I was reviewing some of Kierkegaard’s remarks on Germans and Germany recently, when I came across a passage I thought it might be interesting to try re-translating. Neither of the existing translation is a disaster, but each could stand some improvement. The translation below appropriates language from both but improves upon them in some important respects. The language of the Hongs’ translation is surprisingly lyrical with lots of alliteration and so I have preserved much of it in my own translation below. It’s not necessarily better in the sense of being more accurate than is the new English translation, but it reads better and in that sense is, at least in places, superior to the new translation the language of which is more formal than was the language of the original. The following paragraph is my translation of the passage, which comes from Pap. VIII1 A 531.
All this fear of Germany is fantastical, it’s a game, a new attempt to flatter national vanity. One million people who honestly admitted that they were a small nation, with each person resolving before God to want to be what he is, would be an immense force; there’s no danger at all in that. No, the calamity is something else entirely; the calamity is that this little nation is demoralized, divided in itself, each man nauseatingly envious of the other, unruly toward everyone who is supposed to rule, petty toward everyone who achieves anything, impertinent and undisciplined, riled up to a kind of rabble tyranny. This creates a bad conscience; therefore people fear the Germans. But no one dares to say what’s the source of the problem [hvor Ulykken stikker]–so one flatters all these unhealthy passions and becomes self-important by polemicizing against the Germans.
Okay, now where are the changes and why have I made them. I’m not going to address every change, but only the ones that merit examination. Many of the changes, such as my “fantastical” instead of the Hongs’ “hallucination” or the new “fantasy,” are purely stylistic (and mine is actually less literal in that the original, en Indbildning, is a noun not an adjective). Some of the changes do merit examination though.The new translation does a better job, I think, than the Hongs’ with the sentence that begins “One million people…” but regrettably uses the abbreviation “1 mill. ppl.” for the original “1 Mill. Msk.” Kierkegaard often used abbreviations, but to try to preserve them everywhere is not only, as I argue in my review of the first volume of the new Journals and Papers in the Scottish Journal of Theology, an affectation, it’s occasionally even confusing to the reader.
The new translation has “problem” where I, following the Hongs, have “calamity.” The Danish is Ulykken (and later Ulykke without the definite article). Ulykke, according to Ferrall and Repp’s A Danish-English Dictionary (Copenhagen, 1845) is properly translated as “misfortune,” “calamity,” or “disaster.” There is a Danish word for “problem”; it’s “problem,” or in Kierkegaard’s time “Problem.” “Problem” isn’t a disastrous translation (I couldn’t resist that!), but it’s isn’t a very good one either because it obscures the tone of the original. “Problem” is more neutral in tone than “misfortune,” “calamity,” or “disaster,” and hence takes some of the bite out of the piece, some of the bite that was in the original.
Both the Hongs and the new translation have also inexplicably stuck “root” in the text when it does not appear in the original. The Hongs have “the root of the calamity” and the new translation has “the root of the problem” for “hvor Ulykken stikker.” “Stikker” according to Ferrall-Repp, however, means to “poke,” or “prod,” or “jab,” or “stab.” “Root” works in both translations. The reason I pointed it out is that is illustrates how heavily later translations tend to be influenced by earlier translations.
My complaints with the new translation are generally minor ones that have to do with similar points of style. There’s only one place where I’d argue there’s a serious problem. The new translation leaves out an entire phrase that is actually very important. Where I have “petty toward everyone who achieves anything,” the new translation has simply “petty toward everyone.” “Petty” is better than the Hongs’ “malicious” (at least according to Ferrall-Repp), but the new translation omits any reference to the phrase “der er Noget.” That is, the original reads “smaalig mod Enhver, der er Noget.” The whole phrase translates literally as “petty toward anyone who is anything.” I used a bit of license in translating “er” as “achieves.” I think it makes the meaning of the passage clearer though. There is an important difference between “petty toward everyone,” as the new translation reads, and “petty toward everyone who achieves anything.” In that sense, the new translation is actually inferior to the earlier one. Let’s hope that’s corrected in subsequent printings.