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.

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.


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!