Angsting Over Translation
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.