I’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!