Kierkegaard’s Early Reception in Germany

url.jsonA reader of this blog informed me that Walter Lowrie’s translation of Repetition from 1941 contained an essay at the back on all the translations of Kierkegaard into English up to that point. That was actually one of the few older translations of Kierkegaard’s works that I did not have, so I hastily hunted one down on 

The essay is very interesting. There aren’t any revelations in it for people familiar with the older translations, but there is lots of other interesting information. Lowrie recounts, for example, how he was impressed by “the importance the name of Kierkegaard had acquired throughout the Continent, especially in Germany” immediately following WWI (p. 184). I was aware, of course, that the Germans learned of Kierkegaard’s work even while he was still alive, to say nothing of the period after his death. I’d assumed, however, perhaps partly as a result of Georg Brandes’ attempts in the late 1880s to introduce Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, that Kierkegaard’s work was not actually all that well known among German-speaking intellectuals. That is, I’d assumed that if Kierkegaard had become well known in Germany, that, as an intellectual, Nietzsche, would already have been aware of him. When I learned he wasn’t, I like so many other scholars, assumed that Kierkegaard was a marginal figure in German intellectual history. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong. “I could hardly pick up a serious book,” Lowrie continues, “without finding his [i.e., Kierkegaard’s] name in it. Every writer who claimed to be abreast of modern thought had something to say about him, and every reputable publisher had to bring out something. S.K. had already taken the place of Nietzsche as the literary vogue in higher circles” (p. 184). 

That was revelation to me. Kierkegaard had displaced Nietzsche in early twentieth-century German thought? Of course the popularity of Kierkegaard in Germany in the post WWI period is compatible with his relative obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century. I’m not the only scholar, however, who believed Kierkegaard was a marginal figure in German intellectual history. 

It would have been helpful if Lowrie had included some references to specific works. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Fortunately, we have Heiko Schulz’s excellent essay on Kierkegaard’s early reception in the German-speaking world in Kierkegaard’s International Reception, Tome I: Northern and Western Europe. The essay is entitled “Germany and Austria: A Modest Head Start: The German Reception of Kierkegaard.” Schulz appears to have tracked down every reference to Kierkegaard in the last part of the nineteenth century, to say nothing of the early part of the twentieth century, and includes references to specific article titles as well as helpful summaries of their contents. Most of the early German references to Kierkegaard appeared, predictably, in theological journals. 

There were early translations as well, Schulz explains however, including Einladung und Ärgernis. Biblische Darstellung und christliche Begriffsbestimmung von Søren Kierkegaard [Invitation and offense. Kierkegaard’s presentation of the Bible and Christian concepts], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold, manuscript (Halberstadt, 1872); Sören Kierkegaard. Eine Verfasser-Existenz eigner Art. Aus seinen Mittheilungen zusammengestellt [Søren Kierkegaard. A unique authorial existence. Compiled from his own communications] trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halberstadt: Frantz, 1873); Aus und über Søren Kierkegaard. Früchte und Blätter [From and about Søren Kierkegaard. Fruits and leaves], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halberstadt: Frantz’sche Buchhandlung, 1874); Zwölf Reden [Twelve discourses], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halle: J. Fricke, 1875); Von den Lilien auf dem Felde und den Vögeln unter dem Himmel. Drei Reden Søren Kierkegaards [The lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Three discourses of Søren Kierkegaard], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halberstadt: H. Meyer, 1876) ; Lessing und die objective Wahrheit. Aus Søren Kierkegaards Schriften [Lessing and objective truth. From Søren Kierkegaard’s writings], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halle: J. Fricke, 1877); Die Lilien auf dem Felde und die Vögel unter dem Himmel. Drei fromme Reden.—Hoherpriester—Zöllner—Sünderin. Drei Beichtreden von Søren Kierkegaard [The lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Three religious  discourses—The high priest—The tax collector—The woman who was a sinner], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halle: J. Fricke, 1877); Søren Kierkegaard. Ausgewählt und bevorwortet [Søren Kierkegaard. A selection with prefaces], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Hamburg: Agentur des rauhen Hauses, 1906) (These references are all taken from p. 387 ofSchulz’s essay, though the English translations of the titles are my own).

“In addition,” Schulz continues, “Bärthold translated three complete pseudonymous works: Einübung im Christentum [Practice in Christianity], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halle: J. Fricke, 1878); Die Krankheit zum Tode. Eine christliche psychologische Entwicklung zur Erbauung und Erweckung [The sickness unto death. A Christian psychological exposition for edification and awakening], trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Halle: J. Fricke, 1881); Stadien auf dem Lebenswege. Studien von Verschiedenen. Zusammengebracht, zum Druck befördert und hrsg. von Hilarius Buchbinder [Stages on life’s way. Collected, presented to the press, and published by Hilarious Bookbinder]; trans. and ed. by Albert Bärthold (Leipzig: J. Lehmann, 1886) (These references, like those above, are all taken from p. 387 of Schulz’s essay, with the English translations supplied by me).

I’ve always been interested in Kierkegaard’s early reception in Germany because I believe that reception had a strong influence on his reception in the rest of the world. I’ve become more interested in it recently, however, as a result of my interest in George MacDonald. MacDonald’s thought is remarkably similar to Kierkegaard’s. I can find no evidence, however, that MacDonald could read Danish and the earliest English translations of Kierkegaard did not appear until after MacDonald’s death. MacDonald appears to have had an excellent command of German, however, as did most English-speaking intellectuals around the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, and it seems likely that at least some of his reading would have included German theological journals and possibly even early German translations of Kierkegaard. I haven’t had any time yet to research this. That would require tracking down both what books he personally owned, what books and periodicals would have been available to him in the libraries he used, and going through all his correspondence in search of any mention of Kierkegaard’s name.

That said, MacDonald is himself a profoundly original thinker and if his view of human existence and Christianity is remarkably similar to Kierkegaard’s it is not necessarily because he was influenced by Kierkegaard but very possibly because he and Kierkegaard were similar in other ways, and that they understood easily things that the rest of us have to struggle to understand.  


IMG_4407Two of my biggest supporters throughout my career have been the late Robert L. Perkins and Sylvia Walsh Perkins. I met them both at the very first Kierkegaard conference I attended at the College of Wooster, when I was still only a graduate student. One of my professors, George L. Kline learned I planned to attend the conference and suggested that I should try to make contact there with Bob Perkins. Perkins’ work on Kierkegaard, George explained, was very good, so it would be good for me to get to know him. 

I didn’t know anyone at that conference, so I was happy to have something of an information introduction to Bob. I approached him during one of the breaks early in the conference. I liked him immediately. Despite being one of the top people in Kierkegaard studies in the world, he was very warm and modest and self effacing. When I mentioned to him how his work had been recommended to me by George Kline, he seemed pleased, but immediately changed the subject. “You should read Sylvia Walsh’s work,” he exclaimed with enthusiasm. “Now there is a scholar who is really good!”

I’m paraphrasing, of course, because that first meeting was so long ago that I don’t remember exactly what Bob said. In fact, that first meeting was so long ago that Bob and Sylvia weren’t even married yet. I followed Bob’s advice and sought out Sylvia at that same conference. I quickly became friends with both of them, and not because they were the first Kierkegaard scholars I met, but because they were both truly lovely people, passionate and gifted scholars, warm, kind, and socially conscious. Bob and Sylvia supported me throughout my career. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that without the support of Bob, Sylvia, and C. Stephen Evans, I wouldn’t have a career. 

I was therefore deeply moved when Sylvia contacted me recently to ask whether I would be interested in any of the books she was planning to get rid of. She said she was winding down her scholarly activity and hence unlikely to need all the books in the large library she and Bob has amassed over the years. Among the books Sylvia offered me was a complete set of the new Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, the most recent edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works in Danish, as well as a complete set of the new Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks, the English translation of Kierkegaard’s journals and papers that is based on the new SKS. 

Sylvia was also getting rid of the old Hongs’ translation of the journals and papers that they had done for Indiana University Press. I’m not a huge fan of the Hongs’ translations, as readers of this blog are likely aware. The earlier translations tend to be better than the later ones, though, and their translations of the journals and papers are very early. Also, while the new Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks is far more comprehensive than the old Hongs’ translation that went under the title Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, the actual translations in the new edition are often no better, and sometimes even worse, than those in the older edition. The thing I like best about the Hongs’ translation of the journals and papers, though, is that it is organized thematically rather than chronologically. That makes it a pleasure simply to sit and read. 

I’d wanted a set of the Hongs’ Journals and Papers for years. It is still available through Indiana, as well as It’s quite expensive, though, to get a complete set, even used. Given that I already had a complete set of the Papirer (which I had also earlier gotten from Bob and Sylvia), and given that Princeton had come out with the new Journals and Notebooks, it seemed extravagant to lay out money for the now obsolete Hongs’ translation. 

But then, out of nowhere, or so it seemed, I got an email from Sylvia, whom I had come to regard as sort of my scholarly guardian angel, asking me if I wanted a collection of books that included this set. Of course the Journals and Papers are not the most important of the works Sylvia has so generously given me. They are the books, however, for which I had nurtured a secret longing. After all SKS is available online, and KJN is disappointing in some respects.  

And now I have my very own set of Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers! Thank you, Sylvia!

It seemed wrong to pick and choose books from the list Sylvia sent me, so I told her just to send them all and that I would find homes for any books I already had. Hence the title of this post. I’ve created a list of the duplicates and will send them to anyone who is willing to pay for the postage. Just write me and let me know which books you would like and why. The reason I would like you to explain why you want the book, or books, in question is in case several people write at the same time that they want the same book, or books. Basically, I will distribute the books based on a first come, first served basis, but if two or more people request the same books at the same time, an explanation of why each wants the book, or books, will help me to decide who should get them. I will let you know what it will cost to ship them and will not ship them until I hear that you are okay with that cost. 

Again, I’ve attached a list of the books I am giving away. Some highlights are a complete third edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works in Danish, selected volumes of both SKS and KJN. Check out the attached list, though, for exciting finds!

Death and Nonsense

Death has been on everyone’s mind for awhile now. I’m presenting a paper on the topic of death in Kierkegaard at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. As regular readers of this blog will know, I recently completed my own translation of the portion of Works of Love that deals with loving someone who has died. (That translation will appear in print soon, from Gegensatz Press in an edition that will have the original Danish and my English translation of that text on facing pages.) I thought I ought to review Kierkegaard’s other writings on death, as well, to help me prepare the presentation.

One such work is the religious discourse “At a Graveside” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions. I don’t know whether I had ever read it before. If I did, then it was either in the original Danish or in a translation that preceded the Hongs’ translation from 1993. Until reading “At a Graveside,” I would have said that the Hongs’ translation of The Sickness Unto Death was the most problematic of their translations. “At a Graveside” may actually have it beat, though, for reasons I will present below.

The first indication I had that it wasn’t a good translation is that it doesn’t read well. Kierkegaard’s writing is not always equally brilliant, but it is never bad. This, is bad, though: 

“Death’s decision is therefore not definable by equality, because the equality consists in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” 

The expression that the Hongs consistently translate as “decision” here and elsewhere in the discourse, is Afgjørelse. The Danish term that most closely corresponds to the English “decision” is not Afgjørelse, however, but Beslutning. According to Ferrall-Repp, Afgjørelse means “finishing, etc., completion; decision, adjustment, settlement.” “Decision” is there. The definition makes clear, however, that an Afgjørelse is a “decision” in a formal, or legalistic sense, such as the decision of a referee or a judge. This explains, at least in part, why the passage above is confusing. 

Dødens Afgjørelse would be better rendered here as “Death’s reckoning.” 

To make matters worse, not only is Dødens Afgjørelse confusingly translated as “Death’s decision” in the passage above, it’s consistently translated that way throughout the entire discourse, even where it is used as a section heading. This, along with additional translation problems I will detail below, makes the discourse anything but “pellucid” in the manner Gordon Marino claims in his essay “A Critical Perspective on Kierkegaard’s ‘At a Graveside,’” in Kierkegaard and Death. 

There’s more to this lamentably translated passage than the unfortunate translation of Afgørelse as “decision.” The preposition ved that the Hongs have translated as “by” is probably better translated as “through.” “By” is listed before “through” in Ferrall-Repp, but the latter is there as well, and I think it is preferable because Kierkegaard appears to be trying to say that we can’t actually grasp death by thinking of it as the great equalizer, because the equality is established through annihilation and we have no better grasp of that than we have of death. That is, he isn’t suggesting we ever attempt to define death as equality, but that we often think we can come to a better understanding of it by thinking of it as, among other things, the great equalizer.

What about the second sentence: “And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” The use of “alleviating” there is unidiomatic. “Alleviating” generally takes a direct object in English. We say, for example, that a particular lotion is good at alleviating itching. We don’t normally speak of something being alleviating for someone. 

The Danish term that is translated as “alleviating” is formildende. Formildende isn’t in Ferrall-Repp. Formilde is though, and it’s defined there as “to soothe, soften, mollify, appease, assuage, alleviate, temper, mitigate.” So once again we see that the Hongs have chosen an English term that could, in principle, be an acceptable translation of the Danish term in question. It just doesn’t work in this passage. 

“And pondering this is supposed to be soothing for the living” is clearly preferable to “And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living.” I’m going to go out on a limb here, however, and suggest that “comforting” would actually be the most idiomatic translation. It isn’t offered as a possible translation of formilde in Ferrall-Repp, but it captures the sense of formildene in this passage. 

Let’s try out our new translation of the passage and compare it with the Hongs’. The Hongs have:

“Death’s decision is therefore not definable by equality, because the equality consists in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” 

We have:

“Death’s reckoning is therefore not definable through equality, because the equality is in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be comforting for the living!”

The Hongs have interpolated “consists” here. That isn’t really a problem, however, in terms of understanding the meaning of the passage. It’s just what Strunk and White would call bad form in that it’s unnecessary. The real problems are with the Hongs’ translations of Dodens Afgjørelse as “Death’s decision,” ved as “by,” and formildende as “alleviating.” The first, I would argue, is both unidiomatic and confusing. The second suggests an equation of death with equality that is clearly not intended in the original, and the third is unidiomatic. 

There are lots more of the kinds of problems described above. Page 86, for example, has four instances of  the same unidiomatic use of “alleviating” as appears in the passage above. This is arguably simply a stylistic problem rather than a substantive one, but not only is it a disservice to both Kierkegaard and readers of the Hongs’ translation to render Kierkegaard’s flowing Danish in an awkward an unidiomatic English, it can lead to substantive problems. That is, readers may wonder what is being alleviated and why Kierkegaard is being so mysterious about it. 

These are not the worst problems with the Hongs’ translation of “Ved en Grav” (literally, simply “At a Grave”). The Hongs’ inexplicable choice to translate Afgjørelse as “decision” leads to even greater problems in another passage. This one is on page 97 where, in what Ralph Waldo Emerson would refer to as a foolish attempt at consistency, the Hongs translate Uafgjørtheden as “indecisiveness.” Afgjørt is the past participle of Afgjøre, which, according to Ferrall-Repp means “to finish, complete; to decide; to settle, adjust.” It is, of course, related to Afgjørelse, hence the Hongs’ apparently decided to translate it as “indecisive” in order to preserve in the translation a terminological consistency found in the original Danish text. 

The problem is that meaning was sacrificed here to consistency. The passage includes two references to holding death “in the equilibrium of indecisiveness.” It isn’t at all clear, however, what that could possibly mean. That is, the passage does not concern someone contemplating suicide who can’t make up their mind. It concerns our difficulty in grasping what, exactly, death is.

It gets worse. “To paganism,” reads the translation on page 97, “the highest courage was the wise person (whose earnestness was indicated expressly by his not being in a hurry with the explanation [i.e., of death]) who was able to live with the thought of death in such a way that he overcame this thought every moment of his life by indecisiveness.”

What? How can one overcome anything by indecisiveness? Kierkegaard would never say such a thing. If there was anything of which Kierkegaard was contemptuous, it was indecisiveness. By this point, you can probably figure out for yourself how Uafgjørtheden should be translated here. It refers to indeterminacy, or, more awkwardly, undecidability, not indecisiveness. This is made clear in the text that follows. “The wise person,” the passage continues, “knows that death exists [er til]; he does not live thoughtlessly, forgetting that it exists [er til]. He meets with it in his thoughts, he renders it powerless in indeterminability [Ubestemmelighed], and this is his victory over death.”  

Finally, translators of Kierkegaard should avoid, if at all possible, rendering er til as “exists,” because “existence,” i.e., Existens, is a technical term for Kierkegaard. The passage above would be less misleading if er til were translated simply as “is,” or “is [real]” with brackets to indicate that “real” is an interpolation.

How can Gordon Marino have thought that the Hongs’s translation of “Ved en Grav” was “pellucid”? Portions of it are flat out nonsensical. Kierkegaard and Death, the volume in which Marino’s essay on “At a Graveside” appears, is a collection of essays by various scholars. Many of the essays understandably focus on “At a Graveside.” What is less understandable is that none of them mentions the numerous problems with the translation. 

The strange silence of the contributors to Kierkegaard and Death concerning the problems with the Hongs’ translation of “Ved en Grav” reveals a serious challenge to rigorous Kierkegaard scholarship. It would appear that either the impression that Kierkegaard’s writing is often nonsensical even in the original must be so pervasive among scholars that many don’t bother to check awkward and confusing passages in translations against the original Danish, or that knowledge of Danish, even rudimentary knowledge, is so rare among Kierkegaard scholars that most are simply unable to determine problems with translations even when they suspect they may exist.