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“Crazy Capers”!

I promised I would do a post comparing my translation of a particularly tricky passage from Kierkegaard’s Repetition with the Hongs’ translation of the same passage. This comparison will give readers a sense for how difficult translation sometimes is.

The passage in question comes from the part of Repetition where Kierkegaard talks about farce. It begins on page 27 of Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009) with the paragraph that starts “They show farces in the Königstädter Theatre,” and ends just before the middle of page 34. This material on farce is really wonderful and ought to be excerpted and included in collections of writings on theater.

The narrator of Repetition is presented as an older man who has become preoccupied with the question of whether repetition is possible in the face of what would appear to be time’s relentless unfolding of the new and the novel. He undertakes a trip to Berlin as an experiment to test whether he can repeat the joys of an earlier visit. One of his chief pleasures is farce, so he had been a frequent visitor to the Königstädter Theatre which was famous for its farces. Pages 27-34 present his extended analysis of what one could call the logic of farce.

The narrator is particularly interested in two famous performers, Phillipe Grobecker and Friederich Beckmann (both genuine actors associated with Königstädter Theatre) whom he refers to as G. and B. respectively. B.’s dancing,” he asserts in a description of one of B’s performances,

is incomparable. He has sung his couplet and now begins to dance. What B. dares here is back-breaking because he does not presumably venture to affect the audience in the strictest sense through his graceful movements. He is well beyond this. The lunatic laughter that is in him cannot be contained in either physical form or spoken lines. Only a Münchhausen-like grabbing oneself by the neck and repeatedly transcending oneself in a crazy, riotous sort of leapfrog captures this spirit. (p. 32.)

That reads easily enough, doesn’t it. You’d never know it took me several days to translate those few brief lines. Compare the passage above to the Hongs’ translation of the same passage:

B.’s dance is incomparable. He has sung his couplet, and now the dance begins. What B. ventures here is neck-breaking, for he presumably does not trust himself to create an effect with his dance routines in the narrow sense. He is now completely beside himself. The sheer lunacy of his laughter can no longer be contained either in forms or in lines; the only way to convey the mood is to take himself by the scruff of the neck, as did Münchhausen and cavort in crazy capers. (p 164.)

The Danish is:

B.’s Dandsen [er] uforlignelig. Han har sunget sit Couplet, nu begynder Dandsen. Hvad B. her vover er halsbrækkende; thi han trøster sig formodentlig ikke til i strængere Forstand at virke ved sine Dandse-Stillinger. Han er nu aldeles ovenud. Latterens Vanvid i ham kan ikke mere rummes hverken i Skikkelse eller Replik, kun det, som Münchhausen, at tage sig selv i Nakken og henjuble sig selv i afsindige Bukkespring, er i Stemningens Medfør.

A literal translation would be

B’s dancing is incomparable. He has sung his couplet, now the dance begins. What B dares here is throat-breaking: because he presumably does not trust himself to, in a stricter sense affect [the audience] with his dance positions. He is now altogether out above. The frenzy of laughter in him can no longer be contained in either a figure or a line [as in lines actors recite], only that which like Münchhausen, to take oneself by the neck and cheer oneself in a deranged bucking is in [keeping with] what the mood brings along.

Pretty weird, eh? I’ll admit that I took a lot of liberties with the translation of this passage simply to come up with something that was readable in English while still conveying the essence of what Kierkegaard appeared to be trying to say. “Throat-breaking” is not idiomatic in English, so I changed it to “back-breaking.” “[O]venud” means “out above,” or “over” as in “the water ran over,” but “He is now altogether out above” isn’t even a sentence in English. It seemed to me that the context suggested Kierkegaard meant something like “beyond,” so I rendered “Han er nu aldeles ovenud”as “He is well beyond this.”

The biggest liberty was translating “henjuble sig selv” as “transcending oneself.” “Henjuble” appears to be a word Kierkegaard made up out of “hen,” which according to Ferrall-Repp can mean ”away,” “off,” “on” “to,” “toward,” or ”against,” and “juble,” which means to “call,” or to “shout.” So it would appear to mean something like “cheering oneself forth.” That doesn’t make much sense in English, though, so I came up with “transcending oneself.” I dropped all mention of “cheering” and replaced the literal “bucking” with “leapfrog.”

Again, I took some liberties with this passage, but if you have read my other posts on translation you will know that I am a proponent of what is known in translation theory as “semantic translation” (see Peter Newmark’s A Textbook of Translation) which is an approach to translation that privileges the sense of a passage over a literal word-for-word rendering of the original. Only in this way, I think, can a reader get a reliable sense of how a text reads in the original language. One of the complaints I hear over and over again about the Hongs’ translations is how wooden they are. They definitely do not read at all like Kierkegaard’s texts do in the original Danish. Kierkegaard was a brilliant prose stylist, one of the greatest in the history of Danish literature. The problem with the Hongs’ translations is that they tend to be too literal and literal translations almost never preserve the feeling of the original.

The Hongs aren’t always literal, however. “The sheer lunacy of his laughter,” for example, is simply wrong. The Danish is “Latterens Vanvid i ham” which translates literally as “The lunacy of laughter in him.” That is, the reference isn’t to his laughter, but to laughter as such, with which he, as a comedian, is intimately familiar. That is no small distinction from the perspective of philosophy.

The Hongs have also simply interpolated “sheer” in this passage. There is nothing that corresponds to it in the original Danish text.

There are other instances in which the Hongs deviate even more bizarrely from the original. I look at some of those instances in future posts.

A Comparison of Translations of Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits

I know I promised a blog post on some of the more outrageous of the Hongs’ translations bloopers. I will do that. I came across a problem with both published translations of Kierkegaard’s Opbyggelige Taler I forskjellig Aand, however, in the process of preparing one of my own articles for publication in a book entitled Kierkegaard’s God and The Good Life (eds. Stephen Minister, J. Aaron Simmons, and Michael Strawser), and since I already had the data on it, I figured I might as well turn that data into a blog post, so here it is.

The passage in question comes from the section of the taler that was translated separately as Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing by Douglas V. Steere back in the 1930s. It was published by Harper and Row in 1938 and came out as a Harper Torchbook in 1956. Here is Steere’s translation of the passage:

In the recognition that contemplation and reflection are the distance of eternity away from time and actuality, there is indeed a truth; the knower can understand that truth, but he cannot understand himself. It is certain that without this recognition a man’s life is more or less thoughtless. But it is also certain that this recognition, because it is in a spurious eternity before the imagination, develops double-mindedness, if it is not slowly and honestly earned by the will’s purity (Steere, p. 116-117).

Steere’s translation, unsurprisingly, reads much better than the Hongs’. Here’s what the Hongs have:

In the knowledge. as contemplation and deliberation, that is the distance of eternity from time and actuality, there presumably is truth, and the knower can understand the truth in it, but he cannot understand himself. It is true that without this knowledge a person’s life is more or less devoid of thought, but it is also true that this knowledge, because it is a counterfeit eternity for the imagination, develops double-mindedness if it is not honestly gained slowly through purity of the will (Hongs’ p. 74)

Unfortunately, neither translation completely captures the meaning of the original. Here is the Danish:

I den Erkjendelse, der, som Betragtning og Overveielse, er paa Evighedens Afstand fra Tid og Virkelighed, er der vel Sandhed, den Erkjendende kan forstaae Sandheden deri, men han kan ikke forstaae sig selv. Det er vist, at uden denne Erkjendelse er et Menneskes Liv mere eller mindre tankeløst men det er ogsaa vist, at denne Erkjendelse, fordi den er i en forfalsket Evighed for Indbildningen, udvikler Tvesindetheden, dersom den ikke redeligen erhverves langsomt ved Villiens Reenhed. (SKS vol. 8.)

Steere’s rendering of “Erkjendelse” as “recognition” is fine, but the recognition in question is not that “contemplation and reflection are the distance of eternity away from time and actuality.” The Hongs’ appear to have gotten that right, anyway. Unfortunately, they got the article wrong. The definite article in Danish is enclitic. That means “the knowledge” would be “Erkjendelsen” (or “erkendelsen” in modern Danish). The “den” in “den Erkjendelse” is a demonstrative adjective. That means “[i] den Erkjendelse” translates literally as “in this knowledge.”

It’s bad form, of course, to start a paragraph with a demonstrative adjective, but Kierkegaard doesn’t actually do that here. Both English translations insert paragraph breaks that are not in the original. The beginning of the long paragraph in the Danish text of which this passage is a part talks about how a double-minded person might actually have “knowledge of the good” (Erkjendelse af det Gode, the emphasis is in the original). It’s this knowledge to which Kierkegaard refers at the beginning of the next paragraph. Hence the translation should read something like this:

In this knowledge, which, as contemplation and deliberation, is the distance of eternity away from time and actuality, there is indeed truth, and the knower can understand this truth, but he cannot understand himself. It is true that without this knowledge a person’s life is more or less thoughtless, but it is also true that this knowledge, because it is in the spurious eternity of the imagination, develops double-mindedness if it is not slowly and honestly earned through the will’s purity.

Steere got “Overveielse” wrong and the Hongs got it right. “Overveielse” is deliberation, not reflection. So that’s one for the Hongs. Unfortunately, the Hongs bizarrely interpolate “presumably” in the passage. There is nothing in the Danish that corresponds to it. The Hongs also erroneously translate “for” in “for Indbildning” as “for.” The Danish “for” is a preposition and prepositions are notoriously difficult to translate. Hell, they’re difficult even in one’s native tongue. I have a book of English prepositional phrases that I used almost constantly when I worked as a translator for the translation center at the University of Copenhagen. Anyway, the Danish “for” generally means “to,” but can also mean “too,” as in “det er for meget” (that is too much), and sometimes “for” as in “for tiden” (for the time being). It clearly doesn’t mean “for” here, however, because the “spurious eternity” in question is that of thought. That is, a person’s knowledge of the good is not presented to the imagination in some inexplicable counterfeit or spurious eternity. The spurious eternity is that of the imagination, or thought, itself. Thought, dealing as it does according to Kierkegaard, with abstract entities, has a kind of Platonic eternality to it. And yet, this is misleading, according to Kierkegaard, because all thought is some particular individual’s thought. A person can’t climb, so to speak, into eternity through thought, according to Kierkegaard, but only through faith.

There are lots of legitimate choices for a translator too make, here, however. Steere sticks more closely to the Danish in translating “vist” as “certain,” whereas the Hongs translate it as “true.” I think the latter translation is defensible, however, and that the resultant text reads a little more naturally. “Counterfeit” is just as good as “spurious,” but I prefer the latter for stylistic reasons. This little passage should give you, the reader, a good idea, however, of just how difficult and confusing translating can be.

Speaking of how difficult translation can be, I will soon put up a post comparing a passage from my translation of Repetition with the Hongs’ translation. I’m particularly proud of how I handled this little passage because, as I will endeavor to make clear, it was REALLY difficult to translate!

Kierkegaard on “Dialectic”

A reader wrote recently to inquire about what Kierkegaard meant by “dialectic.” That’s a good question because whatever he means, it is clearly not the same thing that Hegel famously means by this term. First, I have to say that like so many of Kierkegaard’s favorite terms, it does not appear to have a single meaning.

“Dialectic,” or more correctly, Dialektik, comes originally from the Greek διαλεκτική, dialektikē, so you won’t find it in Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordbog, the standard Danish dictionary from Kierkegaard’s time, but must turn to Ludvig Meyer’s Fremmedordbog (dictionary of foreign words) from 1853. Meyer defines Dialektik as “samtalekunst” (i.e., the art of conversation), as well as “Fornuftlære,” “Tankelære,” “Logik” (the first two translate literally as, ”teachings of reason,” and ”teachings of thought, ” but are probably best translated as ”informal logic,” while Logik is best translated as “formal logic”). In Plato, continues Meyer, Dialektik refers to “higher speculative philosophy,” whereas in Aristotle and more recent thinkers it refers to “probability theory” as well as “eristic,” “sophistry” and “casuistry.”

Interestingly, Kierkegaard never seems to use Dialektik in the last two pejorative senses. My guess is that that is not because a dialectical contemplation of something could never lead one way from the truth, but because of the high esteem in which he appears to have held ancient skepticism. That is, a dialectical contemplation of any question that does not admit of a clear and uncontroversial answer, will ultimately bring the individual back to him or herself and in that way accentuate the role of decision and the will.

There is an extremely helpful Terminologisk Register, or glossary, by Jens Himmelstrup in the second half of volume 15 of the second edition of Kierkegaard’s Samlede Værker. The glossary contains a long entry on Dialektik. Himmelstrup explains here that the term comes originally from the Greek διαλέγομαι, dialegomai, meaning “to carry on a conversation with someone.” “The term,” he continues, “became associated with Socrates, in that he employed the art of conversation, or dialogue, in his activity as a philosopher which was generally aimed at achieving clarity concerning the precise meaning of individual terms and concepts.”

Himmelstrup then proceeds to give a brief history of the meaning of the term in philosophy. What is important for our purposes here, however, is what he says concerning its meaning for Kierkegaard. Sometimes, he explains, “dialectic” refers to “purely logical determinations” (I presume that by this he means it refers to formal opposites such as a and ~a). Other examples he gives of Kierkegaard’s use of the term suggest it means something more like “dynamic,” as when Kierkegaard writes in the first volume of Either-Or: “Love from the soul has, secondly, yet another dialectic, for it differs in relation to every single individual who is the object of love” (This reference is from Alastair Hannay’s translation for Penguin. Even though the ebook version provides only a location number [1587-1588] rather than a page number, the Hongs’ translation of this passage is so tortured that I could not bring myself to use it. This is probably also a good place to point out that neither the Hongs’ “psychical love” nor Hannay’s “love from the soul” is a particularly felicitous translation of Kierkegaard’s “sjælelig Elskov.” That expression is probably best translated simply as “romantic love”).

Suffice it to say in answer to the question of what Kierkegaard means by the term “dialectic,” that the meaning appears to be as protean as is the meaning of the term “knowledge.” That’s not to say that Kierkegaard equivocates on its meaning, but simply, as I explain in Ways of Knowing, that Kierkegaard was extremely sensitive to how fluid are the meanings of most terms in everyday speech and that he abhorred the tendency of academics to artificially fix meanings.

Stay tuned for my next blog post “Those Crazy Hongs!” an examination of how the Hongs (or more likely Howard Hong) could conceivably have rendered “Sandselig Genialitet, bestemmet som Forførelse” as “The Elementary Originality of the Sensuous Qualified as Seduction.”