imagesI’m teaching an upper-level seminar on Kierkegaard this term. The text for the course is my own translation of Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009). We’re reading Crumbs right now. One of my students, Victoria Godwin, asked what I thought was a very good question about the translation, so I thought I would share my answer with readers of this blog.

The Crumbs, as most readers will remember, looks at what Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus) asserts are two exhaustive and mutually exclusive interpretations of how people are related to the truth. The first interpretation he presents is what he calls the “Socratic” one. According to this interpretation, people are assumed basically to possess the truth, but to have contingently forgotten it. They thus need only to remember the truth, not to have it imparted to them by a teacher. This, of course, is the famous Platonic “doctrine of recollection,” or anamnesis. According to this interpretation, the role of a “teacher” in helping a person to remember the truth is merely what Kierkegaard calls “assisting” (105). The teacher and the student/learner/pupil are essentially equal.

The problem, according to Kierkegaard, is that the Socratic interpretation makes both the point in time at which a person “recollects” the truth and the “teacher” who helps occasion the “recollection” unimportant. This is not, in itself, a problem. The Eleatics, and in fact many people throughout the history of philosophy right up to the present have no problem with this. Even Kierkegaard does not suggest that this interpretation of our relation to the truth is inherently problematic. It’s a problem only for a reader who is already committed to an account of existence that attributes decisive significance to the point in time at which one comes to understand the truth, and requires that this understanding be facilitated by a “teacher” of equally decisive significance. This, of course, is precisely what Christianity does and Kierkegaard’s note at the end of the first chapter of Crumbs makes clear that he assumes his readers would immediately recognize that.

That is, Crumbs is a straightforwardly theological work despite what are obviously the disingenuous protestations of Climacus, the pseudonymous author. Hence the “learner” (Lærende) referred to in Kierkegaard’s explication of the “Socratic” interpretation of the relation of the individual to the truth, becomes the “disciple” (Discipelen) on the “alternative” view. From then on, the discussion concerns the relation between the “the god” and “the disciple.”

So back to my student. Victoria asked why sometimes the person whose relation to the truth was in question was referred to as a “learner” and other times as a “disciple.” The answer, of course, is that those two different characterizations appear in the original text. The reason this might be difficult to appreciate is that Howard Hong’s translation of Philosophiske Smuler (Philosophical Fragments, Princeton, 1985) obscures this fact. David Swenson’s translation of Smuler from 1936 translates Discipelen consistently as “disciple,” but Hong’s translation consistently renders Discipelen as “follower.”

“Follower,” isn’t dead wrong, of course, but it’s misleading to the extent that it obscures the explicitly theological nature of the work. Hong appears to have deliberately desired to do this in that he inserts a footnote to explain his preference for “follower.” “The Danish term Discipel,” writes Hong, “means ‘pupil,’ ‘learner,’ ‘apprentice,’ ‘follower,’ and ‘disciple.’ Here and elsewhere in Fragments (except for references to the relation of teacher and pupil or learner), ‘follower’ is most appropriate” (Philosophical Fragments, p. 281 note 38). Hong gives no justification, however, for his preference for “follower” over the English cognate “disciple.” He just claims “follower” is better.

“Disciple” is, actually the third of the three possible translations listed in the Ferrall-Repp A Danish-English Dictionary from 1845 (Hong would appear to have been relying on a 20th-century Danish-English dictionary). The first two are “pupil” and “scholar.” “Follower” is not listed as an acceptable translation, and the context of the appearance of this term in Crumbs makes it clear that “Disciple” is the most appropriate of the three suggested translations. “Pupil” is too close to Kierkegaard’s “Lærende” (i.e., “learner”) and would thus obscure the distinction he was trying to make with the the two terms “Lærende” and “Discipelen,” and “scholar” is obviously wildly inappropriate. So Hong’s claim that “follower” is a better translation of “Discipelen” than is “Disciple” is just wrong. It is worse because it makes the work less obviously theological than it is. Contemporary Western society has become so secular that that in itself makes it difficult for readers to appreciate how thoroughly religious was all of Kierkegaard’s authorship. The Hong translation of Philosophiske Smuler simply exacerbates this problem.

My guess is that Hong hoped to appeal to a broader audience by making the work less obviously theological. I fear that may amount, however, to throwing the baby out with the bathwater in that it encourages misinterpretations of what is perhaps the most central work in Kierkegaard’s corpus. This takes us into the area of translation theory. Should a translator adapt a work to appeal to a specific audience, or should he or she endeavor to represent the work in a manner that most closely approximates its original character? I’m a proponent of the latter approach. If a translator thinks he can improve on an author’s work, I think he should go write his own book!


      1. It also could have to do with ideological beliefs, views and ethical concerns? Likewise, appealing to a specific crowd.

        Kierkegaard was a Christian at heart. His works translated to english in the mid 20th century were translated by Christians of various denominations. I know Steere, Lowrie, and Johnson, were Christian as were others. That isn’t to say their translations are better than others but Hannay’s translations are much different for me. I am not going to attack the messenger but Hannay is an atheist, who studied under Ayer, a Jewish atheist who was staunchly against many of the Christian teachings. That isn’t to say the pupil Hannay incorporated any sort of so-called ‘antichrist’ symbology or deliberate mistranslations but in his introduction ‘Sickness Unto Death’ I could not help but wonder what S.K. would have thought of Hannay’s introduction. Hannay seems totally at odds with Kierkegaard being Christian, as an alternative of a secular humanist like Hannay and his friends.

        One reviewer of his translation states:

        >>He tries to correct for Kierkegaard’s deficiencies by basically ripping the heart out of the book and then offering the reader a corpse…

        I could not have agreed more.
        The translations themselves concerning scholastic integrity are a different matter.

      2. I’ll confess that I haven’t read Hannay’s introduction to his translation of the Sickness Unto Death. With the exception of his new translation of Kierkegaard’s Postscript, however, I much prefer Hannay’s translations to the Hongs’.

  1. I have recently heard someone say that the Hongs tended to de-Christianize Kierkegaard. I hadn’t heard such a criticism before, but this seems evidence that it is true at least to some extent. Is that your impression generally?

    On the subject: are there any other problems with the Hong translations to be wary of?

    Finally, for someone who is learning Danish in order to read Kierkegaard, how different is his Danish from contemporary Danish? The 1845 dictionary must be very useful, but are there many grammatical differences from contemporary Danish or (more likely) idioms that have fallen out of use? How does one learn of these?

    1. Yes, I’d say that comment about “de-Christianizing” Kierkegaard is more or less accurate. I don’t think that that’s because the Hongs didn’t like that aspect of Kierkegaard. My impression is that they were both religious. I think it’s because they thought that would make him more appealing to a wider audience. There are actually many problems with the Hong translations. Some are better than others. Sickness unto Death is one of the worst, in my experience, but there are minor problems with all of them. The biggest problem I have with the Hongs’ translations, however, is that they fail to capture the literary quality of the original. Kierkegaard is a wonderful writer. You wouldn’t know that from the Hongs’ translations though. Someone once explained to me that when Howard (and it was Howard who was behind this, it was not a joint decision) had a choice to translate a Danish term with an English term with an Anglo-Saxon root or one with a Latin root, he preferred the latter. The result is that he makes Kierkegaard sound much for stilted and academic in English than he does in Danish. What a shame, a travesty really, given what a beautiful writer Kierkegaard is.

      There are a few differences between 19th-century Danish and contemporary Danish. There was, for example, a plural conjugation of verbs that no longer exists in contemporary Danish, and there were many idiomatic expressions and proverbs that have since fallen out of the language. Molbech’s Dansk Ordsprog from 1850 is an excellent reference work for things like that. I just discovered, actually, that it is available through both Amazon and Barnes and Noble as a print-on-demand book. That is so exciting that I am going to have to do a whole blog post on that! You know already, I hope, that the 1845 dictionary is available as a free download through Google Books. Get it. It is indispensable!

      1. Thanks very much for your response! Thanks to your wonderful ‘Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship’ tag, I had indeed downloaded the dictionary 🙂 I really appreciate your blog, it is very helpful for someone who is a Kierkegaard enthusiast but has never been at a program with a Kierkegaard scholar!

    2. Hannay of Penfuin Books sure did in his introduction to ‘Sickness Unto Death’. Hannay is an atheist who was a Pupil of the Jewish atheist, Ayer whose father worked for the House of Rothschild. Not that the latter part matters, but his introduction turned me off because its religious connotations seemed to be completely contradictory to those of S.K. Hong also many times substitutes out words, that shouldn’t, in my opinion be substituted out.

      1. I think you are right about Hannay. I doubt very much, however, that it had anything directly to do with his having worked with Ayer and the point about Rothschild does not matter, as you say.

  2. Thank you for this post. I tend to prefer the older translations of Kierkegaard (Swenson, Lowrie, etc.) over the Hong translations. I do not know Danish, and I assumed that the Hong translations were the more “literal” renderings. But I also have found them to be much more difficult to read. They lack a certain lyrical quality that I find in the older translations. They may be more literal, but they are certainly not more literary.

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