More on Translation

Sachs' Republic coverAs 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.

Kierkegaard Resources

Græsk-Dansk OrdbogThe “Resources” page on this website is getting better and better. It now includes links not only to the most recent edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works in Danish and the crucially important Ferrall-Repp Danish-English Dictionary from 1845, but also links to the venerable Ordbog Over Det Danske Sprog (the Danish equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary), Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordsprog, a lexicon of Danish saying from Kierkegaard’s time and earlier, Peter Erasmus Müller’s Dansk Synonymik, a Danish thesaurus from 1853, Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordbog, the definitive Danish-Danish dictionary from Kierkegaard’s lifetime, B.C. Grønberg’s Tydsk-Dansk og Dansk-Tydsk Haandorbog, the more comprehensive of the two German-Danish and Danish-German dictionaries Kierkegaard owned, J.C. Lindberg’s Hebraisk-Dansk Haand Lexicon, the Hebrew-Danish dictionary Kierkegaard owned, and Paul Arnesen’s Ny Latinsk Ordbog, the Latin-Danish dictionary that Kierkegaard owned.

Meyers FremmedordbogThere are two conspicuous absences, however, among these resources, because they appear not to be available yet online. The first is Ludvig Meter’s Fremmedordbog from 1853. This is a dictionary of foreign words that had come into Danish by the mid-nineteenth century. This is an absolutely indispensable resource for Kierkegaard scholars because Kierkegaard frequently uses such words and they are generally not found in Molbech. Fortunately, Ferrall-Repp lists many such words in a supplement at the back. Still, the Ferrall-Repp supplement is less comprehensive than Meyer’s and the definitions are very short. The good news is that Meyer’s is still easily available from many Danish antiquarians at reasonable prices. If you click on the image of Meyer to the left, it will take you to the page of an antiquarian where you can purchase the book.

The other conspicuous absence is Paul Arnesen’s Græsk-Dansk Ordbog from 1830. This is a crucial resource not merely for scholars interested in how Kierkegaard understood and used concepts from the New Testament, but also for those who are interested in how Kierkegaard understood and used concepts from classical philosophy. I am very fortunate to own a copy of this book myself. Like Meyer, however, it is still possible to obtain a copy of this book at a reasonable price. Click on the image of Arnesen at the beginning of this post and you will be taken to a page of a Danish antiquarian where you can purchase this book.

I will continue adding resources to the “Resources” page over time and will endeavor to let readers know when new links go up.


Angsting Over Translation

Kind, das Angst vor einer Spinne hat - © dennisjacobsen -
Kind, das Angst vor einer Spinne hat – © dennisjacobsen –

I took Daphne Hampson to task in an earlier post for referring to Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety as The Concept Angst in her book Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique. There are two problems with changing a title like that. First, it’s confusing to the reader, since there is no English translation of Kierkegaard’s Begrebet Angest with the title The Concept Angst. Second, it is far from clear that Kierkegaard’s “Angest,” or “Angst” (an alternative spelling) is, as Hampson argues “ill-rendered in English as ‘anxiety’” (Hampson, 109). Walter Lowrie, observes Hampson, translated Kierkegaard’s “Angst” (nouns were capitalized in Danish in the nineteenth century) as “dread.” “This is good,” she continues,

in so far as it conjures up the context of Romanticism. Kierkegaard can speak of a ‘sweet angst’ that tantalizes or invites. Angst, he will say, is ‘a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy’ (42). Philosophically the distinction between angst and anxiety (or fear) is said to be that whereas fear has an object, angst is devoid of any such. Animals can know fear, while the human may possess unfocused angst. (Hampson, 110).

I don’t mean to pick on Hampson. Her point isn’t original. I’ve heard many philosophers make essentially the same claim about the German “Angst.” The thing is, there isn’t much evidence to support such a claim. My Oxford-Duden electronic dictionary from 1999 defines “Angst” as “fear,” or “anxiety” with “fear” actually being listed first. Contemporary Danish-English dictionaries do effectively the same thing for the Danish “angst.” See, for example, the venerable Vinterberg-Bodelsen from 1966. It defines “angst” as “dread,” “fear,” “apprehension,” “alarm,” and “anxiety” in that order. Ferrall-Repp, the definitive nineteenth-century Danish-English dictionary defines “angst,” or “Angest” as “fear” or “dread.”

“Anxiety,” “fear,” and “dread,” as well as the German “Angst” and Danish “angst,” may or may not have an object. This can be seen in the online version of Duden, where “Angst” is defined first as “a state of excitement [in the face of danger], and then as “a vague feeling of menace.” I love the illustration for that entry. That’s why I chose it for this post. It makes clear that “Angst” can indeed have an object!

A practice has arisen in among the intellectual elite in English-speaking countries, however, of using the German “Angst” to refer to a generalized anxiety without a readily identifiable object, but that is simply an affectation as even a cursory glance at a German, or German-English, dictionary will make clear. “Angst” is more often used by Germans to identify such a generalized anxiety than is “Furcht,” i.e., fear, but that isn’t its exclusive meaning and indeed, dictionaries suggest such a use is the exception rather than the rule.

The same thing could be said about the English “anxiety.” It can sometimes have an object and sometimes not. One can be “anxious” about a test, for example, or the visit of a relative, or one can be just generally anxious. “Anxiety” is more often used to identify a generalized kind of fearfulness, than are either “fear” or “dread,” but that suggests that “anxiety” is actually a good translation of the German, or Danish “Angst,” rather than an inadequate one.

Texts, as I explain to my students over and over again, need to be interpreted. There are not magic words that always and unequivocally precisely convey an author’s meaning. “Angst” doesn’t more precisely convey to English speakers the meaning of the German or Danish “Angst” than does “anxiety.” In fact, it is arguably inferior in an English translation of Kierkegaard in that it is an affectation and Kierkegaard generally abhors such affectations and scrupulously avoids them in his writings, except, of course when he is using them satirically.