A more accurate translation of “enlightened witness”

Jan 19, 2011

It now seems that what got translated as “enlightened witness” by English-speaking publishing houses that have translated Alice Miller’s works is not accurate. Here there are the original terms:

Helfender Zeuge – helping witness

Wissender Zeuge – knowledgeable witness

As far as I understand Miller, there is a difference between Helfender Zeuge and Wissender Zeuge. Chronologically, the first concept, Helfender Zeuge, means being helped when we are children or minors (e.g., “grandma accepted me at her home after daddy hit me”). On the other hand, Wissender Zeuge means the help we get as adults from a unique person: someone really knowledgeable of the toll caused by child abuse. A Wissender Zeuge comes pretty handy for those who didn’t have any Helfender Zeuge and therefore have yet to process the trauma.

So my suspicion was correct: the “Macklerian” translation of Wissender Zeuge, omnipresent in the English translations of Miller’s work, is inaccurate. The renowned Spanish publishing house TusQuets got it better: “testigo conocedor” (knowing witness). And in the latest translation of a Miller book, “testigo cómplice” (accomplice witness). In English an “accomplice witness” is closer to “knowing witness” than the New Age-ish translation “enlightened witness.”

In his e-mail list of today, Becoming Other uses this later translation. Here is an excerpt (bold-type is mine):

I need to establish allies at this time. My life has been impacted in some extreme ways. Right now I am fighting against active assaults. I am in a defensive position. One of my most important defenses is my Privacy Screen. I do not disclose the facticity of my life. Circumstances demand that I keep it completely concealed. Sociability and ordinary camaraderie are luxuries I do not have. I have already had to give up many things more precious to me than these. What I need are Comrades in Arms.

At one point in her writing Alice Miller described the Helping Witness as something you would never be able to find in therapy. She was convinced that the therapeutic model precluded this. She apologized for having led some of her readers (like me) into therapy. So maybe Accomplice Witness was a better translation of what she was calling for.

But then in her later writings she sounds more and more like Janov. In “Paths of Life” she councils caution about regression therapies. But she does it speaking like Janov, speaking of the “organism being too damaged.”

Her early writings did not revolve around such naturalistic foundationalisms.


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