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Issue No. 190
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The Term "Zettelkasten" Does Not Mean What You Think It Does

Scott P. Scheper
Downtown San Diego, CA
You——but only if this page I wrote about You is true.
Wednesday, 10:13 pm

Dear Friend,

OK, where did we leave off?

Oh, yes, I needed to tell you about a glaring issue in Niklas Luhmann's paper on the Zettelkasten. It's not an issue with Luhmann's writing, but his paper's most popular English translation.

OK, so why are we even discussing a translation error?

Trust me. I wouldn't be writing about this unless it was necessary. However, the translation error concerns the most important word. The word is... Zettel!

Yes, there's an issue with how Zettel is translated into the American English version of the paper.

See, the term zettel was translated to the English word "slip." This translation is a type of error known as a "faux ami." Assuming you're not a linguistic nerd (like I secretly yearn to be), you probably aren't familiar with that term. Or perhaps you are, and regardless you could probably guess. A faux ami is when a word of similar form but the dissimilar meaning is paired.[1]

In the most popular translation of Luhmann's paper, "slip" falls into such a category. This translation is certainly not a member of the faux ami hall of fame. However, it's less fitting than the translation I will introduce soon. But before I do, I want you to understand even why it was translated to "slip" in the first place.

The reason "slip" is sometimes translated from "zettel" is because some translation dictionaries include multiple entries. And older entries for zettel define it as a "slip of paper." One such English-German dictionary consists of this entry.[2] However, "slip of paper" doesn't appear to be the preferred entry (or main entry).

The most widely used translation source, and arguably the best among all,[3] does not hold "slip" as the correct translation for zettel.[4] This source prefers the term "note" as the translation for zettel.

Great, but we're only getting started. We ain't done yet. No, Sah!

Although "note" is more fitting than "slip," it is not perfect. The reason centers on the original definition of "zettel." Recall, the definition was a "slip of paper,"; not its slang usage of "slip."[2:1] Hence, the appropriate translation wouldn't necessarily be "note" because it's too broad. A "note" could be anything——even a metaphorical thing, like "I'm making a mental note of how much of a linguistic nerd Scott is." A "slip of paper" isn't used in such a way. You can't say, "I'm making a slip of paper of how much of a linguistic genius Scott is." Therefore, it's not a perfect translation.

Yet, a "note of paper" doesn't work perfectly either. It's a mouthful. "Zettel" is a single concise word. In the context Luhmann was using it, the purest definition is "slip of paper." We need to find an English translation for such a concept——without it being a mouthful!

If we look into the etymology of "zettel," we find something odd. The term traces back to the same root of the English word, schedule.[5]. Yes, I know, schedule?! That's not a promising start. Quite the predicament, eh?

There is a notion that translators refer to as a "lexical gap." It refers to the occurrence of a fully developed term for a concept existing in one language but absent in another.[6]

Could "zettel" be a "lexical gap?"

The answer is... Nope (but hey, at least you picked up the smart-sounding term of lexical gap)!

OK, time to leap over this lexical-freaking-gap like Evel Knievel.

The term Zettel has the characteristics of a piece of paper usually smaller than the standard printer paper size on which you write information. What does this sound like? That's right, a freaking "notecard!" While "notecard" is close to "note," there are fundamental differences.

We're not done yet, though. Stick with me. We're almost there.

The probable cause of this mistake in the first place was a typical oversight caused by standards. Yes, standards. America and Europe use different measures and standards for everyday human things.

At least it wasn't a mix-up of imperial units with metric units. I mean, who'd make a stupid mistake like that, right?! It Turns out some of the most brilliant people in the world. That being NASA scientists and engineers. Indeed, that's the mix-up which caused a spacecraft on a mars mission to implode——that's right, disappear——along with the taxpayer money that paid for it!

The mix-up with "slip" vs. "notecard" stems from the American paper standards ("ANSI") and the European standards ("ISO").[7] Fortunately, this mix-up didn't cost $327.6 million (yes, that's how much NASA's mix-up of imperial units and metric units ended up costing them)![8] The mishap with zettel's translation stems from standards——international paper standards.

It seems someone overlooked the fact that the type of paper used by Luhmann is not commonly found in America. It's not even commonly found in online stores, even Amazon (and yes, I know this because it's the first thing I tried finding after learning the type of paper Luhmann used). It's tricky to find, but more important is finding the cabinets and drawers, and containers for storing such paper. The paper size used by Luhmann is the European ISO paper size called A6.[7:1] Its dimensions are 4.1 inches x 5.8 inches.

Now, get this. Somewhere in the world, there lives a boring-ass person with a boring-ass job which entails associating boring-ass things like paper sizes between boring-ass international standards. Well, one pivotal day in boring-ass Borus's life, he hasa an exciting day at work. He introduces something called ISO Standard 2784. In this document, he makes it clear. The American equivalent to A6 paper, which is 4.1 inches x 5.8 inches, is... drumroll... 4-inch x 6-inch paper——a blank index card commonly identified by the perfect translation for zettel which is... the word, "notecard."[9]

As it refers to Zettelkasten, we're left with Kasten. Don't worry, we don't need to go on another Lord of The Rings journey to declutter it. Kasten is simply the German term for "box."

Combining notecard and box finally provides us with the proper translation of Zettelkasten. I introduce you to... the Notecard Box!

Tomorrow I will be providing you with a link to the translated version of Luhmann's paper on Zettelkasten. To my knowledge, it's the first version that includes the proper term for Zettelkasten. Thanks for making it through today's piece. It was a doozie!

I'm off to dive down more rabbit holes.

Wish me luck, and I'll see you back here tomorrow.

Until then,

Always remember...

To stay crispy, my friend.

Thursday, 12:32 am

  1. American Translators Association (ATA). "Explanation of Error Categories." Accessed July 17, 2021. ↩︎

  2. “Zettel - English translation in English - Langenscheidt dictionary German-English.” Accessed July 17, 2021. ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. "(4) Is Google Translator the Best among All? - Quora." Accessed July 17, 2021. ↩︎

  4. "Google Translate." Accessed July 17, 2021. ↩︎

  5. "The Meaning of 'Der Zettel' | German Is Easy!" Accessed July 24, 2021. ↩︎

  6. Day Translations Blog. "Understanding the Lexical Gaps in the English Language," July 5, 2018. ↩︎

  7. Printleaf's Blog for Design and Printing Solutions. "Standard U.S vs European Paper Sizes [Infographic]," January 18, 2018. ↩︎ ↩︎

  8. Everyday Astronaut. "Metric vs Imperial Units: How NASA Lost a 327 Million Dollar Mission to Mars," May 14, 2020. ↩︎

  9. "Paper Size." In Wikipedia, July 9, 2021. ↩︎


Scott P. Scheper