M.G. Piety

Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks–OH NO!

In Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Translation issues on June 1, 2016 at 1:04 pm

I have only the first volume of the new English translations of Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks published by Princeton University Press and the reason I have that volume is that I was given a free copy by the Scottish Journal of Theology when I agreed to review it for them. The editors include some scholars, such as Alastair Hannay and Vanessa Rumble, who have an excellent command of Danish. I was suspicious, however, of the rate at which they were cranking out the translations.

Translation is hard work. Good translations take some time to produce. It was hard for me to imagine that anyone could translate all of Kierkegaard’s journals and papers in the short time Princeton had projected it would take and actually do a decent job. The first volume in the Princeton series appeared in 2007. Since then, nine of the projected 11 volumes have appeared. That’s more than a volume a year.

I’ve not made a serious study of these new translations of Kierkegaard’s journals, since I did my review of the fist volume. I generally work with the original Danish versions that are available for free in searchable editions online. I’m working on a paper on humor in Kierkegaard right now, however, and I ran across a passage from one of Kierkegaard’s journals that I wanted to use for my article. The late, and venerable George Kline taught me that even if one has an excellent command of a particular language, if there exists a definitive English translation of a work in that language from which one wishes to quote, it is incumbent upon one to use the language of the translation. It’s a courtesy to the reader. If everyone who knew German, for example, did his own translations of Kant when quoting Kant, those poor souls who did not know German would have a hard time locating the passage in question. So I figured that I should use the wording of the new Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks and dutifully looked up the passage that was, fortuitously, in the one volume of KJN that I happened to own. The translation reads as follows:

Humor is irony taken to its maximum vibration. Although the Xn aspect is the real primus motor, there are still people in a Christian Europe who have not come to describe more than irony, which is why they have also been unable to practice the absolutely isolated humor that subsists in the person alone.

That sounds kind of weird, doesn’t it? What is “the absolutely isolated humor that subsists in the person alone”? That doesn’t even sound like English, does it? I worked for many years as a translator when I lived in Denmark. I also know a little bit about translation theory. If I ever teach translation, or translation theory, which I hope one day to do, I am going to drill home to my students that translations should never sound awkward unless the original is awkward.

As I said, translation can be very difficult. It took me several days to come up with my translation of the passage from Repetition that I referred to in the blog post from 5 December 2015 Since, however, a translation is going to be around for a very long time, haste in seeing it to press is unadvisable. How does that saying go: “Translate in haste, repent in leisure”?

Here is the Danish for the passage in question:

Humoren er den til sin største Vibration gjennemførte Ironie, og omendskjøndt det Χhristelige er den egl. primus motor, saa kan der desuagtet findes i et christeligt Europa Folk, som ikke er kommen til at beskrive mere end Ironien, og derfor hell. ikke have kunnet gjenemføre den absolut-isolerede, personlig-ene-bestaaende Humor, d. 4 Aug. 37.

Here is my translation:

Humor is irony taken to its maximum vibration. Even though Christianity [det Xhristelige] is the genuine primus motor [prime moving force], it is still possible to find peoples in Christian Europe who have come no further than describing irony and who are hence incapable of achieving the absolutely isolated, uniquely personal humor.”

My wording of the first sentence is identical to the wording of KJN. After that, the two translations diverge. There is nothing in the Danish that corresponds to KJN’s “aspect.” That’s an attempt on the part of the translator, or translators, to make sense of Kierkegaard’s “det Xhristlige” which translates literally as “the Christian” where “Christian” functions as an adjective. The thing is, there is no noun that it qualifies, so the translator simply added “aspect” without indicating that it was added. That in itself is no great crime (though it is a crime, interpolated material should be enclosed within brackets). The problem is, that it is actually misleading rather than helpful.

All genuine humor, according to Kierkegaard, has its foundation in Christianity. I won’t try to defend that claim here, suffice it to say in this context that it does. Kierkegaard is not talking here about some aspect of humor being Christian. How could some “aspect” of irony or humor be the “prime mover” that propels irony into the territory of humor? The prime mover has to be fundamental to the thing in question, not merely an “aspect” of it.

The “a” in front of “Christian Europe” is literally correct, but it’s unnecessary. What other kind of Europe was there? Danish, like German, uses articles more often than does English so to include them all in a translation is not only unnecessary, it yields a translation that is unidiomatic.

“[D]escribing” is a toughie. In fact, what it means is “describing” in the sense of “describing an arc.” That is, it means something like “exhibiting,” or better, “performing.” In fact, I think it means something closer to “understanding,” I was, therefore, tempted to use “understanding instead of ”describing.” What decided me against that was the fact that an astute reader could figure that out by him, or herself. Generally, a translator should not interpret the text for the reader unless that is the only way of making it comprehensible. There are often instances in which that is the only way to make a text comprehensible, but this did not seem to me to be one of them.

“Folk” unequivocally refers, however, to “a people,” and not to “people.” It’s a stab at the Danish people as a group. They are the “Folk” in “Christian Europe” to which Kierkegaard is snidely referring. If he had meant “people,” he’d have written “mennesker” (or “Mennesker” given that he was writing in the nineteenth century).

The worst problem with this translation, however, is the very last part: “the absolutely isolated humor that subsists in the person alone.” Really? That’s the best this august translation team could come up with? It doesn’t even sound like English. The minimum criterion for an English translation, it seems to me, is that it should sound like English, even if the translator needs to be rather free in the translation in order to achieve that effect. What is bizarre about the KJN version of this passage is that it is not, in fact, as one might expect, a literal translation. The Danish is: “den absolut-isolerede, personlig-ene-bestaaende Humor.” That translates literally as: “the absolutely isolated, uniquely personal humor.” Really, I kid you not. “[P]ersonlig” you can probably figure out for yourself, and “ene-bestaaende” translates as “unique.” Don’t take my word for it. Type it (or the contemporary “enebestaende”) into Google translate.

My guess is that the translators elected to use “subsists in the person alone” rather than the literal “uniquely personal” because Kierkegaard’s text has “personlig-ene-bestaaende” rather than “personlig enebestaaende.” That is, Kierkegaard appears to want to highlight the root words of “enebestaaende”: “ene” (which according to Ferrall-Repp means “alone, by oneself, solely”) and “bestaaende” (which according to Ferrall-Repp means “to consist in; to consist – be composed of; to subsist, exist, continue, endure”).

This shows the limits, however, of translation because while Kierkegaard can emphasize the parts of “enebestaaende” without losing the whole, a translation cannot do this. The translators, in this instance, appear to have elected to emphasize the parts, with the effect that they have lost the whole. Not only have they lost the whole, they’ve diminished what one could call the music of the text in the process. It is the chief sin of the Hongs’ translations, I believe, that they very often lose the music of the originals. Unfortunately, this would appear to be a problem with these new translations of Kierkegaard’s journals as well.

I don’t mean to suggest here that all the text of the new KJN is as bad as this particular passage. It isn’t. It is very disappointing, however, to see stuff like this in new translations when the point of producing new translations is precisely to make improvements on earlier translations.

  1. Could you give your assessment of which are the best English translations of Kierkegaard? Maybe for each major text? or by translator?

    Thanks so much for this blog!

    • The Hongs’ translations are almost always the worst. It’s not that they didn’t have a good command of Danish, it’s that Howard Hong came over time, I think, to believe that a translation could do more than a translation could actually do. Also, Howard, didn’t have much feel for the music of language. Edna did (she was a published poet), but apparently, by her own account, Howard rarely deferred to her on translation issues. Hannay’s translations for Penguin are very good, much better than the Hongs’ for Princeton. Of course I like my own translations of Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, but the Swenson-Lowrie translation of Crumbs (i.e., Philosophical Fragments) is actually very good. The Hongs’ first translation of Works of Love is, to my mind, better than the one they did later for Princeton. Lee Capel’s translation of The Concept of Irony is better, I believe, than the Hongs’.

      I hope that helps. Are you familiar with abebooks.com? I’m sure you can get any translation of Kierkegaard, even the older Swenson-Lowrie and Lowrie ones, from abebooks at very reasonable prices. Just be sure to check the condition of the book. The sellers are required to list the condition as “acceptable,” “good,” “very good,” “like new,” or new.” I almost never get anything below “very good” because books described as “acceptable” and even “good” can have highlighting and underlining.

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