I promised I would do a post comparing my translation of a particularly tricky passage from Kierkegaard’s Repetition with the Hongs’ translation of the same passage. This comparison will give readers a sense for how difficult translation sometimes is.
The passage in question comes from the part of Repetition where Kierkegaard talks about farce. It begins on page 27 of Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009) with the paragraph that starts “They show farces in the Königstädter Theatre,” and ends just before the middle of page 34. This material on farce is really wonderful and ought to be excerpted and included in collections of writings on theater.
The narrator of Repetition is presented as an older man who has become preoccupied with the question of whether repetition is possible in the face of what would appear to be time’s relentless unfolding of the new and the novel. He undertakes a trip to Berlin as an experiment to test whether he can repeat the joys of an earlier visit. One of his chief pleasures is farce, so he had been a frequent visitor to the Königstädter Theatre which was famous for its farces. Pages 27-34 present his extended analysis of what one could call the logic of farce.
The narrator is particularly interested in two famous performers, Phillipe Grobecker and Friederich Beckmann (both genuine actors associated with Königstädter Theatre) whom he refers to as G. and B. respectively. “B.’s dancing,” he asserts in a description of one of B’s performances,
is incomparable. He has sung his couplet and now begins to dance. What B. dares here is back-breaking because he does not presumably venture to affect the audience in the strictest sense through his graceful movements. He is well beyond this. The lunatic laughter that is in him cannot be contained in either physical form or spoken lines. Only a Münchhausen-like grabbing oneself by the neck and repeatedly transcending oneself in a crazy, riotous sort of leapfrog captures this spirit. (p. 32.)
That reads easily enough, doesn’t it. You’d never know it took me several days to translate those few brief lines. Compare the passage above to the Hongs’ translation of the same passage:
B.’s dance is incomparable. He has sung his couplet, and now the dance begins. What B. ventures here is neck-breaking, for he presumably does not trust himself to create an effect with his dance routines in the narrow sense. He is now completely beside himself. The sheer lunacy of his laughter can no longer be contained either in forms or in lines; the only way to convey the mood is to take himself by the scruff of the neck, as did Münchhausen and cavort in crazy capers. (p 164.)
The Danish is:
B.’s Dandsen [er] uforlignelig. Han har sunget sit Couplet, nu begynder Dandsen. Hvad B. her vover er halsbrækkende; thi han trøster sig formodentlig ikke til i strængere Forstand at virke ved sine Dandse-Stillinger. Han er nu aldeles ovenud. Latterens Vanvid i ham kan ikke mere rummes hverken i Skikkelse eller Replik, kun det, som Münchhausen, at tage sig selv i Nakken og henjuble sig selv i afsindige Bukkespring, er i Stemningens Medfør.
A literal translation would be
B’s dancing is incomparable. He has sung his couplet, now the dance begins. What B dares here is throat-breaking: because he presumably does not trust himself to, in a stricter sense affect [the audience] with his dance positions. He is now altogether out above. The frenzy of laughter in him can no longer be contained in either a figure or a line [as in lines actors recite], only that which like Münchhausen, to take oneself by the neck and cheer oneself in a deranged bucking is in [keeping with] what the mood brings along.
Pretty weird, eh? I’ll admit that I took a lot of liberties with the translation of this passage simply to come up with something that was readable in English while still conveying the essence of what Kierkegaard appeared to be trying to say. “Throat-breaking” is not idiomatic in English, so I changed it to “back-breaking.” “[O]venud” means “out above,” or “over” as in “the water ran over,” but “He is now altogether out above” isn’t even a sentence in English. It seemed to me that the context suggested Kierkegaard meant something like “beyond,” so I rendered “Han er nu aldeles ovenud”as “He is well beyond this.”
The biggest liberty was translating “henjuble sig selv” as “transcending oneself.” “Henjuble” appears to be a word Kierkegaard made up out of “hen,” which according to Ferrall-Repp can mean ”away,” “off,” “on” “to,” “toward,” or ”against,” and “juble,” which means to “call,” or to “shout.” So it would appear to mean something like “cheering oneself forth.” That doesn’t make much sense in English, though, so I came up with “transcending oneself.” I dropped all mention of “cheering” and replaced the literal “bucking” with “leapfrog.”
Again, I took some liberties with this passage, but if you have read my other posts on translation you will know that I am a proponent of what is known in translation theory as “semantic translation” (see Peter Newmark’s A Textbook of Translation) which is an approach to translation that privileges the sense of a passage over a literal word-for-word rendering of the original. Only in this way, I think, can a reader get a reliable sense of how a text reads in the original language. One of the complaints I hear over and over again about the Hongs’ translations is how wooden they are. They definitely do not read at all like Kierkegaard’s texts do in the original Danish. Kierkegaard was a brilliant prose stylist, one of the greatest in the history of Danish literature. The problem with the Hongs’ translations is that they tend to be too literal and literal translations almost never preserve the feeling of the original.
The Hongs aren’t always literal, however. “The sheer lunacy of his laughter,” for example, is simply wrong. The Danish is “Latterens Vanvid i ham” which translates literally as “The lunacy of laughter in him.” That is, the reference isn’t to his laughter, but to laughter as such, with which he, as a comedian, is intimately familiar. That is no small distinction from the perspective of philosophy.
The Hongs have also simply interpolated “sheer” in this passage. There is nothing that corresponds to it in the original Danish text.
There are other instances in which the Hongs deviate even more bizarrely from the original. I look at some of those instances in future posts.