“Würfeln” is German for playing dice

Since finishing Max Jammer’s book on the history of Quantum Mechanics, I’ve read a few more (and more popular) books, articles or reviews about the same general subject. One very striking thing — very obvious because of the outstanding level of the earlier book — was that none of the other texts gave any kind of feeling for the fact that the foundational work (until the middle 30’s at least) was very much a German-speaking affair. A few other languages are represented (de Broglie and the Curies in French, Dirac in English, Bohr at least partly in Danish), but their numbers are dwarfed by those of the German-speaking masters (Planck, Sommerfeld, Born, Einstein, Pauli, Schrödinger, Jordan, Heisenberg, etc). One anecdote emphasizes this clearly: the Indian physicist S. N. Bose sent a crucial paper in the form of a letter to Einstein (presumably in English), asking him if he could arrange for a German translation to be made and for its publication (Einstein did the translation himself).

Jammer gives most of the important quotations (and the crucial words in others) in the original language, with a translation. The other texts I’ve read, even if they briefly mention the original language, give only English translations of older quotes, with rarely a word of German appearing. (Of course, there is a lot of later literature which was first written in English). For most of the quotations, it seems there is no “official” translation, so it’s hard to judge their correctness.

For instance, it seems every source gives a slightly different version of the so-called “God doesn’t play dice” citation. The German original (in a letter from Einstein to Max Born in 1926; Born had been the first to give the standard interpretation of the modulus square of the “wave function” as giving the probability density of finding a quantum particle at a given point) is the following:

Die Quantenmechanik ist sehr Achtung gebietend. Aber eine innere Stimme sagt mir, dass das noch nicht der wahre Jakob ist. Die Theorie liefert viel, aber dem Geheimnis des Alten bringt sie uns kaum näher. Jedenfalls bin ich überzeugt, dass der Alte nicht würfelt.

which translates fairly literally (the best I can do…) as

Quantum mechanics is very imposing. But an inner voice tells me, that this is not yet the real McCoy. The theory provides a lot, but it brings us little closer to the secrets of the Old Man. At least I am certain, that the Old Man doesn’t play dice.

What is mostly missing from most of the translations I’ve seen is the informality and playfulness of the language. There’s wahre Jakob, which seems really equivalent to the real McCoy. And of course there is der Alte — I have no idea what would be a colloquially equivalent word in English; I can’t say at all whether it really refers to a deity or not (and if yes, at what level of formality). And I also wonder if there isn’t some slight difference of emphasis or subtlety of meaning in the verb würfeln, which contains in a single word the meaning to to play dice (jouer au dé). [Interestingly, it seems that würfeln also means to dice in the cooking-sense of cutting in dices.]

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

12 thoughts on ““Würfeln” is German for playing dice”

  1. “And of course there is der Alte […] I can’t say at all whether it really refers to a deity or not”
    Can you really not, Emmanuel?
    Your reluctance to use the G-word is also quite amusing…
    Anyway,yours are as usual
    very penetrating and erudite reflections; the translation of “wahre Jakob” you suggest is simply brilliant.
    Thank you for teaching us so much.

  2. As a native English speaker who also speaks German, I can’t think of a remotely good colloquial English equivalent of “der Alte” here. “Old man” probably gets the level of formality right, but doesn’t quite get the meaning. In any case, I think I understand how Einstein probably meant it: as a reference to god which is separated from religion, perhaps even in the figurative sense as a personification of nature.

  3. The idea of “der Alte” being some kind of “Mother Nature” seems quite natural. I’ve looked in my German dictionary, and it doesn’t give any meaning to “der Alte” except “the old man”.

    (Amusingly, if one had to translate “Der Alte würfelt nicht” out of context, knowing that “der Alte” is not literally an old man, the internet would lead to the translation “Konrad Adenauer doesn’t play dice.”)

  4. I don’t know whether “der Alte” has ever been in general usage in Einstein’s sense; I think it may have been a personal mannerism of his. The translation “Konrad Adenauer doesn’t play dice.” hadn’t occurred to me, but of course you’re exactly right about that!

    By the way, I second the above opinion of your translation of “der wahre Jakob”.

  5. A brief internet search suggests that “der Alte” is usually translated as “the Old One”, and this jibes with my own memories of various Einstein quotes (always translated into English) that I’ve read in the past. I think I’ve read that this was Einstein’s standard way of referring to God (in whatever sense he intended — it could seem either somewhat reverential or somewhat tongue-in-cheek, or perhaps something of both), but I don’t have any other actual examples of this usage by him at hand. Presumably one could find other instances by poking around online, if they in fact exist.

  6. MEPHISTOPHELES (allein):
    Von Zeit zu Zeit seh ich den Alten gern,
    Und huete mich, mit ihm zu brechen.
    Es ist gar huebsch von einem grossen Herrn,
    So menschlich mit dem Teufel selbst zu sprechen.

    From the prolog in Faust. Der Alte = Der Herr = God.

  7. The Faut citation certainly clarifies things; it seems to emphasize again the playful nature of the quote: as far as a quick search shows, “der Alte” is used only this one time in the whole Faust, and it is the sardonic Mephisto, alone, who uses the word. All other references refer to God as “der Herr”.

    (Incidentally, I had seen the same quote in some of the books on Quantum Mechanics because in a Copenhagen meeting in 1932, the younger physicists presented a parody of Faust with Bohr as God, Pauli as Mephisto, Ehrenfest as Faust, the Neutrino as Gretchen, etc…; but the quotes were of course in English…)

  8. Supreme Fascist?

    I agree there’s no perfect translation of “der Alte”. “The Old Man” (capitalised, per the conventional English orthography when naming that religion’s Head Honchos) is very clear, if not entirely idiomatic, and I suggest is the best that can be done.

    On this subject of slightly un-idiomatic expression: that the grand old men (Grand Old Men?) of the heroic age of QM (Dirac excepted) should sound like native English speakers in translation is a goal that seems as mistaken as it is unattainable. Einstein in particular, with the hair and the German accented speech, is a cultural stereotype; translated Einstein is expected to sound like translated German.

    I’ve never taken the effort to seek out and read many of the foundational works in German; you’ve motivated me to so, even though it is harder work in a non-cradle language. Life us too easy for us Anglophone linguistic imperialsists!

  9. I guess the question is, how jocular does “der Alte” read in German? If it’s supposed to be roughly equidictional with “the real McCoy” I’d say “the Big Guy” or “the Man Upstairs.” The former is a tiny bit closer to “Alte,” the latter more common in idiomatic English (or at least idiomatic US English.)

  10. Sorry to quibble, but according to the Oxford Duden German Dictionary (3rd edn. 2005) the VERB würfeln (NO capital W) means “to THROW dice,” whereas to PLAY dice is “mit Würfeln spielen.” Here, the capitalized “Würfeln” means the plural NOUN dice.

    Note that my Cambridge DAMTP contemporary Stephen Hawking hedged his translational bets by saying (in one reported version) “Not only does God play dice, but sometimes He throws them where they cannot be seen.”

    On the subject of “der Alte,” Einstein was very well read and no doubt was mischievously quoting the devil’s term for God from Faust. According to a blurb on the Princeton University press site, “… what looms largest [in Einstein’s personal library] are the collected works of Johann von Goethe in a thirty-six volume edition and another of twelve volumes, plus two volumes on his Optics, one on the exchange of letters between Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller, and a separate volume of Faust.” This site also states “Physicists of those days, such as Wien, Boltzmann, Arnold Sommerfeld, Born, and Erwin Schrödinger, interspersed their lectures and books with quotations from Goethe.” Evidently these guys could readily bandy quotes from Goethe about and recognize the source and the intended implications.

  11. “Der Alte” is found in Luther’s Bible for Daniel 7:9 and 7:22. The English Bible usually has “Ancient of Days.” That would sound pretty formal/elevated.

    But could the allusion evoke אַלטער קאַקער (Yiddish: alter kaker)? That would take it into a completely different direction.

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