Zettelkasten Forum

A Collection of Luhmann's work incoming

Hi Zettlers,

to give you a heads-up:

Translating "Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen"

I am working on a special translation of the Original article by Luhmann. The problem of translation can be partly understood by these two quotes from the disclaimer I am writing:

French is a fine park, Italien a big, bright, colorful wood. But German is almost a primeval forest, so dense and mysterious, so without a passage and yet with thousand paths. You can't get lost in a park, and not so easily and dangerously in the bright Italian wood; but in the German jungle, within four, five minutes, you can go missing. Because the path seems so difficult, many try to march through as straight as possible which violates the nature of this language. It surely wants a main direction but invites to deviate from to the left and to the right by its hundred paths and pathlets, and shortly back to it. - Heinrich Federer


Take the German word "selbstbewusst". It has the same origin as the English "self-conscious". But the meaning is the opposite. In German it is connotated with having a strong self-esteem. In English it is connotated with having low self-esteem. Think back to the metaphor of music: A note does not have a mood. The mood is in the relationship to other notes. But it feels as if the note itself has it.

German is substantially different when you compare the northern and the southern dialects. (Some German dialects are not even understandable to other Germans)

A good example is the phrase "es ist weniger wichtig" which directly translates to "it is less important". However, if you take Luhmanns birthplace and socialisation into account the correct translation is "it is not important anymore" or something like that. Some dialects in German seem to avoid the endpoints of a trail of thought. If he'd been a Saxon or of my heritage (I decent from people who emigrated to Germany and re-imigrated in the 70s and 80s. There is even a difference if you came back to German just a couple of years later) he'd written just "it is not important". So, sometimes literal deviation means to be more faithful to the meaning of the text.

However, opens me up to a big source of errors.

The first translation by Manfred Kühn is fine and is kept close to the original. I'd like to take it a few steps further and make an effort to not only make a 1to1-translation but to take the above into consideration.

This project is part of a bigger picture.

Bigger Picture

I want to create collection of translations and commentary that allows the non-Germans a better access to Luhmann's relevant texts. At the same time, I'd like to create various ports to other works and positions. (This is an invitation to other's who publish in this domain to take part in the commentary on Luhmann's work)

This will be mostly for the ZK geeks who don't only want to just use the Zettelkasten Method but go a bit deeper into the rabbit hole.


Here is my preliminary roadmap to achieve this bigger picture:


  1. Translate Luhmann's notes on Zettelkasten from his own Zettelkaten. (done, in the review process on @ctietze table)
  2. Translate Luhmann's main article "Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen".
  3. Create a commentary on the article with various interpretations and positions derived from each section (not only mine but also the main positions that can be found in the internet and other sources).


  1. Create an extensive commentary on the already published articles by Johannes Schmidt.
  2. Create additional translations of supplementary material by Luhmann (e.g. "Learning how to read")


  1. Start a collection of small explanatory articles that connect his main work (society as system) to his positions on Zettelkasten and knowledge work (reading) in general. (This is far in the future)

If you want to get involved

  1. Before I will make the translation of Luhmann's "Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen" public, I will ask for feedback by native speakers.
  2. If you have any ideas that could benefit this project you can use this thread for brainstorming.

I am a Zettler


  • @Sascha Just want to wish you "bon voyage" on this journey - it is a vast one, leading you to unknown trails in the German landscape / forest.

  • Thank you @GeoEng51 It is getting interesting already:

    Now, in the midst of the translation, it is really striking how dependent Luhmann was on its own concepts. I have the suspicion that he saw this article as another chance to persuade the people further in his ways of systems thinking.

    I aim to take this into consideration by translating it with my future commentary on the various concepts and his style of systems thinking (I think that his systems theory as caused by his style of systems thinking and therefore consider understanding his style of thinking to be primary to understanding his systems theory which could be characterised in itself a Luhmanian approach to his theory and perhaps a case of re-entry)

    With a more detail-orientated look the translation of Manfred Kühne seems to be not as close to the material as I thought.

    I want to somehow create ports to each proposition and concept of his. I want the community to be able to scrutinize my translation decisions.

    So, if you have ideas on how to make this happen: I am open to any.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited October 2022

    I always thought of the german language as "ugly" and never liked it, but this post intrigued and fascinated me, and I changed my mind. I learned German in school for a couple of years. I started learning it a few months after returning from the Netherlands (where I lived for three years and became fluent), so I excelled initially despite not being into it. Now, it's been more than a year since I officially stopped learning German at school and 5+ years since I was fluent in Dutch.

    I'd say my Dutch is communicative, and my German... I can understand some things primarily due to Dutch, but you won't hear me talk in it, nope! I am currently learning Japanese and want to pick up Chinese within a year, then learn Latin and its derivatives. I did want to re-learn Dutch and German asap.
    Still, since I did not like them anyway, the only reason I "wanted" (but never acted, since the desire was weak) was that "I already knew some of it, it would not be so hard to re-learn it, and it's two additional languages!" Now, it feels reasonable to stall my Japanese perhaps a bit and focus on German and Dutch for 1-2 years... and then pick up Japanese and start learning Chinese a year after... Well, this is really off-topic! I am only N4-N3 in Japanese, so after stalling it for a year, it would not be easy to get back into it. So perhaps it is reasonable to keep reviewing my current vocabulary flashcards in Japanese and intensely pick up German and Dutch?

    Well, this turned into a long comment that derails from the topic, but perhaps I can hear some thoughts on my thoughts here? And maybe, get some advice on what to do? (I'm native Polish and fluent only in English, by the way. I learn new languages in English, though, and it's the language of choice for 99% of things I do daily. (2 of my thousands of notes are in polish, the rest is English and a minority in Japanese)

  • @szfkamil Speaking only English and a modicum of high school French, I am utterly unable to provide any support or ideas. However, as a fellow Pole I applaud your ambition in being so multi-lingual. :smile:

  • @szfkamil German is very interesting. Luhmann used for example the word "Reibungsfront" which translates roughly to "area of friction". If you google it you'll find 10 results (one of them is a pdf of his article). But I have no issue of understanding the word. German is (compared to the languages I know) difficult but also very powerful. You can fine-tune what you say quite a lot. :)

    I am a Zettler

  • edited October 2022

    @Sascha said:
    German is (compared to the languages I know) difficult but also very powerful. You can fine-tune what you say quite a lot. :)

    That's true of my (limited) experience with German also. English can be more concise, but German is naturally precise. It shows up in German engineering--to name only one example.

    GitHub. Erdős #2. CC BY-SA 4.0. Problems worthy of attack / prove their worth by hitting back. -- Piet Hein.

  • Cool project! I'm not native in either, but my German is reasonable and so is my academic English. I also have some training in sociology and an interest in systems sciences. Tiny bit of experience with translating: I know how difficult it is. Happy to be of service if you want.

  • @erikh Awesome! Thanks a lot jetzt schon mal.

    Then you will be invited to the betaphase with a lot of discussion. :)

    I am a Zettler

  • Looking forward to it!

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