Translating ‘what it is like’

Thomas Nagel famously defined consciousness in terms of there being ‘something it is like to be’ an organism:

fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism — something it is like for the organism

T. Nagel, ‘What is it like to be a bat’, 1974, p. 436

Many people find this definition intuitively compelling, myself included. (I have a vague memory of having come up with a similar formulation myself before I read Nagel, though I may be confabulating.) But is the appeal of this definition limited to English speakers? Does the ‘something it is like to be’ formulation retain its appeal when translated into other languages?

If you have native language competency in another language, I’d like to ask your help, please. I have two questions:

1. How is the quotation above usually translated into your language? (Or how do you think it should be translated?) If there are various possible translations, which do you think is best?

2. When translated in the best way, does the passage still strike you as a compelling way of defining consciousness? (Compelling in its own right, that is, not just because it translates a definition that is compelling in English.)

If you’d like to help, please post for your answers in the comments below. Also, if you know any existing scholarly work on this topic, please post a reference to it. Many thanks!

Posted in Tricks of the mind and tagged .

39 Comments

  1. Danish 🇩🇰
    1. “Hvordan er det at være en flagermus?”

    Yes, it is equally compelling to me in Danish.

  2. In french:

    1/ “ça fait quelque chose d’être cet organisme, ça fait quelque pour cet organisme”. Literally: it makes (does?) something to be this organism, it makes something for this organism”.

    The formulation is close to “ça fait mal” ou “ça fait peur” (“it hurts”, literally “it makes pain”, “it scares”, literally “it makes fear”).

    2/ yes it sounds compelling

    • I’m from Canada, and I’m not sure I’d agree that it feels compelling to me. I think we might read “ça” as less of a subject and more of a functional word than you are reading it. In any case, the criterion seems looser than in the English version, and as such, the whole statement feels incorrect.

      I think we’d either discuss it as something like “le qu’est que c’est que c’est que d’être une chauve-souris” or “le comment c’est que c’est que d’être une chauve-souris”, which is very colloquial and hinges on a quebecism, or use more traditional technical words like “expérience” or “ressenti” (what is felt – this one might be from Steven Harnad’s influence).

  3. Hi Keith,

    I have a bunch of translations in my paper here: Stoljar, Daniel (2016). The Semantics of ‘What it’s like’ and the Nature of Consciousness. Mind 125 (500):1161-1198.

    Hope that’s helpful!

    Best wishes
    Daniel

  4. German translation:
    “Wie ist es, eine Fledermaus zu sein?”

    This is the standard translation and I am not aware of other common translations. The main difference from the English version is that German does not have a direct equivalent for the word ‘like’ used here. While the German translation captures the core meaning, the construction with ‘like’ in English makes the intent more explicit and easier to initially comprehend.

  5. Swedish- “Hur är det att vara en fladdermus”
    Word for word translation- how is it to be a bat?

    To me the swedish sentence sounds a bit more agnostic about the possibility of being able to describe how a bat experiences the world. The use of the word “like” may seek to find something more familiar to us which could help us approach the being a bat-ness. The “like” is dropped in swedish, possibly being less optimistic about coming closer to an answer by using metaphors or degrees of likeness. Maybe this is closer to the idea of an answer being a primitive of some kind, or simply unintelligeble?

    That said, I don’t think the two sentences differ enough in meaning to make the argument more or less intuitive.

    • On the other hand, “What’s it like to be…” can also be translated “Hur känns det att vara…”. Which is “How does it feel to be…”.

      Expressed that way, then, it can be translated back into “…something that it feels like to be that organism — something it feels like for the organism.”

  6. Dutch: Hoe is het om een vleermuis te zijn? (Litt: “How is it to be a bat”)
    It’s compelling, but especially as a definition of “zelfbewustzijn” (“self-consciousness”); rather than as a definition of “bewustzijn” (“consciousness”). The Dutch definition seems to point towards self-awareness a bit more than in English. But then again, I’m not a native English speaker. If there’s no degree of self-awareness, the question does not seem to carry much meaning.

  7. In spanish it may be:
    ‘Algo lo que es como ser’
    But that is weird grammatically.
    Maybe
    ‘Algo que es como ser’
    Is more natural and appropiate

  8. Here’s how I would translate it into Tamil.
    முக்கியமாக, ஒரு உயிரினமாக இருப்பது போல ஏதாவது இருந்தால் மட்டுமே, அந்த உயரினதிற்கு நனவான மனநிலை உண்டு.

    I need other Tamil speakers to assess it’s compellingness. It seems compelling to me, but I’m not sure whether that’s because I know what it’s supposed to mean in English.

  9. In maltese:
    Kif ikun, biex ikun farfett il-lejl?
    Translation:
    “what is it like” – kif ikun (literally meaning: “how is it like to exist or how is does this come to be”).

    “…to be a bat” – biex ikun farfett il-lejl” : literally meaning: with that (
    That being the previously established “kif ikun”)- you are in existence with being a butterfly of the night”

  10. Norwegian: I have not seen a translation of the exact quote in Norwegian. Norwegian does not carry the “to be”/sein problems that English may. The norwegian “å være” is closer to the german sein, than the english “to be” is to the german sein.
    And the “is like” necessary part in english, sounds like you are holding up a mirror, is not a necessary formulation in norwegian. So you get rid of the kennen/wissen problem. By ending the definition with “for the organism”, the english speaker gets rid of the kennen (feel)/wissen (to know a fact) problem.
    A little about “to be”/sein:
    https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/cllt-2022-0015/html

    fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism — something it is like for the organism
    Fundamentalt sett har en organisme bevisste sinnstilstander hvis og bare hvis det er noe å være organismen – for organismen selv.
    (I realise that my translation needs work. Because of the “is like”-mirror in my translation has been thrown away, and because of norwegian sentence structure).
    So I am tempted to use “kjennes som” (feels like), which is close to the german kennen.
    …hvis det kjennes som noe å være organismen – kjennes som noe for organismen.
    (which means in my translation, kjennes (feels like), is repeated after the hyphen.
    End result:
    Fundamentalt sett har en organisme bevisste sinnstilstander hvis og bare hvis det kjennes som noe å være organismen – kjennes som noe for organismen.
    Yes, the sentence become compelling, but it feels like a Frankenstein. I had to introduce a verb (kjennes/feels) and I did not get rid of the “is like” mirror, because I had to introduce “som noe” (like something). Kjennes som noe (“is like something”/”feels like something”).

    • I think a simpler and more direct translation might be “Hvordan er det å være en flaggermus?” Literally: How is it to be a bat? “Hvordan er det å være deg?” – “What is it like to be you?”

  11. ‪Traducción literal : fundamentalmente un organismo tiene estados mentales conscientes si, y solo si, hay algo que es similar a ser ese organismo- algo que es como parecido para el organismo.‬

    ‪What it is like : Que es como parecido a , que es parecido ‬

    ‪Paráfrasis: ‬ De manera fundamental , fundamentalmente, un organismo posee estados mentales “conscientes” si, y solo si, hay algo que es similar o parecido a “ser” como ese organismo, es decir, si hay un modo de ser del murciélago, o un modo de ser de un perro, o un modo de ser de un humano. Hay algo que es un modo de ser para ese organismo. Hay algo que ese organismo puede identificar como su ser , o su modo de ser. Hay algo que el organismo reconoce , y esto que reconoce es aquello que identifica como “parecido” a como es ser él mismo, es decir, el organismo reconoce que el mismo es de un modo particular. Y aquello que es capaz de descubrir sobre sí mismo y sobre este modo de ser particular , aquello que puede identificar y relacionar con aquellas características que lo hacen ser él mismo, sería a partir de lo cual podríamos atribuir estados mentales conscientes.

  12. In Greek, it would be the same: how it is to be a bat
    ▪️ πώς είναι να είσαι νυχτερίδα
    and to me it is close to “what it feels like.”
    Indeed, if I type on Google
    ▪️ πώς είναι να είσαι = how it is / is it to be
    omitting “a bat” the autocomplete gives
    how is it to be in love

    I should add that the above structure uses the generic second-person singular:
    “how it is for you to be a bat”
    as in
    “how it is for one to be a bat”

  13. I am returning with additional information (I have posted the same on X):
    My sense that, in Greek, “how is it to be” is close to “what does it feel like to be” is justified by this Greek translation of Nagel’s book, which offers as a title
    “What does one feel when one is a bat?”:
    https://eclass.uoa.gr/modules/document/file.php/PHS360/Nagel%20T.%20%CE%A4%CE%99%20%CE%9D%CE%99%CE%A9%CE%98%CE%95%CE%99%20%CE%9A%CE%91%CE%9D%CE%95%CE%99%CE%A3%20%CE%9F%CE%9D%CE%A4%CE%91%CE%A3%20%CE%9D%CE%A5%CE%A7%CE%A4%CE%95%CE%A1%CE%99%CE%94%CE%91%3B.pdf

    It’s as though: no feeling = no consciousness.

  14. In the Scandinavian languages the ‘what’ is substituted for a ‘how’ and there is no good equivalent to ‘like’. It could be ‘som’ – which is a type of ‘as’. Thus, there is no ‘what it is like’ but a ‘how it is’ to be. It’s still compelling – maybe even more so, but that might just me the effect of a mother tongue.

  15. In Italian I would translate this as

    “cosa si prova a essere un pipistrello”

    whose literal back-translation would be

    “what does one feel when one is a bat?”

    there is a strong shift from being-a-bat (and what that’s like) to feeling-as-a-bat-would.

    perhaps I am over-interpreting but the original English drops you in a situation and asks what that’s like while the Italian asks you to simulate a situation you don’t quite inhabit and report on what you observe.

  16. In Norwegian, which is my native language, we say/ask «hva det føles som å være» (what it feels like to be), «hvordan det føles å være» (how it feels to be), or «hvordan det er å være» (how it is to be) a bat.

    These pick out the same thing that «what it’s like to be» does in English, and my sense is that the phrase is as convincing in Norwegian as it is in English.

    It is most natural for us, however, to use the word «føles» (feels). Has the English phrase «what it’s like to be» developed as a shorthand for «what it feels like to be»?

  17. In Hindi it is –
    चमगादड़ होना कैसा होता है
    (Chamgaadad hona kaisa hota hai)

    And it has the same feeling to it as the English quote.

  18. Hi Keith,

    as to Italian, I would add another translation
    “che effetto fa essere un pipistrello”
    similar to “che cosa si prova a essere un pipistrello”
    but with a different nuance

    Best
    Andrea

  19. I totally disagree with the two Spanish translations above, they are simply bad translations. (1) “What it is like -> Que es como parecido a , que es parecido” – No!!
    (2) -> “Algo lo que es como ser” – that’s not Spanish!!.

    If “What’s she like? -> ¿Cómo es ella?”, then “what’s it like to be a bat -> cómo es (cómo se siente o cómo se experimenta o cuál es la vivencia de) ser un murciélago”. I’ve seen “Qué se siente ser (un) murciélago”, which is acceptable. Spanish, as a latin language, tends to use more abstract nouns, so “la vivencia de ser un murciélago” would be my translation, at least at the moment.

    “La vivencia de ser un murciélago” or “la experiencia…” would have to do with consciousness, I don’t know if as a definition.

  20. In Finnish (my native):
    ”Minkälaista olisi olla lepakko?” Covers every meaning of the question even the philosophical ones. ”Minkälaista”-word even though it is derived from two simple words originally ”Mikä” meaning ”What” and ”laji” meaning species or kind/type.
    ”Minkälainen” means ”What kind” and ”Minkälaista” is partitive form and adds/broadens the meaning to cover how would you feel as a bat.
    Rest is straight forward ”olisi” is ”would”, ”olla” is to be and ”lepakko” is ”bat”.

  21. In Slovak language, “what it is like” (to be an organism) or “what is it like” (for the organism) is translated as follows:

    “aké je to” (byť týmto organizmom)
    “aké je to” (pre tento organizmus).

    I don’t think it’s as compelling in Slovak as it is in English, because I often find that people don’t intuitively understand it at first. I have to further explain to them that this is a subjective aspect of conscious experience.

  22. Lithuanian: “Ką reiškia būti šikšnosparniu?”

    Literally: “What does it mean to be a bat?”

    My sense is this question is pretty vague and a person not familiar with the debate would not necessarily understand it in anything like qualia sense.

    Alternatively, “Kaip jaučiasi šikšnosparnis?”

    Literally (it is a reflexive form): How is the bat feeling (itself)?

    This is clearer, but perhaps emotional aspect is especially salient.

    In general, if I had to translate this phrase (say, for a survey), I do not think there is a good matching phrase in Lithuanian. One perhaps would rely on longer paraphrasing and explanation.

  23. Urdu:
    چمگادڑ کی طرحا بننا کیسا لگتا ہے؟
    It’s equally compelling. Though this set up may prime the concept thought at first in English, into the other language.

  24. In Spanish it is usually translated “¿Qué se siente ser un murciélago”, which would be something akin to “What does it feel to be a bat?”

    A more literal translation of the original sentence would be “¿Cómo qué es ser un murciélago?” which is simply terrible.

    I think the optimal translation in Spanish needs necessarily to include the verb “to feel” [sentir]. It would be something like “¿Cómo se siente ser un murciélago?”, which re-translated would be something like “How does it feel to be a bat?”.

    I’d say that properly translated, the passage is still compelling, altough maybe somewhat less.

  25. It’s funny but in Spanish the colloquial way to ask someone what an experience -was- like is “ cómo fué’” , or “cómo lo sentiste?” or “cómo lo pasaste ?” There seems to be no folksy colloquial way to ask what it’s enduringly like to be, say , a bat. .. I agree with jrfern who suggested one needs a complicated construction like “cómo se siente o cómo se experimenta o cuál es la vivencia de) ser un murciélago”. One must rely on philosophical sounding terms to convey the colloquial English. Perhaps this undermines the universality of the “what is it like” shorthand?

  26. Polish, trans. Adam Romaniuk, 1997: Ów organizm ma jednak z istoty stany mentalne wtedy i tylko wtedy, gdy jest coś takiego, jak bycie tym organizmem — coś co
    jest jakby dla tego organizmu.

    My transl: Jednak zasadniczo organizm ma -świadome- stany mentalne wtedy i tylko wtedy, gdy istnieje takie coś, jak tak-to-jest być tym organizmem — tak-to-jest być dla tego organizmu.

    The original translation is not very good. Skips „conscious” and introduces two philosophically loaded terms: „z istoty” – from the essence, „jakby” – as if.

  27. How would people translate the related phrase “that it is like to be”, a construction that, to my ears, has never sounded like very natural or fluent English?

    If I had been Nagel’s copy editor at the time, I probably would’ve advised him not to write “something that it is like to be that organism”.

    Instead, in my opinion, any of the three following ‘English-to-English’ translations would have been preferable and easier to understand:

    “something that is like being that organism”
    “something experienced that is key to being that organism”
    “something that is tantamount to being that organism”

    These are my best attempts at interpreting Nagel’s clunky and disorienting phrase. How, though, would some of you translate it into other languages?

  28. Here the Sartrean notion of “etre pour-soi” might be appropriate. (It would avoid the implicit, and, I think, unnecessary, comparison involved in “like.”) So, “What is it to be a bat, for the bat?”

  29. In Chinese 做一只蝙蝠是什么感觉?or 做一只蝙蝠是什么体验? which literally means ‘what does it feel like to be a bat?’ and ‘what is the experience of being a bat?’

  30. The Polish translation of the passage, as noted above, is no good. It is very difficult if not impossible to render literally because of grammatic differences.

    However translating the title of the paper ‘What is it like to be a bat’ is much easier: ‘Jak to jest być nietoperzem’ clearly conveys the connotation of subjective phenomenology. It is natural to ask this question in everyday Polish in contexts when you want ask someone about their subjective experience: ‘what is it like to be falling through the sky with only a parachute to to rely with your life on?’, ‘what is it like to be a film star’ etc.

    The particular passage would be better rendered if instead of ‘jest coś takiego’ or even ‘istnieje takie coś’, which both alter the meaning to roughly ‘there exists such a thing as what it is like to be that organism’ – this is problematic in my view as these translations suggest an extra thing existing over and above the experience itself, that thing being the ‘what it is like’. This is easily fixed by putting the emphasis on experience with ‘jakoś to jest być tym organizmem’ – in line with the translation of the title.

  31. In Croatian (and Bosnian, and Serbian), “what is it like to be a bat?” translates to “kako je biti šišmiš?”. It’s equally compelling as English version.

    However, the longer quotation is a bit more difficult to translate well.

    The second part — “something it is like for the organism” — is okay, but “there is something that it is like to be that organism” is tricky because of the phrase “something that it is like”. I think the best translation actually corresponds to this formulation: “there is an answer to the question of what it is like to be that organism”.

    So we have a following translation: “Organizam ima svjesna mentalna stanja ako i samo ako postoji odgovor na pitanje kako je biti taj organizam — kako je tom organizmu.”

    This translation is a little bit less compelling than English version because of this first part. For I don’t know if “there is something that it is like” is equivalent to “there is an answer to the question of what it is like”.

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