As I mentioned before, I’m doing a new translation of the portion of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love that deals with loving someone who has died. There are actually already three English translations of Works of Love, so it is not unreasonable to wonder whether a new translation is necessary. Arguably, the project is defensible simply because it is only a portion of the work, one designed to be easily transportable, unlike the work as a whole, which at over 500 pages in its most recent English translation is not easily transportable. There is another reason, however, for re-translating this portion of Works of Love, and indeed, even for re-translating the work in its entirety. This reason was brought home to me recently in an upper-level seminar I am teaching this term on Plato’s Republic.
I made an important discovery recently, thanks to a couple of my students, about a problem in several translations, including Bloom’s, of Plato’s Republic.. I’m teaching an upper-level seminar on the Republic this term and my students are just fantastic. We’re on Book VIII, where Socrates describes the inevitable dissolution of the aristocratic city on which the majority of the work focuses. The aristocratic city first gives way to a timocracy, or a city whose highest value is honor. The timocracy next gives way to an oligarchy, or a city that values material wealth above all else. Corresponding to each type of political regime is a personality type.
The oligarchical personality type appears to be just. He isn’t really just, though, according to Socrates. He needs to maintain a good reputation for the purposes of contractual relations, but he does this, according to Socrates, by
forcibly holding down bad desires, which are there, with some decent part of himself. He holds them down not by persuading them that they had “better not” nor by taming them with argument, but by necessity and fear. (554c7-d).
One of my students, Atiq Rahman, remarked that it was strange Socrates would say that the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires with some “decent” part of himself, but that despite that, he wasn’t really just, but only appeared to be just. Atiq wanted to know what the Greek term was that was translated as “decent.”
I looked it up. The Greek expression Plato uses in the passage where Socrates talks about how the the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires “with some decent part of himself” is ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The relevant term is ἐπιεικεῖ. It means “fitting,” “meet,” or “suitable” according to Liddell-Scott. It’s related to ὲπιείκεια, which means “reasonableness,” or “fairness,” Paul Shorey’s translation of the Republic for the Loeb Classical Library, translates this passage as “he, by some better element in himself forcibly keeps down other evil desires dwelling within.”
Atiq was right, though, to point out that there was a problem with describing the part of the oligarchical man that holds down his bad desires as “decent.” Neither Bloom’s “decent part of himself” nor Shorey’s “better element in himself” coheres well with the point Socrates is making in the passage because the oligarchical man isn’t trying to be good. He isn’t genuinely virtuous, but only appears to be virtuous. He holds down his evil desires, according to Socrates, out of “fear,” not because he wants to be good, but because he is afraid that by giving in to those desires, he’ll get a bad reputation and no one will want to do business with him. It isn’t any “decent” part or “better element” of himself through which he restrains his evil desires.
It looks like Shorey was aware of the fact that it isn’t actually anything “decent” in the oligarchical man that holds down his “bad desires” because he has a note in which he writes that “ἐπιεικεῖ is here used generally, and not in its special sense of ‘sweet reasonableness’.”
It appears ἐπιεικεῖ is being used here in the purely prudential sense of “fitting.” That is, what holds down oligarchical man’s “bad desires” is whatever it is in him that is, in fact, capable of doing this. It isn’t some morally praiseworthy part of himself. So why have so many scholars chosen to translate it with English terms that have positive moral or ethical connotations? Such translations actually make the passage harder to understand.
Jowett, another student, Mark Sorrentino, pointed out “has enforced virtue,” where Bloom has “decent part of himself” and that is definitely better than either Bloom’s or Shorey’s translations. The best translation of this passage that I have found, however, is, I believe, Joe Sachs’. Sachs has “quasi-decent constraint over himself” for ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The qualification “quasi” is important because it makes clear, as none of the other translations does, that the constraint the oligarchical man exercises over himself only seems to be “decent.”
I haven’t used Sachs translation before, but I am going to consider using it the next time I teach the Republic. It may not be uniformly better than other translations, but it definitely seems deserving of a closer look.
As I said, it’s tempting to think that works that have already been translated many times probably don’t need to be translated anew. In fact, however, as I know from experience, no translation is ever perfect and given that language itself changes over time, it is a good idea to re-translate important works at regular intervals, just to make sure that the language of the translation is keeping up with contemporary usage.
Now back to my translation of the portion of Works of Love that concerns loving someone who had died. I’m excited about this project. I’m designing it with three audiences in mind. First and foremost, it will be a work for the bereaved, a small volume that can be carried easily and read for comfort by those who have lost someone they love.
Second, it will be aimed at people who are attempting to learn Danish. It will have the original Danish text and the English translation on facing pages and an abundance of notes that will explain the reasoning behind various translation decisions including when material has been interpolated in order to make the text read well in English. It will also include more paragraph divisions than exist in the original. In fact, all the English translations of Works of Love include more paragraph divisions than exist in the original because Kierkegaard had a habit of writing very long paragraphs. This translation, however, will have even more paragraph divisions than any of the other English translations. The reason for this is not simply stylistic. Dividing the text in this way into relatively small portions will help readers who are using it as a help to learning Danish in that they will find it much easier to locate particular passages in the original.
Finally, the work will be aimed at students of translation, which is to say at people who intend to become professional translators. Even if such people have no particular interest in Kierkegaard, they will find the notes explaining the rationale behind various translation decisions very instructive.
And given that we will all, inevitably, lose someone we love, they may find it instructive in another way as well.