M.G. Piety

A Comparison of Translations of Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits

In Translation issues on August 7, 2015 at 7:27 pm

I know I promised a blog post on some of the more outrageous of the Hongs’ translations bloopers. I will do that. I came across a problem with both published translations of Kierkegaard’s Opbyggelige Taler I forskjellig Aand, however, in the process of preparing one of my own articles for publication in a book entitled Kierkegaard’s God and The Good Life (eds. Stephen Minister, J. Aaron Simmons, and Michael Strawser), and since I already had the data on it, I figured I might as well turn that data into a blog post, so here it is.

The passage in question comes from the section of the taler that was translated separately as Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing by Douglas V. Steere back in the 1930s. It was published by Harper and Row in 1938 and came out as a Harper Torchbook in 1956. Here is Steere’s translation of the passage:

In the recognition that contemplation and reflection are the distance of eternity away from time and actuality, there is indeed a truth; the knower can understand that truth, but he cannot understand himself. It is certain that without this recognition a man’s life is more or less thoughtless. But it is also certain that this recognition, because it is in a spurious eternity before the imagination, develops double-mindedness, if it is not slowly and honestly earned by the will’s purity (Steere, p. 116-117).

Steere’s translation, unsurprisingly, reads much better than the Hongs’. Here’s what the Hongs have:

In the knowledge. as contemplation and deliberation, that is the distance of eternity from time and actuality, there presumably is truth, and the knower can understand the truth in it, but he cannot understand himself. It is true that without this knowledge a person’s life is more or less devoid of thought, but it is also true that this knowledge, because it is a counterfeit eternity for the imagination, develops double-mindedness if it is not honestly gained slowly through purity of the will (Hongs’ p. 74)

Unfortunately, neither translation completely captures the meaning of the original. Here is the Danish:

I den Erkjendelse, der, som Betragtning og Overveielse, er paa Evighedens Afstand fra Tid og Virkelighed, er der vel Sandhed, den Erkjendende kan forstaae Sandheden deri, men han kan ikke forstaae sig selv. Det er vist, at uden denne Erkjendelse er et Menneskes Liv mere eller mindre tankeløst men det er ogsaa vist, at denne Erkjendelse, fordi den er i en forfalsket Evighed for Indbildningen, udvikler Tvesindetheden, dersom den ikke redeligen erhverves langsomt ved Villiens Reenhed. (SKS vol. 8.)

Steere’s rendering of “Erkjendelse” as “recognition” is fine, but the recognition in question is not that “contemplation and reflection are the distance of eternity away from time and actuality.” The Hongs’ appear to have gotten that right, anyway. Unfortunately, they got the article wrong. The definite article in Danish is enclitic. That means “the knowledge” would be “Erkjendelsen” (or “erkendelsen” in modern Danish). The “den” in “den Erkjendelse” is a demonstrative adjective. That means “[i] den Erkjendelse” translates literally as “in this knowledge.”

It’s bad form, of course, to start a paragraph with a demonstrative adjective, but Kierkegaard doesn’t actually do that here. Both English translations insert paragraph breaks that are not in the original. The beginning of the long paragraph in the Danish text of which this passage is a part talks about how a double-minded person might actually have “knowledge of the good” (Erkjendelse af det Gode, the emphasis is in the original). It’s this knowledge to which Kierkegaard refers at the beginning of the next paragraph. Hence the translation should read something like this:

In this knowledge, which, as contemplation and deliberation, is the distance of eternity away from time and actuality, there is indeed truth, and the knower can understand this truth, but he cannot understand himself. It is true that without this knowledge a person’s life is more or less thoughtless, but it is also true that this knowledge, because it is in the spurious eternity of the imagination, develops double-mindedness if it is not slowly and honestly earned through the will’s purity.

Steere got “Overveielse” wrong and the Hongs got it right. “Overveielse” is deliberation, not reflection. So that’s one for the Hongs. Unfortunately, the Hongs bizarrely interpolate “presumably” in the passage. There is nothing in the Danish that corresponds to it. The Hongs also erroneously translate “for” in “for Indbildning” as “for.” The Danish “for” is a preposition and prepositions are notoriously difficult to translate. Hell, they’re difficult even in one’s native tongue. I have a book of English prepositional phrases that I used almost constantly when I worked as a translator for the translation center at the University of Copenhagen. Anyway, the Danish “for” generally means “to,” but can also mean “too,” as in “det er for meget” (that is too much), and sometimes “for” as in “for tiden” (for the time being). It clearly doesn’t mean “for” here, however, because the “spurious eternity” in question is that of thought. That is, a person’s knowledge of the good is not presented to the imagination in some inexplicable counterfeit or spurious eternity. The spurious eternity is that of the imagination, or thought, itself. Thought, dealing as it does according to Kierkegaard, with abstract entities, has a kind of Platonic eternality to it. And yet, this is misleading, according to Kierkegaard, because all thought is some particular individual’s thought. A person can’t climb, so to speak, into eternity through thought, according to Kierkegaard, but only through faith.

There are lots of legitimate choices for a translator too make, here, however. Steere sticks more closely to the Danish in translating “vist” as “certain,” whereas the Hongs translate it as “true.” I think the latter translation is defensible, however, and that the resultant text reads a little more naturally. “Counterfeit” is just as good as “spurious,” but I prefer the latter for stylistic reasons. This little passage should give you, the reader, a good idea, however, of just how difficult and confusing translating can be.

Speaking of how difficult translation can be, I will soon put up a post comparing a passage from my translation of Repetition with the Hongs’ translation. I’m particularly proud of how I handled this little passage because, as I will endeavor to make clear, it was REALLY difficult to translate!

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  1. Would that “Google Translate” would request (and “http://www.sks.dk” would permit) your help for a special SK-Danish-to-English translating algorithm. It would never guarantee that the output would be precisely what you would choose, but the current implementation is sadly deficient. Besides your era-specific Danish-English lexicon and SK’s abbreviations, I’m sure there are many subtle tweaks conceivable.

  2. Oh yeah, subtle tweaks are the lifeblood of translation.

  3. I don’t grasp the meaning of the beginning of your post, unless pronouns have not the basic essential features in English and in French (which is my mother tongue). You have written indeed ” The “den” in “den Erkjendelse” is a demonstrative pronoun. That means “[i] den Erkjendelse” translates literally as “in this knowledge.” ”
    Should not we instead correct it by saying that it is a demonstrative adjective ??? A pronoun substitutes itself to the name in french, and I presume it must be the same in English (I have been to lazy to throw myself into a Google wave to check it). All the best,

    • You are indeed correct. It IS a demonstrative adjective since it precedes rather than replaces “knowledge.” That point has no effect, however, on my argument concerning the misleading nature of both English translations. My translation is correct independently of whether “den” is a demonstrative pronoun or a demonstrative adjective. I’m grateful for the correction, though, because I find grammar very interesting.

      • Ok, I have had no doubts that it didn t interfere with the correctness of your translations ; it’s the kind of little détails we sometimes bypass, especially when the mind is focused on difficult topics (and it is not so mechanical because sometimes this word is indeed a demonstrative pronoun, for example: “this is interesting” )

  4. To tell you the truth, I had never heard of demonstrative adjectives, so again, I’m very grateful for the correction. I’m pretty much self taught where grammar is concerned because the schools I attended until college were wretched and by college grammar is no longer taught. If I hadn’t studied foreign languages, and then worked as a translator, I probably wouldn’t know what an adjective was, let alone a demonstrative adjective.

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