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Mistake in Hongs’ Translation

MolbechIs it possible, according to Kierkegaard, for a person to appreciate, on his own, that he is outside the truth, or in error? It would appear that Kierkegaard’s answer in Philosophical Crumbs is both yes and no. That is, on the one hand he says that since this is actually our situation, “the Socratic applies,” which is to say that we can “recollect” it, or come to appreciate it on our own. On the other hand, it looks like we can’t, at least according to the Hongs’ translation of Philosophiske Smuler.

The Hongs translate the following passage:

Dersom et Menneske oprindeligen er i Besiddelse af Betingelsen for at forstaae Sandheden, da tænker han, at Gud er til, derved at han selv er til. Dersom han er i Usandheden, da maa han jo tænke dette om sig selv, og Erindringen skal ikke kunne hjælpe ham uden til at tænke dette. Om han skal komme videre, maa Øieblikket afgjøre (om dette end allerede var virksomt i at lade ham indsee, at han er Usandheden). (Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, Vol. 4, p. 229.)

as

If a person originally possesses the condition to understand the truth, he thinks that, since he himself is, God is. If he is in untruth, then he must of course think this about himself, and recollection will be unable to help him to think anything else but this. Whether or not he is to go any further, the moment must decide (although it already was active in making him perceive that he is untruth) (Philosophical Fragments, Princeton, 1985, p. 20).

The parenthetical remark asserts that “the moment” is active in helping people to understand that they are outside the truth, despite the fact that Kierkegaard had earlier said this was something we could discover on our own. So is Kierkegaard contradicting himself here or is there a problem with the Hongs’ translation?

The answer is that there is a problem with the Hongs’ translation. Here is how I translate this same passage.

If a person is originally in possession of the condition for understanding the truth, then he thinks there is a God, in that he exists himself. If he is in error, he may think this about himself, but recollection could not help him to think anything else. If he is to progress beyond this, the moment must decide (even if it were already active in allowing him to see that he was in error) (Philosophical Crumbs, Oxford, 2009, p. 97).

The parenthetical remark is what philosophers call a “counter-factual.” It is not saying that the moment had, in fact, been active in a person’s coming to understand himself as outside the truth, but that even if it had been active – i.e., had helped him to understand that he was outside the truth – he would need it again to get beyond this realization. That is, Kierkegaard is not taking a position here on whether one needs the moment to help one to the insight that one is outside the truth. He’s saying even if the moment had been active in helping one to this insight (a qualification that is perfectly consistent with its not being active), it would be needed again to get beyond the insight.

Of course you shouldn’t just assume that I know what I am talking about here. I need to marshal some evidence to support my claim that my translation: “even if it [i.e., the moment] were already active in allowing him to see that he was in error” is accurate whereas the Hongs’: “although it [i.e.., the moment] already was active in making him perceive that he is untruth” is not. So let’s go to the relevant reference works: Ferrall-Repp does not have “om end,” but only “om” which it translates as “if.” Vinterberg-Bodelsen has “(even) if,” before “(even) though.”

The really decisive proof that the parenthetical should be in the subjunctive comes from Christian Molbech’s Dansk Orbog from 1859 (this is the second edition and hence more reliable for questions of usage in the 1840s than is the first edition from 1833). Molbech lists a number of instances where “om” means either “if” or “whether,” but then gives the following example for “om end”: “Jeg tror det ikke, om end Alle sværge derpaa,” which translates as: “I don’t believe it, even if everyone would swear to it.”

Of course this begs the question in that I have chosen to translate “om end” as “even if” instead of “even though.” The justification for my translation comes after the first formulation. That is, immediately following the example “Jeg tror det ikke, om end Alle sværge derpaa” is a parenthetical clarification that reads “(Forskielligt i Meningen fra: ‘omendskiøndt han sværger derpaa,’ hvor der mere bestemt udtrykkes, at han sværger.)” This translates literally as “(Different in meaning from: ‘even though he swears to it,’ where the fact that he swears is expressed more definitively”.)

Hence it is clear that “om end” means “even if,” not “even though,” or “although” as the Hongs’ translation has it. The Hongs translation thus takes what is legitimately a question in the original and turns it into a fact, and a misleading fact at that.

More about Dictionaries

I did the junior year abroad thing when I was an undergraduate, except at my college it was actually a six-month program. I chose the Germany-Austria program because I was a philosophy major and everyone told me that all philosophers had to know German.

Learning German was rough, particularly during the Austria half of the program. I took a German language class at the Dolmetscher Institut at the University of Vienna and my professor was brutal. He used to walk up and down the rows, standing directly in front of the person whose turn it was to do the exercise in question. You got one chance to look at your book and then you had to look up at him and do whatever it was the exercise required (e.g., changing the tense of the verb or the number of the subject). I remember once some poor guy in the row behind me made the mistake of trying to look down at his book a second time. Wham! The professor slammed his book down on top of the poor guy’s book obscuring the page.

That class was always suspenseful because the professor also liked to make fun of students who had done the exercise correctly but whom he suspected did not understand the meaning. He’d try to strike up a conversation on the subject of the exercise with the sole purpose of humiliating his victim by exposing the person as shabby automaton, with no real understanding of what he was doing.

Now what does all this have to do with Kierkegaard, you ask. Well, I will tell you. That sadistic German professor insisted that we throw out our bilingual dictionaries and begin, as soon as possible, to work exclusively with a German-German dictionary. He was right.

I know I directed you to the wonderful Ferrall-Repp A Danish-English Dictionary, and you will certainly want to use it as your primary Danish-English dictionary. There is a lot to be said, however, for working with Danish-Danish dictionaries as well. Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordbog from 1833 is available as a pdf from Google books. That’s the dictionary most Kierkegaard scholars have traditionally used when contemporary Danish-English dictionaries failed them. Molbech’s dictionary is certainly useful (with the 1859 edition being the more useful of the two given that dictionaries tend to document usage from a slightly earlier period than their publication date). An even better resource, however, is the monumental Ordbog Over det Danske Sprog, the Dane’s equivalent of the OED. Unfortunately it takes up an enormous amount of bookshelf space and is prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, the Danes are more egalitarian than the Brits, so the ODS is actually freely accessible in a searchable online version. I guarantee it will help your Danish, plus, it’s a lot easier than trying to use the pdf of Molbech because it is searchable, while Molbech, because it is in Fraktur, is not. Check it out!