M.G. Piety

More Problems with the Postscript

In Translation issues on April 23, 2017 at 3:20 pm

Forlade in Ferrall-Repp

Translation is difficult. This is particularly true of the translation of philosophical texts because even slight variations in the meaning of certain terms can have enormous philosophical significance. I heard a fascinating lecture by Jessica Moss at the University of Pennsylvania a few weeks ago that addressed this issue. It was on whether Plato’s epistêmê should be translated as “knowledge.” That seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Increasing scholarly attention is being focused, however, on precisely that issue, and Moss presented good arguments both for and against such a translation.

Sadly, there are no Greek-English dictionaries from Plato’s time to help scholars understand how to translate Plato.

Fortunately, we Kierkegaard scholars are better off. Unfortunately, few translators of Kierkegaard appear to refer to these dictionaries, with the result that many English translations of Kierkegaard are sometimes seriously misleading. This point was brought home to me with particular force just yesterday. I was reading chapter 4 of Hannay’s Postscript in preparation for the seminar I am teaching on Kierkegaard at Haverford, when I came across a passage that I found deeply puzzling.

The paradox-religious posits the contradiction between existence and the eternal absolutely; for the thought that the eternal is at a definite moment of time expresses precisely the abandonment of existence by the hidden immanence of the eternal. In the religious A the eternal is ubique et nusquam but hidden by the actuality of existence; in the paradox-religious the eternal is at a definite place, and precisely this is the breach with immanence (pp. 478-479).

The Danish for the passage is:

Det Paradox-Religieuse sætter Modsætningen absolut mellem Existentsen og det Evige; thi netop det at det Evige er i et bestemt Tids-Moment er Udtrykket for, at Existentsen er forladt af det Eviges skjulte Immanents. I det Religieuse A er det Evige ubique et nusquam, men skjult af Existentsens Virkelighed; i det Paradox-Religieuse er det Evige paa et bestemt Sted, og dette er netop Bruddet med Immanentsen. (SKS, AE)

I actually prefer the Hongs’ “paradoxically-religious” to Hannay’s “paradox-religious.” There is a problem, however, with the rendering of Kierkegaard’s Modsætningen as “contradiction” that, bizarrely, affects all three English translations of this passage in the Postscript. Modsætning, comes from the verb modsætte. Modsætte is actually a compound term comprised of the verb sætte, which means to “set” (as in to set something down), and mod, which means “against.” Modsætte thus literally means to set against (sætte mod), or to contrast.

And, indeed, modsætte is defined by Ferrall-Repp as “to oppose,” or “to contrast.” It’s modsigelse, not modsætning that means “contradiction.” One doesn’t even need to refer to Ferrall-Repp to confirm this. Vinterberg-Bodelsen makes this clear.

To render Modsætning as “contradiction” gives undue support to the erroneous view that there cannot be any point of contact, according to Kierkegaard, between time and eternity. Since Kierkegaard claims that “the moment” (Oieblik) is precisely such a point of contact, the rendering of Modsætning as “contradiction” would appear to support those who claim that Kierkegaard is advocating an extreme form of irrationalism where one is asked to believe things that are purportedly formally impossible.

The rendering of Modætning as “contradiction” isn’t the only problem with the passage in question. It wasn’t even the problem that concerned me most. What really troubled me was the reference to the “abandonment of existence by the hidden immanence of the eternal.” That can’t be right, I thought. The appearance of the God in time is not a rejection, but rather a redemption of existence.

Unlike the problem with the translation of Modsætning, however, I wasn’t sure how to fix the problem in the passage that referred to the “abandonment of existence” by the eternal. The Danish term that is translated as “abandonment” is actually forladt. Forladt comes from the verb forlade, which, according to Ferrall-Repp means “1. to leave, quit; 2. to forsake, abandon, desert;” but also “3. to pardon, forgive.” It was that last definition the grabbed me because the Danish for “the forgiveness of sins” is syndsforladelse.

That’s what Kierkegaard is talking about, I thought. The appearance of the eternal in time redeems existence. It doesn’t “abandon” it. The problem, I quickly discovered, is that no form of “forgive” works very well for forladt in this passage because Kierkegaard is clearly trying to emphasize the contrast, or opposition, between time and eternity, or between “existence” and eternity.

It’s possible that if anything is abandoned in the passage, it is the “hiddenness” of the eternal, rather than existence. The only problem with that reading is that the appearance of the eternal in time is not something that is directly perceptible according to Kierkegaard, so if the “hiddenness” of the eternal is abandoned by its appearance in time, this is in only a metaphorical sense.

I sat with my crumbling copy of Ferrall-Repp in my lap as I struggled to make sense of how best to translate this passage. I read and reread the definition of forlade hoping to find some term that would work, when suddenly, my eyes lit upon a second instance of forlade. Forlade actually appears twice in Ferrall-Repp (three times if one counts forlade sig paa, which means to depend on). The second instance has only one definition: “to overload.”

Eureka! That’s it, I thought. That is IT! That’s what he means. Not only is the “overloading of existence by the hidden immanence of the eternal” idiomatic (or as idiomatic as metaphysical language can get), it makes sense. The temporal manifestation of the eternal is referred to by Kierkegaard, following scripture, of course, as “the fullness of time” (Crumbs, 95). The eternal fills time to the bursting point, according to Kierkegaard, and indeed fills the individual to the bursting point “if he does not become a new person and a new vessel” (Crumbs, 109).

The “overloading” of existence by the eternal heightens the contrast between existence and the eternal in precisely the way Kierkegaard means to emphasize in this passage. My guess is that Kierkegaard’s choice of forladt was meant also to evoke in the reader the sense of “forgiven” as in the forgiveness of sins. What I don’t think he meant, however, was to suggest that the appearance of the eternal in time, or in existence, amounted to an abandonment of existence. That just doesn’t make sense.

So why does Hannay have “abandonment”? Hannay isn’t the only translator of the Postscript to make this mistake. Every English translation of the Postscript makes this mistake. Why all the English translators of the Postscript have gotten Modætning wrong remains a mystery. My guess, however, as to why they all get forladt wrong is because there is no second occurrence of forlade in contemporary Danish-English dictionaries. There isn’t in my Vinterberg-Bodelsen anyway. Forlade as “overload” appears to have fallen out of usage. That means even native speakers of Danish will very likely be inclined to misinterpret this passage of the Postscript.

This is a striking example of how important it is to use dictionaries that are contemporary with one’s source. The late George L. Kline, my M.A. thesis director at Bryn Mawr used to emphasize this over and over again. Thank you, George, for drilling this into me!

A Problem with Hannay’s Postscript

In Translation issues on April 16, 2017 at 4:50 pm

I have said before, and I will say again, that Alastair Hannay’s translations of Kierkegaard for Penguin are superior to the Hongs’ translations for Princeton. I will probably do some posts comparing them again. That is not the purpose of the present post, however. I’m teaching a seminar on Kierkegaard now at Haverford College where we’re reading Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs, and his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs. We’re using my translation of the Crumbs from Oxford and Hannay’s translation of the Postscript from Cambridge. In the course of my reading through this new translation of the Postscript, I have discovered a number of problems with it.

The most serious and most perplexing problem is Hannay’s systematically translating Kierkegaard’s Opvakt as “reborn.” Opvakt literally means “awakened.” It comes from the verb opvække, that, according to Ferrall-Repp means “to awake, rouse, excite, stir up.” An Opvækkelse is similarly defined by Ferrall-Repp as an “awakening.” Kierkegaard uses the expression en Opvakt to refer to a follower of the charismatic Danish priest Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (see the commentary to SKS).

One might be tempted to argue that while “awakened” is the most literal translation of Opvakt, it is awkward in English to refer to the members of a particular religious movement as “awakened.” Unfortunately, “reborn” isn’t much better if it is better at all. The idiomatic expression in English would be “born again.”

The more serious difficulty, however, with the translation of Opvakt as “reborn” is that it is misleading, so misleading, in fact, that it is likely to make readers dependent on English translations of Kierkegaard conclude that his thought is incoherent. Kierkegaard speaks in the following passage from the Philosophical Crumbs of a “rebirth” of the individual who receives the condition for understanding the truth from the god in time.

To the extent that the disciple was in error and now receives the truth as well as the condition for understanding it, a change takes place in him that is like the transition from not being to being. But this transition from not being to being is precisely that of birth [Fødselens]. He who exists already can hardly be born, and yet he is born. Let us call this transition rebirth [Gjenfødslen](96).

The expression for “rebirth” is Gjenfødslen. Gjenfødslen comes from adding the prefix Gjen (which comes from Igien, which means “again”) to Fødsel, which, according to Ferrall-Repp. is defined as “delivery, parturation, birth, nativity.”

This “rebirth” is an unqualifiedly positive thing. It is, indeed, precisely the temporal point of departure for a person’s “eternal consciousness” the possibility of which was posed as “the problem of the Crumbs.

Kierkegaard’s “Gjenfødslen” is a positive phenomenon, indeed, THE positive phenomenon. Kierkegaard has little respect, however, for the followers of Grundtvig, so his references to them as Opvakt are all pejorative.

What is the poor reader dependent on English translations of Kierkegaard to make of this? When he reads the Crumbs, he’ll find that “rebirth” is equivalent to an individual’s encounter with God in the person of Christ. When he proceeds, however, to the Postscript, he’ll read that “[t]he one who is reborn … is not relating to God” (381, emphasis added).

This isn’t the only misleading reference in Hannay’s translation to someone who is “reborn.” There is also a reference on page 383 to “the impudent assurance in the fact of God of the one reborn.” There’s another reference on page 424 to “the one who is reborn impertinently retain[ing] God.” When I did a search on “reborn” on my electronic copy of the book, I got 25 hits. Some of the pages, such as 429, have multiple references because Kierkegaard goes on at some length in those places about what is wrong with the followers Grundtvig –– except that the reader very likely won’t know that’s what Kierkegaard is doing, but will assume he’s critiquing the views he developed himself in the Philosophical Crumbs.

Kierkegaard is not critiquing his own earlier views, or worse, contradicting himself. “Rebirth” is a literal translation of Gjenfødslen. It is not, however, a literal translation of Opvakt, and given that Kierkegaard uses Opvakt only pejoratively and Gjenfødslen only positively, a translator needs to be careful to preserve that terminological distinction in order to avoid confusing the reader and perhaps compelling him to conclude that Kierkegaard just wasn’t all that rigorous a thinker.

I thought it was important to alert readers to this problem because people who read my translation of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs will very likely be inclined to read Hannay’s translation of the Postscript since Hannay also translates Kierkegaard’s Smuler as “crumbs.”

Hannay got Smuler right, but he got Opvakt wrong.

Kierkegaard’s Conservatism

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on January 22, 2017 at 4:52 pm

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Much has been made of Kierkegaard’s political conservatism. Daphne Hampson asserts, for example, that “Kierkegaard held that it was for the king to govern; that was his calling. Thus in many ways politically and socially conservative, Kierkegaard was by sentiment adamantly opposed to what he sarcastically referred to as government by the numerical; democracy” (Kierkegaard Exposition and Critique, 209).

Adorno is even more critical. He claims Kierkegaard stubbornly maintains the “givenness” of the social order, that he is “socially conformist” and thus ready to lend a hand to “oppression and misanthropy. … Sometimes Kierkegaard’s way of speaking of the equality of men before God,” Adorno asserts, “assumes the character of involuntary irony,” as when he observes in Works of Love that “‘The times are gone when only the powerful and noble ones were men and the other people slaves and serfs’ [Works of Love, 74]. The irony cannot escape Kierkegaard’s attention,” Adorno continues, “He uses it as a medium of his religious paradox” (“On Kierkegaard’s Doctrine of Love“).

People who know a little Danish history will realize, however, that it is unlikely Kierkegaard considered that remark in the least ironical. This point was driven home to me with particular force recently when I watched the Danish movie A Royal Affair. The movie is about the love affair between Caroline Mathilde, queen consort of the Danish King Christian VII, and Johann Friedrich Struensee, the personal physician to the mentally-ill monarch. Struensee was a German Enlightenment thinker who managed, though his influence with the royal pair to institute a number of progressive political reforms. The movie is fantastic, as nearly all Danish movies are, in my experience. I cannot recommend it too highly, both for its intrinsic qualities and for the insight it can give scholars into the historical context into which Kierkegaard was born.

“From 1770 to 1772, Struensee was de facto regent of the country, and introduced progressive reforms signed into law by Christian VII. Struensee was deposed by a coup in 1772 after which the country was ruled by Christian’s stepmother, Juliane Marie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, his half-brother Frederick and the Danish politician Ove Høegh-Guldberg.” (Wikipedia). Most of Struensee’s progressive reforms were repealed after the coup, but many were reinstated by his son Frederik VI.

Frederik VI was a very progressive monarch. He went even further than reinstituting the progressive reforms for which Struensee had been responsible: He freed the serfs in 1788! Since Kierkegaard’s own father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard (1756-1838) had been a serf, Kierkegaard’s reference in Works of Love to the fact that the times were gone when only the powerful and noble were men and the other people slaves and serfs must have had special poignancy for him. Had it not been for the progressive views of Frederik VI, Kierkegaard might have been a serf as well and begun and ended his days on the same desolate Jutland heath where his father had herded sheep as a boy.

Frederik VI was the first Danish monarch to select a motto in Danish rather than the traditional Latin. His motto was “Gud og den retfærdige sag” (God and the just cause ). Kierkegaard followed suit by requesting permission to submit his dissertation in Danish rather than the Latin that was required at the time.

Frederik VI ruled Denmark for the first 26 years of Kierkegaard’s life. Given that Kierkegaard lived to be only 42, that means Frederik VI ruled Denmark for most of Kierkegaard’s life. Unfortunately, Frederik became more conservative after the French defeat in the Napoleonic Wars in 1814 and the loss of Norway by Denmark. Still, the Danish society in which Kierkegaard grew up was marked by the reforms of his early years, most notably, again, the abolition of serfdom.

There is no denying that Kierkegaard was politically conservative. That does not mean, however, as it has so often been taken to mean, that he was indifferent to the material conditions of those less fortunate than himself. As I observed in my last post, Peter Tudvad has already shown in his book Kierkegaards København, that Kierkegaard was far from indifferent to the plight of the poor and the needy. Kierkegaard’s undeniable political conservatism was not a symptom of indifference to the situation of such people. It was more an expression of cynicism concerning the ability of what he called “the crowd” to govern themselves humanely. In any case, his conservatism seems less reprehensible when understood in historical context.