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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.


On Scholarly Protocol

UK Theologian Daphne Hampson has commented on my earlier post on her book, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique. In fact, she has written a five-page response to the post. For some reason, however, she posted her comment not to my post on her book, but to my later post “Kierkegaard’s Conservatism,” so you will have to go there to read her comment, or more correctly, comments, in full. I could have replied to her comment there as well, but given the effort she appears to have put into her comment, it seemed our conversation merited a more prominent place on this blog than the “comments” section of an earlier post, hence I have decided to respond to her comments here.

“Given Marilyn Piety’s bombastically rude comments in your paper,” she begins, apparently unaware that the entire “paper” (i.e., blog) is mine and not simply the one post, “on my ‘Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique’ (Oxford University Press, 2013) … I feel obliged to respond.”

“First a minor point,” she continues, “My translating Kierkegaard’s ‘Begrebet Angest’ as ‘The Concept Angst’ is not ‘simply an affectation.’ ” She then holds forth on the difficulty of translating the “Danish/German ‘Angst’ as if I were challenging her understanding of the term rather than pointing out her violation of scholarly protocol in making up her own title for a work that already exists in translation under a different title––i.e., The Concept of Anxiety (Princeton, 1981 and W.W. Norton, 2014). When I first encountered Hampson’s reference to “The Concept Angst,” I immediately did a Google search to see if there were a new translation of the work under that title. There isn’t.

I firmly believe that “anxiety” is a fine translation of the Danish “angest.” That wasn’t the point, though. The point, as was driven home to me relentlessly by my professor and M.A. thesis director at Bryn Mawr, George L. Kline, was that scholars are not allowed to make up their own titles for works that already exist under other titles. The confusion that would ensue if they were allowed to do this doesn’t bear thinking about. What if scholars suddenly felt free to translate Plato’s ΠΟΛΙΤΕΙΑ as “Civil Polity,” or “The Business of a Statesman” (both of which are acceptable translations according to my edition of Liddell-Scott) rather than the traditional Republic? Or what if they decided to use the subtitle, “On Political Justice,” rather than the main title to refer to the work? Many people simply would not know what work they were referring to.

Scholars don’t get to make up their own titles for works simply because they think they can do better than the translator of the work. I had to refer to Kierkegaard’s Philosophiske Smuler as “Philosophical Fragments” whenever I spoke, or wrote, about it in English right up until the time my own translation of this work appeared under the title Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009). I knew “fragments” was not a good translation of “smuler” but still, I had to use it, because it was the only English title of the work a the time. If Hampson had done her own translation of Begrebet Angest, and decided to use The Concept Angst, she’d have been perfectly within her rights. She didn’t do that, though. She just decided she liked her own title better than the official title.

Making up her own title for Begrebet Angest isn’t the only violation of scholarly protocol of which Hampson is guilty. Her comment to my post contains numerous violations. For example, she resorts to ad hominem arguments (e.g., impugning my motives in criticizing her book without producing any evidence to support such a charge), and non-argumentative rhetoric (e.g., “bombastically rude,” “ridiculous,” “ire”). She also invokes the infamous argument from authority, discredited in the Enlightenment, when she defends her competence to write a book on Kierkegaard, not on the basis of her years spent studying his works, but because she “holds a doctorate in theology (from Harvard),” “held a post in systematic theology for twenty-five years,” “had a previous Oxford doctorate in modern history,” and “a Master’s with distinction in Continental philosophy.”

“I have been teaching the text which my book considers throughout my career” she writes. That didn’t surprise me because the overwhelming impression one gets upon reading the book is that it is a compilation of lecture notes from an undergraduate seminar on Kierkegaard taught by someone who doesn’t actually know much about Kierkegaard, but was nonetheless required to teach a seminar on him (a not uncommon phenomenon). I say “undergraduate” seminar because Hampson goes on at some length about Kierkegaard’s “epistemology” without a single reference to any of the scholarly works on that subject (i.e., Anton Hügli’s Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivität und die Objektivität des Erkennens bei Sören Kierkegaard [Editio Academica, 1973], Martin Slotty’s Kierkegaard’s Epistemology [originally published in German in 1915, now in English translation], and my own Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology [Baylor, 2010]). You couldn’t get away with that in a graduate seminar. You would have to look at at least some of the relevant secondary literature.

I want to be clear here. It is not my view that only people who have devoted their entire professional lives to the study of Kierkegaard’s thought should venture to write scholarly works on it. It is entirely possible for non-specialists to do excellent work on Kierkegaard. Jonathan Lear comes to mind. When I remarked that Hampson was “not a Kierkegaard scholar,” that was not to discredit her book, but to venture an explanation for how it could be so conspicuously wrong on so many fundamental points.

Hampson’s is an impressive intellect, there is no question about that. It would appear, however, that she is a victim of confirmation bias. That is, she thinks that she sees things in Kierkegaard’s works (e.g., his purported pre-modern tendencies, or his supposed rejection of the idea that there are laws of nature) because she expects to see them.

I’ll look at the substance of Hampson’s comments in a later post. My objective here was simply to address the form of her comments, not their substance. In fact, I addressed the substance in my original post and appear to have done a sufficiently good job of that to have hit a nerve, so to speak.

The reason I wanted to address the form of Hampson’s comments was that it illustrates many of the things I try to impress upon my students that they must not do in their own writing, so it occurred to me that once the post was up, I could direct them to it as a teaching exercise.

Speaking of teaching, I taught a Kierkegaard seminar at Haverford College this past term. It was a small seminar with only five students, all excellent. They have given me permission to post their papers to this blog, so in my next post, I’m going to talk about my the class, give brief summaries of each paper, and include links to downloadable pdfs of them. Each one is so good, that I think it would actually be helpful to many readers of this blog.

After that, I’ll return to Hampson.

More Problems with the Postscript

Forlade in Ferrall-Repp

Translation is difficult. This is particularly true of the translation of philosophical texts because even slight variations in the meaning of certain terms can have enormous philosophical significance. I heard a fascinating lecture by Jessica Moss at the University of Pennsylvania a few weeks ago that addressed this issue. It was on whether Plato’s epistêmê should be translated as “knowledge.” That seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Increasing scholarly attention is being focused, however, on precisely that issue, and Moss presented good arguments both for and against such a translation.

Sadly, there are no Greek-English dictionaries from Plato’s time to help scholars understand how to translate Plato.

Fortunately, we Kierkegaard scholars are better off. Unfortunately, few translators of Kierkegaard appear to refer to these dictionaries, with the result that many English translations of Kierkegaard are sometimes seriously misleading. This point was brought home to me with particular force just yesterday. I was reading chapter 4 of Hannay’s Postscript in preparation for the seminar I am teaching on Kierkegaard at Haverford, when I came across a passage that I found deeply puzzling.

The paradox-religious posits the contradiction between existence and the eternal absolutely; for the thought that the eternal is at a definite moment of time expresses precisely the abandonment of existence by the hidden immanence of the eternal. In the religious A the eternal is ubique et nusquam but hidden by the actuality of existence; in the paradox-religious the eternal is at a definite place, and precisely this is the breach with immanence (pp. 478-479).

The Danish for the passage is:

Det Paradox-Religieuse sætter Modsætningen absolut mellem Existentsen og det Evige; thi netop det at det Evige er i et bestemt Tids-Moment er Udtrykket for, at Existentsen er forladt af det Eviges skjulte Immanents. I det Religieuse A er det Evige ubique et nusquam, men skjult af Existentsens Virkelighed; i det Paradox-Religieuse er det Evige paa et bestemt Sted, og dette er netop Bruddet med Immanentsen. (SKS, AE)

I actually prefer the Hongs’ “paradoxically-religious” to Hannay’s “paradox-religious.” There is a problem, however, with the rendering of Kierkegaard’s Modsætningen as “contradiction” that, bizarrely, affects all three English translations of this passage in the Postscript. Modsætning, comes from the verb modsætte. Modsætte is actually a compound term comprised of the verb sætte, which means to “set” (as in to set something down), and mod, which means “against.” Modsætte thus literally means to set against (sætte mod), or to contrast.

And, indeed, modsætte is defined by Ferrall-Repp as “to oppose,” or “to contrast.” It’s modsigelse, not modsætning that means “contradiction.” One doesn’t even need to refer to Ferrall-Repp to confirm this. Vinterberg-Bodelsen makes this clear.

To render Modsætning as “contradiction” gives undue support to the erroneous view that there cannot be any point of contact, according to Kierkegaard, between time and eternity. Since Kierkegaard claims that “the moment” (Oieblik) is precisely such a point of contact, the rendering of Modsætning as “contradiction” would appear to support those who claim that Kierkegaard is advocating an extreme form of irrationalism where one is asked to believe things that are purportedly formally impossible.

The rendering of Modætning as “contradiction” isn’t the only problem with the passage in question. It wasn’t even the problem that concerned me most. What really troubled me was the reference to the “abandonment of existence by the hidden immanence of the eternal.” That can’t be right, I thought. The appearance of the God in time is not a rejection, but rather a redemption of existence.

Unlike the problem with the translation of Modsætning, however, I wasn’t sure how to fix the problem in the passage that referred to the “abandonment of existence” by the eternal. The Danish term that is translated as “abandonment” is actually forladt. Forladt comes from the verb forlade, which, according to Ferrall-Repp means “1. to leave, quit; 2. to forsake, abandon, desert;” but also “3. to pardon, forgive.” It was that last definition the grabbed me because the Danish for “the forgiveness of sins” is syndsforladelse.

That’s what Kierkegaard is talking about, I thought. The appearance of the eternal in time redeems existence. It doesn’t “abandon” it. The problem, I quickly discovered, is that no form of “forgive” works very well for forladt in this passage because Kierkegaard is clearly trying to emphasize the contrast, or opposition, between time and eternity, or between “existence” and eternity.

It’s possible that if anything is abandoned in the passage, it is the “hiddenness” of the eternal, rather than existence. The only problem with that reading is that the appearance of the eternal in time is not something that is directly perceptible according to Kierkegaard, so if the “hiddenness” of the eternal is abandoned by its appearance in time, this is in only a metaphorical sense.

I sat with my crumbling copy of Ferrall-Repp in my lap as I struggled to make sense of how best to translate this passage. I read and reread the definition of forlade hoping to find some term that would work, when suddenly, my eyes lit upon a second instance of forlade. Forlade actually appears twice in Ferrall-Repp (three times if one counts forlade sig paa, which means to depend on). The second instance has only one definition: “to overload.”

Eureka! That’s it, I thought. That is IT! That’s what he means. Not only is the “overloading of existence by the hidden immanence of the eternal” idiomatic (or as idiomatic as metaphysical language can get), it makes sense. The temporal manifestation of the eternal is referred to by Kierkegaard, following scripture, of course, as “the fullness of time” (Crumbs, 95). The eternal fills time to the bursting point, according to Kierkegaard, and indeed fills the individual to the bursting point “if he does not become a new person and a new vessel” (Crumbs, 109).

The “overloading” of existence by the eternal heightens the contrast between existence and the eternal in precisely the way Kierkegaard means to emphasize in this passage. My guess is that Kierkegaard’s choice of forladt was meant also to evoke in the reader the sense of “forgiven” as in the forgiveness of sins. What I don’t think he meant, however, was to suggest that the appearance of the eternal in time, or in existence, amounted to an abandonment of existence. That just doesn’t make sense.

So why does Hannay have “abandonment”? Hannay isn’t the only translator of the Postscript to make this mistake. Every English translation of the Postscript makes this mistake. Why all the English translators of the Postscript have gotten Modætning wrong remains a mystery. My guess, however, as to why they all get forladt wrong is because there is no second occurrence of forlade in contemporary Danish-English dictionaries. There isn’t in my Vinterberg-Bodelsen anyway. Forlade as “overload” appears to have fallen out of usage. That means even native speakers of Danish will very likely be inclined to misinterpret this passage of the Postscript.

This is a striking example of how important it is to use dictionaries that are contemporary with one’s source. The late George L. Kline, my M.A. thesis director at Bryn Mawr used to emphasize this over and over again. Thank you, George, for drilling this into me!