M.G. Piety

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Kirmmse’s Cover-Up

In Conference news, Publishing News on August 23, 2012 at 10:53 am

This article originally appeared in October 8-10, 2005 weekend edition the online political journal Counterpunch under the title “Rot in the Ivory Tower.” In view of the fact, however, that Bruce Kirmmse has been chosen as the keynote speaker for the Seventh International Kierkegaard Conference that will be sponsored by the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College this June, I thought readers of this blog might like to know a little more about him.

Rot in the Ivory Tower

Bruce Kirmmse, the translator of the English edition of Joakim Garff’s once famous, now infamous book, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton 2005) reached back eight years to draw into the debate concerning the problems with the book an entirely unrelated article and misrepresented the content of that article in order to assassinate the character of one of the book’s critics? (“M.G. Piety’s skam” [M.G. Piety’s shame], Weekendavisen 23-29 Sept. 2005 [scroll to the bottom). Kirmmse argues that an article I published in The Times Higher Education Supplement in 1997 was nothing more than an attempt to smear the rector of the University of Copenhagen, Kjeld Møllgård, through the mention that he had been involved in a scientific misconduct case when he had been a post doc at the University of California at Berkeley. Kirmmse asserted that Møllgård had been cleared of charges of misconduct by a Danish committee. He did not explain, however, that the charges had been brought against Møllgård by an American committee and that a Danish committee thus had no authority to clear Møllgård of them.

I was careful in my article to point out that whether Møllgaaard was guilty or innocent was irrelevant to my point.  I wrote: “Whether or not Professor Møllgaard was guilty of scientific misconduct in 1971, a natural reluctance to have the issue paraded through the press could make him vulnerable to pressure from those academics against whom similar charges have been made” (“Nordi nadir for nepotism,” The Times Higher Education Supplement, August 15, 1997, page 14).  In addition, Kirmmse misrepresented the point of my article. The article was not about Møllgaard but about issues others, including the Danes Maj Cecilie Nielsen and Niels Chr. Nielsen, had raised concerning problems with higher education and scholarship in Denmark.

Why would Kirmmse want to resurrect the Møllgård controversy? Could it be he is trying to destroy the credibility of the one person who might expose that he was complicit in Garff’s plagiarism to the extent that he should have recognized when Garff had copied material from a book that he, Kirmmse, had earlier translated into English. Could it be that he fears I might even be able to produce evidence that would raise suspicions that he made a systematic attempt, when he translated Garff’s book to obscure the extent to which Garff had appropriated text from other authors?

The biography was praised by reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic. It was awarded the prestigious Georg Brandes Prize and the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen’s Literary Prize. John Updike described the 813 page English translation as “monumental” (“Incommensurability: A New Biography of Kierkegard,” New Yorker, 28 March 2005), and other reviewers described it as “magisterial” (Publishers Weekly, 20 Dec. 2004), “superb” (The Wall Street Journal, 3 Feb. 2005), “masterful” (Times Literary Supplement, 28 January 2005) and “brilliant” (The Washington Post, May 29, 2005).

Garff may indeed be brilliant. He weaves together the facts he presents in an enormously entertaining and original way. Unfortunately, Garff’s originality isn’t restricted to his theses, but extends, according to another Danish Kierkegaard scholar, Peter Tudvad, to some of his “facts.” Not only that, Garff’s originality does not extend to all of his text, some of which Tudvad has shown was actually lifted from earlier biographies of Kierkegaard (“SAK–an unscholarly biography of Søren Kierkegaard”). Tudvad revealed back in 2001 that SAK was riddled with factual errors and that some of the text had been plagiarized from earlier works on Kierkegaard (Jyllands-Posten 16 Aug. 2001 and Universitetsavisen no. 14, 2001), yet the errors and plagiarisms he exposed were never corrected.

One of the works from which Garff frequently copies material is Jørgen Bukdahl’s, Søren Kierkegaard og den menige mand (Munksgaard, 1961). Kirmmse translated this work into English only a few years ago (Soren Kierkegaard and the Common Man, Eerdmans, 2001), yet if one compares Kirmmse’s translations of the passages Garff has copied from Bukdahl with his earlier translations of these same passages, peculiar dissimilarities emerge. Kirmmse routinely elects to change his choice of terms from his earlier translation, as in the cases, for example, of “fængsles” which he translated first as “imprisoned” in Bukdahl and later as “incarcerated” in Garff where Garff copied from Bukdahl (p. 33 in Garff and p. 41 in Bukdahl), “Brødremenighed,” which he translated as “Society of Brothers” in Bukdahl and then as “Congregation of Brethren” in Garff, where Garff copied from Bukdahl (p. 11 in Garff and pp. 31-33 in Bukdahl) and “gudelig vækkelse” which he translated as “religious awakeninigs” in Bukdahl and as “godly awakenings” in Garff where Garff copied from Bukdahl (p. 32 in Garff and p. 20 in Bukdahl).

Kirmmse felt compelled, apparently, to add the adjective “internal” to his translation of Bukdahl’s “sammenholdet” so that the translation reads “internal solidarity” (p. 20), but no longer felt such a compulsion when he translated the same expression simply as “solidarity” in Garff ‘s appropriation of the passage from Bukdahl (p. 32). Kirmmse omitted a phrase, “the so called ‘Gehülfen,’” from his translation of Bukdahl (p. 20), but apparently repented of this omission when he translated Garff’s appropriation of the same passage four years later (p. 32). The effect, of this change of heart is, once again, to obscure to readers of the two translations that Garff has copied directly from Bukdahl.

Translation is, of course, not an exact science. It would be unreasonable to expect a translator to adhere rigidly to what he had at one time preferred to a possible alternative translation. Translators usually endeavor to be consistent, however, in their translation of the names of groups and religious movements. To depart so routinely as Kirmmse does from what only four years ago he thought were the most defensible translations of the phrases and terms in question gives one pause. The concatenation of these examples might even incline the reader to the view that Kirmmse made a deliberately erroneous translation of Garff’s “aften” as “afternoon” [the correct translation would be “evening”] on page 154 in order to obscure the fact that Garff had again copied the passage in question from an earlier work on Kierkegaard, this time from Flemming Chr. Nielsen’s Søren Kierkegaard og Aarhus (1968) which also has “aften.” After all, Kirmmse’s knowledge of Danish is excellent, so it is difficult to find any other explanation for why he would make such an elementary mistake.

There’s another error that is difficult to explain. Garff mistakenly substituted an “r” for an “s” in a passage from Bukdahl. The result is that Garff’s text reads:  “there were rumors that [the social agitator J.C. Lindberg] was to be incarcerated [fængsles] and executed [henrettes] on Christiansø, a notorious prison island” (p 33), whereas it should read, as Kirmmse’s translation of Bukdahl does in fact read, that Lindberg “was to be imprisoned [fængsles] and sent into exile [hensættes] to…Christiansø” (p. 41).

Kirmmse should have caught the mistake. Not only had he translated Bukdahl’s correct characterization of the rumors that circulated about Lindberg, he is an historian who specializes in nineteenth-century Danish history. Kirmmse even discussed Lindberg in own book, Kierkegaard in Golden Age Denmark (Indiana, 1990). It’s possible, of course, that he had simply forgotten what Bukdahl had written. What is harder to understand is that, as an historian, he would have forgotten the facts surrounding the Lindberg case. There is, as I pointed out in an article I published earlier on the controversy a big difference between being exiled and being executed (“Some Reflections on Academic Ethics,” a copy of this article may be downloaded from the list of publications on my website). Could it be that Kirmmmse did recognize the mistake, but failed to correct it out of a fear that the corrected text would be more easily identifiable as having been lifted from Bukdahl?

This question is impossible to answer definitively. I asked a few experienced translators, who are members of the American Translators Association, for their opinion on the significance of the irregularities in Kirmmse’s translations of Garff and Bukdahl. Most said that there were too few examples (I gave them only the three terms: “incarcerated,” “Congregation of Brethren” and “godly awakenings”) to prove Kirmmse had tried to conceal Garff’s plagiarisms. Translators often change how they translate particular terms, they explained, if the new choice can be defended as an improvement on the earlier translation. One translator, Stephen Slater observed, however, that this would not explain the change from “imprisoned” to “incarcerated,” because in this case, “there is minimal to no semantic difference.” Several remarked that “godly awakenings” was clearly inferior to “religious awakenings” as it was less idiomatic and relied, as one pointed out, on a “false cognate.” Most also agreed with Slater’s observation that

“[a]s to the change from ‘Society of Brothers’ to ‘Congregation of Brethren,’ it is odd that a translator would alter his previously published translation of a group’s name. Even if it is a clear improvement (in which case it is something of an embarrassment for the translator), it is an irritation for those who read the literature, since there are now two English translations of the group’s name rather than one.”

Whether Kirmmse deliberately tried to conceal Garff’s plagiarisms or not, he had an interest in doing so. Kirmmse was recently appointed by the Søren Kirkegaard Research Center at the University of Copenhagen, where Garff is also employed, to direct the project of translating Kierkegaard journals and papers into English. That appointment was still pending when he agreed to translate Garff’s book. This fact was enough for several of the translators whose opinions I canvassed to agree with Lawrence Schofer, Ph.D., that there was enough evidence to raise suspicions that Kirmmse might have tried to conceal Garff’s plagiarisms.

The strongest statements, however, came from two translators who approached the issue from a slightly different angle. They focused not on the irregularities across the two translations, but on Kirmmse failure, as Ted Crump put it, “to raise a red flag about the plagiarism…I can recognize translations I did twenty years ago,” Crump continued, “Kirmmse must certainly been aware of this [i.e., the plagiarims] and did not act ethically, in my opinion, especially in light of his vested interest in the appointment.” Ingrid G. Landsford agreed. She observed that,

“[s]ince Bruce Kirmmse did the Bukdahl and Garff translations within four years of one another the plagiarized passages in the more recent source must have seemed familiar to him. As a scholar, he would also have known that Garff had violated scholarly procedure in omitting proper attribution. He then had several choices and did not do what I hope most scholars would have done.”

Readers of the English translation may not care that much of Garff’s text actually originated from the pens of other Danish authors, so long as the information it contains is correct. Unfortunately, much of the information in Garff’s book is not correct. Names are wrong, dates are wrong, all kinds of information that is important to understanding what kind of person Kierkegaard was, such as how much money he gave to charity, how many servants he had, how extensive was his conflict with the newspaper The Corsair, is simply wrong. Garff was forced to admit this when Tudvad came with the relevant documents in 2001 and then again in 2004 after Tudvad discovered yet more damaging material while doing the research for his own critically acclaimed book, Kierkegaards Købebenhavn (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politikens Forlag, 2004). Yet Garff failed to make any corrections to the book.

This isn’t the only plagiarism case to make Danish headlines in the last year. Frank Esmann’s biography of Henry Kissinger was exposed in October of 2004 in the newspaper Berlingske Tidende as substantially plagiarized from the American Walter Isaacson’s biography (Simon and Schuster, 1992). Danish scholar Steffen Krogh determined that there were at least 350 passages in Esmann’s book, one more than twenty lines long, that were copied verbatim from Isaacson, yet both the University of Southern Denmark and the University of Copenhagen declined to investigate the issue of whether Esmann’s book constituted plagiarism (“Esmann plagierede 350 gange” [Esmann plagiarized 350 times], Berlingske Tidende 21 July, 2005).

The two cases, taken together, were likened by Dorte Hygum Sørensen, writing in the newspaper Politiken, to “The Tamil Case,” the immigration scandal that toppled the government of Danish prime minister Poul Schlüter back in 1992 (Politikken 21 August 2005). Judging from the number of articles on the subject that appeared in the Danish media, the comparison is an apt one. There were more than fifty articles on the Kierkegaard controversy in the summer of 2004 and at least that many more in the summer of 2005 after Danes got word Garff had failed to correct the text of the English translation of his book.

Kirmmse could be in trouble if the controversy spreads to the U.S. where Garff’s error-ridden and plagiarism-ridden book has done well for its publisher, Princeton. Of course there are few people who would be in a position to expose the respects in which Kirmmse’s translation makes the plagiarized passages harder to identify than they were in the original. I am one of those few. Could Kirmmse have been attempting to destroy my credibility before I could come with the evidence of his complicity in Garff’s crimes?

That question, like so many in this case, is impossible to answer definitively. I am thus going to do for Kirmmse what he did not do for me. That is, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that all the irregularities and anomalies in his translation of Garff’s book may have innocent explanations.

There is one charge, however, that can unequivocally be made against Kirmmse. Tudvad received an official reprimand from his boss, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, the director of the Kierkgaard Research Center, for publicly exposing the problems with Garff’s book and was later driven out of his job. Kirmmse  knew that Tudvad’s criticisms of  Garff’s book were well founded and that it was perfectly appropriate of Tudvad to bring this issue before the public, given that Garff had refused to make any of the necessary corrections. Kirmmse knew this and yet he failed, throughout the controversy to come to Tudvad’s defense.

Tudvad is just being nitpicky, was what many Danes initially seemed to think. Danes are pretty tolerant of laxness in scholarly standards. I’m as big a proponent of tolerance as the next person. I draw the line, though, when the career of an innocent person becomes a casualty of the tolerance of incompetence. That line, to offer a variant on the statement of Lessing that Kierkegaard is fond of quoting, is just a little bit too wide for me to be able to make the leap across. Kirmmse could do it though. He sat by silently while Tudvad’s career was sacrificed to preserve Garff’s reputation.

That was just wrong.

(Postscript: A friend and fellow Kierkegaard scholar remarked to me recently that controversy surrounding Garff’s biography of Kierkegard did not seem to have hurt Tudvad’s career after all in that since the controversy, Tudvad has gone on to become one of the most important public intellectuals in Denmark. The latter part of that observation is correct. Tudvad is one of the most important public intellectuals in Denmark. Unfortunately, the life of a public intellectual in Denmark, if he or she does not have a university post, is somewhat precarious. According to the Danish journalist Niels Lillelund, however, Tudvad’s involvement in the Kierkegaard biography controversy, or more correctly, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn’s characterization of Tudvad’s involvement, amounted to “a death sentence in the salons, … so if Tudvad had  counted on making a carrier in the vaulted halls of the academy, he can forever after spare himself the trouble” [“Niels Jørgen Cappelørn og den gode tone” (Niels Jørgen Cappelørn and decorum) Jyllands-Posten 18 August 2005]. And indeed, Tudvad does not have an academic post, in contrast to Garff, who remains a member of the Theology Faculty at the University of Copenhagen.)