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I was searching for an English translation for the German Vordenker. Basically a person, often a scientist, who began or further significantly developed a new concept or theory by contributing epoch-making publications or comments. Translation services give out expressions that have more the connotation of thinking about actual future events or things to me, e.g. innovative business ideas/products or future studies. But Vordenker doesn’t imply thinking of future actually, rather new ideas outside of current paradigms. Also Vordenker is in my opinion especially used in a historical or biographical context, as you can only judge his influence retrospectively (e.g. times cited). A lot of scientists in German wikipedia are described as Vordenker in the first sentence while there seems to be no common english term in the english wikipedia.

Thought leader has a too imperative character.

Forward thinker implies to me thinking of future itself.

Key figure is too inexact.

Visionary means someone with new ideas, which possibly never have come true in retrospect.

Pre-thinker sounds like awkward & uncommon English. Is there a better known expression? Or what would be a good one regarding above constraints?


Update: See how german.SE thinks about appropriate synonyms

http://german.stackexchange.com/questions/2337/whats-a-synonym-next-to-vordenker-vorreiter-freidenker-pionier/2344#2344

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forward thinker seems the best match. you assert it has no future aspect, but "pre-" implies time. also "fore thinker" is (transliterally) "vordanker" is it not? –  horatio Aug 31 '11 at 18:35

8 Answers 8

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Pioneer (often seen in adjectival form, as in "a pioneering scientist") is a reasonably close match.

But I doubt you'll find an exact analogue. A pioneer or a trailblazer does something first, and a visionary thinks something first, but I don't think we have a common word for someone who thinks and does something first, or someone who does something thought-related first. (In point of fact, when English lacks a perfect word for a useful concept, we often end up importing one from German: zeitgeist, schadenfreude, etc. Maybe we should start using vordenker!)

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Related: "Innovator." –  Maxpm Aug 31 '11 at 3:26
    
i very agree about importing it! Robusto answer made me think of unerring explorer as phrase for Vordenker. I think this fits Pioneer pretty much. Someone with overview and insight and knowledge what next steps are important to develop theories/knowledge further. But both Pioneer/Explorer have more the connotation of a experimental researcher, otherwise they would be perfect also of the biographical connotation pioneer has. "He was a pioneer", but never "He is a pioneer". –  Hauser Aug 31 '11 at 17:07
    
+1 I think pioneer is best; don't know why I didn't think of it! Also, I am a big fan of loaning words from other languages. –  Daniel Aug 31 '11 at 17:11

Luminary

1. A person who inspires or influences others, esp. one prominent in a particular sphere.
3. A person who has attained eminence in his or her field or is an inspiration to others: one of the luminaries in the field of medical science.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/luminary

You could say

an early luminary in the field of medicine

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Besides @phenry’s excellent suggestions, the phrase ahead of his/her time has very similar connotations to vordenker , although it’s adjectival rather than a noun.

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You could go with the literal Greek: Promethean. It refers to the Titan Prometheus, but the word literally is (ancient?) Greek for "forethought". It has come to imply great creativity as well.

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The terms freethinker and trailblazer are excellent here.

Freethinker:

a person who forms opinions on the basis of reason, independent of authority or tradition, especially a person whose religious opinions differ from established belief.

Trailblazer:

2. a pioneer in any field of endeavor: a trailblazer in science.

Both of these, especially trailblazers, are often not recognized as such during their trailblazing activities; many times only in retrospect do people recognize the value of their contributions.

Edit: I didn't do a thesaurus search, and therefore missed the word pioneer. Suggested by @phenry, I have to say I cast my vote to that one. Pioneer or pioneering is best.

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+1 for Freethinker. To me it seemed the best noun for one who thinks outside the box about current paradigms. Though @Hauser, as the provided definition suggests, this is more of a person who differs from the norm, not someone who necessarily expounds on existing paradigms. –  Rikon Aug 31 '11 at 1:33
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+1 for trailblazer, seems best besides pioneer. Freethinker lacks the biographical connotation and historical weight of vordenker –  Hauser Aug 31 '11 at 17:09
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as the definition suggests, freethinker has a more religious connotation, that is, the opposite of religiously dogmatic. Not a good fit to the OP's requirements IMO. –  horatio Aug 31 '11 at 18:32
    
I have heard this term used a multiplicity of times, and I think the dictionary presents an inaccurately presumed connotation. I don't implicitly trust dictionaries, just in case; and in this case, my experience overrides it. –  Daniel Aug 31 '11 at 18:45

Progressive:

pro·gres·sive/prəˈgresiv/Noun: A person advocating or implementing social reform or new, liberal ideas. Adjective: Happening or developing gradually or in stages; proceeding step by step.

This implies the person that takes the existing SOTA to the next level.

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It sounds like you are looking for a word to describe a person who possesses foresight and intelligence.

With that in mind, you might look at mastermind:

mastermind |ˈmastərˌmīnd|
noun
a person with an outstanding intellect: an eminent musical mastermind. • someone who plans and directs an ingenious and complex scheme or enterprise: the mastermind behind the project.

Still, don't toss visionary on the scrap heap too quickly:

visionary |ˈviZHəˌnerē|
noun ( pl. visionaries )
a person with original ideas about what the future will or could be like.

Usually the latter term is applied to people who were successful in grasping possibilities and bringing them to fruition.

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foresight imho doesnt match, but insight and overview, there is imo really no connotation of future in Vordenker, of course something new always happens in future, so this is a redundant connotation the term has not to carry. Having foresight, means he knows how things will happen, but a Vordenker knows what the important next steps are to further a scientific community/theory, basically he starts to found new paradigms. Imo unerring explorer would better match than Visionary, which imo is often next to sci-fi/fantasy in German. Mastermind i like much more +1 –  Hauser Aug 31 '11 at 17:07

Pathbreaker is another relevant word.

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Or 'trailblazer'? –  Mitch May 30 at 15:05

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