Kraft, the Passive Voice
Robert F. Lathe and Nancy Parsons Whittaker
In response to a discussion in the April 1993 issue of Word for Word, the newsletter of the Anthroposophic Translators and Editors Association (ATEA), concerning the possibility of translating Kraft as 'power, force' or 'strength', depending upon context, we offered the following thoughts concerning the sense of the English words and their implications.
These thoughts arise out of our recent work with a publisher whose
style requests for a translation of Steiner's lectures include
the elimination of as much of the use of the (characteristically
German) passive voice as possible. Using a computer to provide
a statistical reading of grammatical usage, we discovered that
an unaltered lecture of Steiner's weighs in with about 30 - 35%
of the sentences in the passive voice. In contrast, standard English
prose tends to use sentences with the passive voice only around
10% of the time. This indicates quite a difference in cultural
viewpoint and has led to much thought and discussion around our
What we see is the expression of very different experiences of life on Earth. Steiner describes these differences and their basis in the three mystery streams of the social organism in detail in his lecture on December 21, 1919 (Lecture One of The Cosmic New Year, GA 195, translated by Harry Collison). Concerning the mysteries of the East, the Mysteries of Light that brought forth the cultural realm of the Threefold Social Organism, Steiner remarks:
It [the Mysteries of Light] was in a position not merely to say lovely things about the good and the true, but also by the Spirit itself it could rule practical life, could organize it and give it form.
Concerning those mysteries that gave birth to the Rights realm of the Threefold Social Organism, the Mysteries of Egypt, the Mysteries of Man, Steiner remarks in the same lecture:
These Mysteries were directed above all to obtaining, at the Egyptian source, that Wisdom which gives the poser to organize human communal life, to establish a relation between one human being and another. ... All that which, bit by bit, in the course of human evolution has been inoculated as jurisprudence, as legal distinctions in equity, is the attenuated remnant of knowledge of these Mysteries of Man. ... We shall not understand modern life until we know that men, even today, are still unproductive both in the life of Spirit and in the life of Rights, until we know that both of these have been received by us from outside.
It is these two streams, the first coming from India by way of Greece and the second from Egypt by way of Rome, which eventually found their way to Central Europe and form the basis of the German experience. In contrast is the third mystery stream, the Mysteries of the North, the Mysteries of the Earth. That stream forms the basis of the Economic realm of the Threefold Social Organism and the English-speaking experience. In the same lecture, Steiner characterizes it as:
... in the East the path led from above downwards, first revealing itself as the Mysteries of the Heavens and of the Light, then passing down into Politics and Economics. Here, in the North, things rose out of Economics, out of the life of industry. ... The path leads from below upwards.
A further indication of Steiner's view distinguishing the Central European perceptual 'receptivity' from the English-speaking perceptual 'activity' is contained in the Lecture of December 15, 1919 (Lecture Four in The Mysteries of Light, of Space and of the Earth, GA 194, translated by Frances E. Dawson), given two weeks prior to The Cosmic New Year cycle.
Over from Asia and up from the South men transplanted a spiritual life and a rights life which they had received from above and brought down to Earth. Then in the third current an economic life sprang up which had to develop of itself and work its way up.
The German experience, rooted in the Mysteries of Light and the Mysteries of Man and expressed linguistically by the passive voice, is often one in which the human being is acted upon, that is, not in control of the resulting outcome. In contrast, an American, whose world view derives from the Mysteries of the Earth, would nearly always experience that he or she was the principle actor and therefore responsible for the outcome.
All of which brings us to the question of the translation of Kraft. According to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 'force is a general term indicating the use of strength, power, constraint, etc. in overcoming resistance.' The word 'force' carries with it the implication of an ongoing activity - 'forces streaming through the air.' Force does not imply a quality which can be controlled or directed. In his lecture on New Years Day, 1920 (Lecture Five of The Cosmic New Year), referring to the German people, Steiner remarks:
People want, on the one hand, the support of something which constrains them from within to think and to will what is right, or on the other hand, the support of something which constrains them from without to think and to will what is right. In some way we always find these two extremes in men; they never wish to pull themselves together, to strive with active forces towards the balance between these two extremes.
From this point of view, Kraft represents something that acts upon the human being, whether from within or without - force.
Power, on the other hand, gives the picture of something absolute contained within the being, element or condition referred to as having it. According to Webster's New International Dictionary, 'power signifies ability, latent, exerted, physical, mental, spiritual ...'. Power is something that can be employed or made active, but may well lie as a potential resource until called upon. The idea of control and direction by the possessor is implicit in power.
Strength, is similar, but, unlike power, is quantifiable or at least 'qualifiable', that is, not absolute. According to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 'strength refers to the power residing in a thing as a result of qualities ...'. As Steiner remarks in the same lecture on New Years Day:
The all-important thing today is that man should be able to find himself. But to find our own Self requires confidence in our own strength of soul.
For a better understanding of these differences, we can look at the changes of meaning possible with different translations for Willenskraft. 'Will forces' evokes an understanding of will energies streaming forth out of the necessity of their own being, while 'willpower' is an absolute quality which a human being is either in possession of, or not. 'Strength of will' is something that, while contained and controlled by the possessor, could also be measured in degrees - some might have more, some less.
Ultimately, the choice of which word to use for Kraft will depend upon the translator's understanding, intuitive or conscious, of Spiritual Reality and the relationship of the Spiritual World to human life. This is a question of 'accessibility'. The English word which might be appropriate for a German-speaking person, that is, a literal translation, may not be the same as the word appropriate for an English-speaking person. It is necessary that the work 'fit' the experience of the reader, the Mystery stream of the reader, if the reader is to 'feel' the Reality of Steiner's words. Steiner himself hints at this, at the necessity of speaking the reader's language in the same lecture on December 15, 1919 contained in The Mysteries of Light, of Space and of the Earth when he says:
This economic culture met what came from the other side. At first it did not succeed in developing an independent rights life and spiritual life. The primitive [ursprünglich - original] legal customs were discarded because Roman law flowed in, and the primitive [ursprünglich - original] spiritual customs were cast aside because the Greek spiritual life had entered. And so this economic life becomes sterile at first, and only gradually works its way out of the sterility; it can succeed in this, however, only by overcoming the chaotic condition created by the introduction of the spiritual life and rights life from outside.
If we can assume that the above description is indicative of Reality, then in translating into English we need to take into account the perception of the activity of the Kraft and its relationship to the human being and his or her role in the evolution of the Earth. Even though a German-speaking person, a person immersed in the German experience, might always use force in English, it may be necessary to use different words if the English reader is to feel the Reality of Steiner's words. If, for instance, the reference is to Kosmische Kräfte, then cosmic forces might be appropriate since these are things which act upon the human, the reader. On the other hand, Willenskraft would be willpower, something seen to be inherent in, a quality of, human beings. Or, Moralische Kraft, a quality possessed by humans to a greater or lessor extent, is moral strength.
In this way, it is possible for a translation to actually assist in furthering the development of humanity through the use of words which can be felt by the reader, which can be felt at the deepest level to be supportive of the reader's own stream. This is one way in which translators can help to free the English speaking non-German reader from the impingement of the Mysteries of Light and the Mysteries of Man upon the Mysteries of the Earth, thereby helping overcome the chaotic conditions of modern social life.
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Last update: November 30, 1997