On Translating Experience

An excerpt from “Sensing and Knowing: the awareness-consciousness continuum as gestalt therapy takes another phenomenological turn,” (in press.)

      We are always translating experience. The process of developing understanding, of knowing who, how, and where we are, of what there is, has been, will be, what we wish for and dread — all of these things and more, are founded on the founding flow of experience itself. To that extent we translate experience into our experience as we engage and “make” experience.  The words I choose as I write this, the words chosen by the translator for this journal, and how the reader understands what is read – these are all forms of some kind of translation, in the loosest sense of the term.  Understanding is translating.

      Further, by writing this paper in English, I am writing within the assumed hegemony of an English language gestalt therapy. Our founders articulated their thoughts in English. Our ideas were expressed in English. The first generation of gestalt therapy trainers taught in English. This is no longer the case, of course. Gestalt therapy is an international modality, practiced, taught, developed and written about in every continent and in many languages. In fact, English language is probably represents a minority. Yet our basic or original tests are written in English and are cited as authority.  The hegemony of Anglophone gestalt therapy is powerful.  The English PHG is carefully translated; many English words are assumed to be authoritative. Their translations are usually considered to be secondary or best efforts at grabbing hold of what the founders discovered/invented – as if gestalt therapy belongs in English. This is obviously nonsense. What if we reversed the process and considered the translations from English as authoritative? This is worth reflection.

       Any text’s authority is in the power of the ideas presented, not in the words themselves. It is our hermeneutic duty to challenge texts in order to always draw out new meanings in our interpretations.  Gestalt therapy is a therapy of experience. Our words are always ways we interpret experience.  Inevitably, our language takes us a step back from immediate experience even as each step itself is an experience.  By hermeneutic engagement, we return to experience and include ourselves in the process.  A hermeneutic approach is  therefore a contactful approach.  But it requires engagement with ideas, texts, translations – and always, and critically, it requires knowing that authority is in experience itself, is in the contactfulness of our words and so on.

Therefore, this is not an exercise in semantics, word correction or word replacement. The terms through which we understand experience, phenomenologically and clinically, reflect our underlying assumptions about what it means to be human beings working with human beings – with the nature of personhood itself.  These terms bring us steps closer to the experiences of our humanness, away from the distances of assumed, inherited meanings or unchallenged abstractions. So, I offer here distinctions in experience that are articulated in English, yet experienceable by everyone.