job done. German instead is a very sensitive.

    One can get the difference if you listen to motivational speeches or how Nietzsche phrased his words in contrast to Jack London for example. In German language gets really intense very fast. English is much more forgiving.

    Take the suffix "ver-" in German. It adds a notion of death to its object. "Verblühen" means "fading away" but really should be more of "dying in the act of blooming". "Verbauen" means somehting like "to use something in building" but really should be more like "use something until its gone.

    If someone trys to give a motivational speech in the manner football coaches do it in the locker room in German... it would be a dozen times more intense than a speech by Hitler. :astonished:

    I can feel it in German. When you respect the nature of this language you can really do something impressive. If you opt for just an English word the same sentence in German becomes very weak and pale.

    This is the reason of my hesitation. I try to stick to the English words even though my English is quite shabby.

    • "Zettel" = "note"
    • "Verzetteln" = "to process"
    • etc.

    The Zettelkasten does note translate. (Yet?)

  • @Eurobubba said:

    @ibcrosby said:
    Verzetteln: We just don’t have a causative/intensive prefix like “ver” in English that could be attached to “card” to mean “making/organizing/compiling cards” and not sound ridiculous to an English speaker. (“Becard”? “Benote”? Uh, no.)

    Well, we do have at least two suffixes. How about 'cardify'? 'Zettelize'? (I still prefer borrowing the German nouns, for the sake of specificity.)

    Cardify is good! (Notify would be ambiguous). But if you are going to use Zettel anyway, then might as well keep Verzetteln.

  • @Eurobubba said:
    If we can handle Schadenfreude, Weltanschauung, and Fahrvergnügen, we'll manage Zettelkasten! :-D

    I fear that all the German jargon around this note-taking method presents a barrier to adoption among non-German speakers. Ahrens appears to have chosen "slip-box" for "Zettelkasten," "note" for "Zettel," and "bibliographical note" for "Lektüreerträge" in the English version of the book. However I may feel about those specific choices, I think they are better than leaving the German terms untranslated.

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