M.G. Piety

New Translation of Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses

In Publishing News on May 7, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Harper Collins has issued a new translation of some of Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses under their imprint Harper Perennial (Harper, 2010). It was with some trepidation that I awaited this new translation. Many of Kierkegaard’s works deserve better translations than they have yet received, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone could improve on the Swensons’ translation from 1943. The translator of this new edition is George Pattison, the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. The good news is that Pattison’s translation is better than the Hongs’. The bad news is that that’s damning with faint praise. Pattison’s translation is still a long way from being as good as the Swensons’ translation.

A blog is not the place to do a full-blown review, so I am going to look here only at the first discourse “Every Good and Every Perfect Gift is from Above.” Here are just a few of the problems with Pattison’s translation. First, he omits both the prayer and the passage from James that precede the discourse in Kierkegaard’s original edition, as well as in both the Swensons’ and the Hongs’ translations. Second, he interpolates section headings without indicating that they are interpolations. Third, despite the fact that he asserts in “A Note on the Translation” that he is not going to use a standard English language translation of the Bible (xxix), he uses a translation of James 1:17 that by contemporary standards is so awkward that although he repeats it verbatim where Kierkegaard uses it as section headings, he cannot himself stick to the wording in the body of the text.  The wording of the headings is “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the father of lights, in whom is no change or shadow of turning.” The problem, of course, is that contemporary readers expect a “there” between “whom” and “is no.” That expectation is so strong that Pattison inserts one himself when he quotes the passage in the body of the text at the top of page 13.

This awkward wording is undoubtedly from some recognized translation of the New Testament. Unfortunately, the reader doesn’t know which because Pattison doesn’t include a reference. Since he explains in his note on the translation that he’s not going to use a standard translation of the Bible, why didn’t he just edit this passage from James to make it more idiomatic?

Even more pressing is the question of why he didn’t use the wording from the King James translation. He explains that he wants to avoid archaic language and that is certainly laudable, but this passage from the King James translation is not particularly archaic and is more elegant than any later translation. It’s still missing the “there,” but that, again, could simply be interpolated. Its advantage over other translations is its use of “variableness” instead of “change.” The passage is difficult to translate from the Danish because the expressions Pattison translates as “change” and “turning,” “Forandring” and “Omskiftelse” respectively, both mean “change.” The translator thus has to be inventive to avoid a text that is awkwardly redundant. Pattison appears to have understood this and thus to have taken “turning” from some recognized translation of the Bible. Why not take “variableness” as well? It may be a less literal translation of “Forandring,” but it more accurately conveys the sense of Kierkegaard’s rendering of this passage from James.

Pattison has rather bizarre loyalties as a translator. He doesn’t want to violate the feeling of Kierkegaard’s original text by inserting archaisms where they do not appear in the original, but feels obliged to bring the text as much as possible into conformity with contemporary guidelines for the nonsexist use of language. Not only does this do at least as much violence to the text as would the insertion of archaisms, it occasionally renders it ungrammatical as is the case on the very first page where Pattison’s rendering of Kierkegaard’s text reads “These words are so beautiful, so eloquent, and so moving that it is certainly not their fault if the listener does not attend to them or they find no echo in our hearts.” The reader may wonder how “we” came in here. Well, “we” didn’t. The passage should read “if the listener does not attend to them or if they find no echo in his heart.” Pattison explains he’s going to substitute plural pronouns for singular ones in order to avoid the sexist use of language. He acknowledges that some readers may find this “inelegant” or even “barbaric” (xxxi). If by “barbaric” he means ungrammatical, then I am one of those readers and I suspect I am not alone.

If Pattison is, by his own account “somewhat free in adapting Kierkegaard’s often exclusive language to contemporary gender-inclusive usage” (xxx-xxxi), he is otherwise sometimes too literal as when he translates “suge Trøstens rige Næring af dem” as “suck the rich nourishment of comfort from them,” where “them” is understood to be the words of the aforementioned passage from James. Pattison’s translation is correct, but jarringly anatomical. Danish has fewer words than English so anatomical metaphors are not unusual in Danish. We have more choices in English, however, so we tend to have fewer overtly anatomical metaphors. Something along the lines of “draw from them the rich sustenance of consolation” would, I think, have been preferable.

Something similar happens with Pattison’s translation of “usund og skadelig Tilsætning” as “harmful additives.” “Tilsætning” is actually singular, so it should be “harmful additive.” Even if one corrects for that, however, the result is too pharmacological for my tastes. The Swensons’ “unsound and injurious decay” is less literal, but more elegant and hence more in keeping with the tone of the original.

Finally, Pattison’s translation of “al Guds Skabning er god” as “[a]ll God’s creatures are good” (14) is simply incorrect. “Skabing” is “creature” in the singular, but it can also be translated as “creation,” (see Ferrall-Repp. “Skabning”) and is properly so translated by the Swensons. The plural of “Skabning”–that is, “creatures”–is not “Skabning,” but “Skabninger.”

I could go on, but the rest of the problems I’ve found are similar to those listed above. There are good things, though, about the translation. It reads, for the most part, very naturally and the problems, at least in the first discourse, are all minor.  It is definitely an improvement on the Hongs’ translation and it is less expensive. My advice, however, if you do not yet have an English translation of Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses, is that you hunt down the Swensons’ translation on Abebooks–lots of copies are still available and for less even than the new Harper edition.


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