More Problems with the Postscript

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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!

A Problem with Hannay’s Postscript

I have said before, and I will say again, that Alastair Hannay’s translations of Kierkegaard for Penguin are superior to the Hongs’ translations for Princeton. I will probably do some posts comparing them again. That is not the purpose of the present post, however. I’m teaching a seminar on Kierkegaard now at Haverford College where we’re reading Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs, and his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs. We’re using my translation of the Crumbs from Oxford and Hannay’s translation of the Postscript from Cambridge. In the course of my reading through this new translation of the Postscript, I have discovered a number of problems with it.

The most serious and most perplexing problem is Hannay’s systematically translating Kierkegaard’s Opvakt as “reborn.” Opvakt literally means “awakened.” It comes from the verb opvække, that, according to Ferrall-Repp means “to awake, rouse, excite, stir up.” An Opvækkelse is similarly defined by Ferrall-Repp as an “awakening.” Kierkegaard uses the expression en Opvakt to refer to a follower of the charismatic Danish priest Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (see the commentary to SKS).

One might be tempted to argue that while “awakened” is the most literal translation of Opvakt, it is awkward in English to refer to the members of a particular religious movement as “awakened.” Unfortunately, “reborn” isn’t much better if it is better at all. The idiomatic expression in English would be “born again.”

The more serious difficulty, however, with the translation of Opvakt as “reborn” is that it is misleading, so misleading, in fact, that it is likely to make readers dependent on English translations of Kierkegaard conclude that his thought is incoherent. Kierkegaard speaks in the following passage from the Philosophical Crumbs of a “rebirth” of the individual who receives the condition for understanding the truth from the god in time.

To the extent that the disciple was in error and now receives the truth as well as the condition for understanding it, a change takes place in him that is like the transition from not being to being. But this transition from not being to being is precisely that of birth [Fødselens]. He who exists already can hardly be born, and yet he is born. Let us call this transition rebirth [Gjenfødslen](96).

The expression for “rebirth” is Gjenfødslen. Gjenfødslen comes from adding the prefix Gjen (which comes from Igien, which means “again”) to Fødsel, which, according to Ferrall-Repp. is defined as “delivery, parturation, birth, nativity.”

This “rebirth” is an unqualifiedly positive thing. It is, indeed, precisely the temporal point of departure for a person’s “eternal consciousness” the possibility of which was posed as “the problem of the Crumbs.

Kierkegaard’s “Gjenfødslen” is a positive phenomenon, indeed, THE positive phenomenon. Kierkegaard has little respect, however, for the followers of Grundtvig, so his references to them as Opvakt are all pejorative.

What is the poor reader dependent on English translations of Kierkegaard to make of this? When he reads the Crumbs, he’ll find that “rebirth” is equivalent to an individual’s encounter with God in the person of Christ. When he proceeds, however, to the Postscript, he’ll read that “[t]he one who is reborn … is not relating to God” (381, emphasis added).

This isn’t the only misleading reference in Hannay’s translation to someone who is “reborn.” There is also a reference on page 383 to “the impudent assurance in the fact of God of the one reborn.” There’s another reference on page 424 to “the one who is reborn impertinently retain[ing] God.” When I did a search on “reborn” on my electronic copy of the book, I got 25 hits. Some of the pages, such as 429, have multiple references because Kierkegaard goes on at some length in those places about what is wrong with the followers Grundtvig –– except that the reader very likely won’t know that’s what Kierkegaard is doing, but will assume he’s critiquing the views he developed himself in the Philosophical Crumbs.

Kierkegaard is not critiquing his own earlier views, or worse, contradicting himself. “Rebirth” is a literal translation of Gjenfødslen. It is not, however, a literal translation of Opvakt, and given that Kierkegaard uses Opvakt only pejoratively and Gjenfødslen only positively, a translator needs to be careful to preserve that terminological distinction in order to avoid confusing the reader and perhaps compelling him to conclude that Kierkegaard just wasn’t all that rigorous a thinker.

I thought it was important to alert readers to this problem because people who read my translation of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs will very likely be inclined to read Hannay’s translation of the Postscript since Hannay also translates Kierkegaard’s Smuler as “crumbs.”

Hannay got Smuler right, but he got Opvakt wrong.

Erasmus Montanus

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Scene from a production of Erasmus Montanus by Bagsværd Amatørescene, Photographer: Flemming Mortensen

There are two places in Kierkegaard’s published and unpublished works where he refers to the earth being “as flat as a pancake.” The first is in his review of H.C. Andersen’s failed attempt at a novel, Kun en Spillemand, that was published under the title of From the Papers of One Still Living, and the second is in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs

The second reference will no doubt be familiar to Kierkegaard scholars. It is in that passage where Kierkegaard, or Johannes Climacus, the pseudonym under which Kierkegaard published the Postscript, illustrates his claim that the mere utterance of an objective truth is not in itself evidence that the person who utters it is sane. “Let me recount an incident,” he begins, “that without any kind of adaptation from my side, comes straight from an insane asylum.” He then tells the story of a man who escapes from this asylum and on his way into town, finds a little skittle ball lying on the ground. He absent-mindedly picks up the ball and puts it in the tail pocket of his coat. As he walks, the ball gently hits him, explains Climacus, on his “a – “ and presumably, the fact of it’s being a ball, reminds him every time it strikes him that the earth is round. Since he knows that everyone agrees that the earth is round, he decides that the best way to convince people that he is sane is to go about saying continually ”the earth is round!”

“And indeed is not the earth round?” ask Climacus. “Does the asylum crave yet another sacrifice for this opinion as when everyone believed it to be as flat as a pancake?” (Hannay, 164). This reference to the earth being “flat as a pancake” is clearly an allusion to Ludvig Holberg’s play Erasmus Montanus. I cannot remember how I learned this. I could have sworn it was in an explanatory note in either one of the English translations of the Postscript or in the text as it appears in the new Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter. But I have searched in vain for such a note, though SKS does acknowledge that the first appearance of this phrase in Kierkegaard’s works, the one in From the Papers of One Still Living is an allusion to the Holberg play.

Since there are at least two references to this play in Kierkegaard’s works, I felt that I should read it. I didn’t own a copy, however, so I did a google search, in the hope that I could find a copy online. I did. Not only did I find a copy, but I found a download able copy in English translation!

The play is hilarious. The Danes like to claim Holberg as one of their own, but in fact, he was Norwegian. The thing is, Denmark ruled Norway back then, so Norwegians were viewed, more or less, as Danes, particularly if they distinguished themselves the way Holberg did. I’m telling you this because the play is clearly set in Norway, in that it concerns a people in a little mountain village and, well, there are no mountains in Denmark. Back in the 18th century, when the play is set, residents of Norway who wanted a university education typically attended the University of Copenhagen. So Rasmus Berg, the eldest son of a prosperous farmer does just that.

I don’t know if all the instruction was in Latin back then, but at least some of it was. Students were typically taught to argue in Latin and showy Latin disputations were part and parcel of university life. Rasmus Berg returns to his little mountain village as Erasmus Montanus, determined to impress everyone with his new learning. Unfortunately for him, the local deacon succeeds in convincing the poor townsfolk, none of whom know a word of Latin, that he is beating the pants off Berg, or Montanus, in Latin disputation even though the Latin he purports to be speaking is nothing but gibberish, bits and pieces of Latin grammar, and other odd words and phrases that he strings together to form nonsensical sentences that he utters with such passionate conviction that everyone feels sorry for poor Berg, or Montanus, for being shown up that way in public.

That isn’t the worst of it, though. The townsfolk are so scandalized when Berg, or Montanus, informs them that the earth is round, that his future father-in-law withdraws his permission for Berg to marry his daughter. Berg, or Montanus, is forced, finally, to recant his statement that the earth is round in order to win the hand of his ladylove.

Interesting, eh? Not only was Kierkegaard understandably taken with the play, the whole thing is kind of a metaphor for his life. There are lines in it about how the earth must be flat because everyone but Montanus thinks it is, and that truth is in numbers. There is the general backwardness of the mountain people that mirrors what Kierkegaard thought of as the backwardness, or philistinism, of the people in the little market town of Copenhagen. And then there is the fact that Montanus had to surrender his calling as an intellectual, to betray his learning, to betray what he knew to be true, in order to enjoy the pleasures of domestic life. This, as we all know, was a sacrifice Kierkegaard could not himself make.

I have come to believe that there are likely many more allusions to this particular play in Kierkegaard’s authorship than have yet been recognized as such. If you can find one yourself, please send it along. Perhaps we can write a collective paper on the influence this play on Kierkegaard’s works, and if there are enough of us, then everyone will have to admit that our claims are correct –– right?

(Hannay, who is generally an excellent translator of Kierkegaard, has inexplicably rendered the Danish Keglekugle as “skittle bowl” instead of “skittle ball.” Perhaps this is some kind of Anglicism with which I am unfamiliar. The object in question is indisputably a skittle ball, however, as both earlier English translations of the Postscript indicate, no matter what people in the UK call it.)