Kierkegaard at the American Academy of Religion

IMG_2770There are sessions devoted to Kierkegaard at both the American Philosophical Association and the American Academy of Religion. There’s usually only one session devoted to Kierkegaard at the APA meeting, though, whereas there are nearly always three or even four sessions devoted to Kierkegaard at the AAR meeting. This is due to the tireless activity of the Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture Group, one of the many groups affiliated with the AAR. This year, the KRC group sponsored three sessions: a book session on the late David Kangas’s Errant Affirmations (Bloomsbury, 2018), a session entitled “Where is God? Kierkegaard and the Denigration of Public Discourse, and another session entitled “Kierkegaard and Cinema.”

In addition to these three sessions, Søren Kierkegaard Society put on its annual banquet on the evening of the first official day of the conference. Joakim Garff was the banquet speaker. He gave a talk entitled “Expectation: Temporality and Rhetoric in Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses.” I heard from people who were able to make the banquet that the talk was good. Unfortunately, I was not able to make the banquet. I missed my flight. I was able to get a later flight at no extra charge, but the flight arrived too late for me to be able to make the banquet.

The SKS also sponsored a session entitled “Truth is Subjectivity: Kierkegaard and Political Theology: A Symposium in Honor of Robert Perkins.” Bob was a true giant of Kierkegaard scholarship. His editorship of the International Kierkegaard Commentary series from Mercer University Press, along with his other tireless scholarly activities earned him, in my mind anyway, the status of the unofficial father of contemporary Kierkegaard studies in English. The session, fittingly, was one of the best of have been to in many years. I was somewhat apprehensive about it because there were five speakers and a respondent scheduled for a session that was only two and a half hours long. That’s a lot of speakers! Fortunately, most of the presentations were short, so there was even a little time for discussion afterward.

The speakers were John Davenport, myself, C. Stephen Evans, George Pattison, and Lee Barrett, and the respondent was Christopher Nelson. Davenport’s paper was “The Crowd and Populism,” mine was “Kierkegaard’s Apocryphal Politics,” Evans’s was “Kierkegaard on Putting the Modern State in its Place,” Pattison’s was “Stepping Forward in Character — But onto what Stage? Arendtian Reflections on Kierkegaardian Anti-politics,” and Barrett’s was “Can Love Be Political?” All the papers were good and the discussion was even better. Sylvia Walsh Perkins was so pleased with the event that she immediately contacted Mercer and arranged for the papers to be published in a volume commemorating Bob. I was honored to have been part of the event and I look forward to the appearance of the volume!

The book exhibit is always one of my favorite parts of the AAR meeting. There was a period, when the AAR did not meet together with the Society of Biblical Literature, when the book exhibit was substantially diminished. The AAR and SBL are back together again, though, and the book exhibit is back to its old robust self!

I made an interesting discovery at the meeting. Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralistic Epistemology is out in a paperback version! You can see it to the right of Steve Evans’s two excellent books in the photo above. That’s good news. One of the things I like about Baylor is that its books are reasonably priced. Sadly, I have not yet been able to justify spending what it would cost to purchase Kangas’s book. Even discounted, it is almost $80.

Scholarly books are expensive to produce, there’s no question about that, and Baylor’s production process is second to none. They do a truly beautiful job with their books, both in terms of the editing and in terms of the aesthetics. Yet despite this, Ways of Knowing was originally only around $50! Unfortunately, the new paperback version appears to be nearly as much. It is an important work, though, if I say so myself, and it’s good to see that it is still available. (I’ve seen paperback’s from other publishers go for more than $100. I’m not naming any names, but I suspect many readers will know the publishers I’m talking about)

It occurred to me that scholars who have not yet purchased the book might like to learn more about it before deciding whether they want to purchase it, so I have extracted a few pages from the penultimate version of the second chapter and attached it here. Check it out!

 

New Translation of Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses

Harper Collins has issued a new translation of some of Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses under their imprint Harper Perennial (Harper, 2010). It was with some trepidation that I awaited this new translation. Many of Kierkegaard’s works deserve better translations than they have yet received, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone could improve on the Swensons’ translation from 1943. The translator of this new edition is George Pattison, the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. The good news is that Pattison’s translation is better than the Hongs’. The bad news is that that’s damning with faint praise. Pattison’s translation is still a long way from being as good as the Swensons’ translation.

A blog is not the place to do a full-blown review, so I am going to look here only at the first discourse “Every Good and Every Perfect Gift is from Above.” Here are just a few of the problems with Pattison’s translation. First, he omits both the prayer and the passage from James that precede the discourse in Kierkegaard’s original edition, as well as in both the Swensons’ and the Hongs’ translations. Second, he interpolates section headings without indicating that they are interpolations. Third, despite the fact that he asserts in “A Note on the Translation” that he is not going to use a standard English language translation of the Bible (xxix), he uses a translation of James 1:17 that by contemporary standards is so awkward that although he repeats it verbatim where Kierkegaard uses it as section headings, he cannot himself stick to the wording in the body of the text.  The wording of the headings is “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the father of lights, in whom is no change or shadow of turning.” The problem, of course, is that contemporary readers expect a “there” between “whom” and “is no.” That expectation is so strong that Pattison inserts one himself when he quotes the passage in the body of the text at the top of page 13.

This awkward wording is undoubtedly from some recognized translation of the New Testament. Unfortunately, the reader doesn’t know which because Pattison doesn’t include a reference. Since he explains in his note on the translation that he’s not going to use a standard translation of the Bible, why didn’t he just edit this passage from James to make it more idiomatic?

Even more pressing is the question of why he didn’t use the wording from the King James translation. He explains that he wants to avoid archaic language and that is certainly laudable, but this passage from the King James translation is not particularly archaic and is more elegant than any later translation. It’s still missing the “there,” but that, again, could simply be interpolated. Its advantage over other translations is its use of “variableness” instead of “change.” The passage is difficult to translate from the Danish because the expressions Pattison translates as “change” and “turning,” “Forandring” and “Omskiftelse” respectively, both mean “change.” The translator thus has to be inventive to avoid a text that is awkwardly redundant. Pattison appears to have understood this and thus to have taken “turning” from some recognized translation of the Bible. Why not take “variableness” as well? It may be a less literal translation of “Forandring,” but it more accurately conveys the sense of Kierkegaard’s rendering of this passage from James.

Pattison has rather bizarre loyalties as a translator. He doesn’t want to violate the feeling of Kierkegaard’s original text by inserting archaisms where they do not appear in the original, but feels obliged to bring the text as much as possible into conformity with contemporary guidelines for the nonsexist use of language. Not only does this do at least as much violence to the text as would the insertion of archaisms, it occasionally renders it ungrammatical as is the case on the very first page where Pattison’s rendering of Kierkegaard’s text reads “These words are so beautiful, so eloquent, and so moving that it is certainly not their fault if the listener does not attend to them or they find no echo in our hearts.” The reader may wonder how “we” came in here. Well, “we” didn’t. The passage should read “if the listener does not attend to them or if they find no echo in his heart.” Pattison explains he’s going to substitute plural pronouns for singular ones in order to avoid the sexist use of language. He acknowledges that some readers may find this “inelegant” or even “barbaric” (xxxi). If by “barbaric” he means ungrammatical, then I am one of those readers and I suspect I am not alone.

If Pattison is, by his own account “somewhat free in adapting Kierkegaard’s often exclusive language to contemporary gender-inclusive usage” (xxx-xxxi), he is otherwise sometimes too literal as when he translates “suge Trøstens rige Næring af dem” as “suck the rich nourishment of comfort from them,” where “them” is understood to be the words of the aforementioned passage from James. Pattison’s translation is correct, but jarringly anatomical. Danish has fewer words than English so anatomical metaphors are not unusual in Danish. We have more choices in English, however, so we tend to have fewer overtly anatomical metaphors. Something along the lines of “draw from them the rich sustenance of consolation” would, I think, have been preferable.

Something similar happens with Pattison’s translation of “usund og skadelig Tilsætning” as “harmful additives.” “Tilsætning” is actually singular, so it should be “harmful additive.” Even if one corrects for that, however, the result is too pharmacological for my tastes. The Swensons’ “unsound and injurious decay” is less literal, but more elegant and hence more in keeping with the tone of the original.

Finally, Pattison’s translation of “al Guds Skabning er god” as “[a]ll God’s creatures are good” (14) is simply incorrect. “Skabing” is “creature” in the singular, but it can also be translated as “creation,” (see Ferrall-Repp. “Skabning”) and is properly so translated by the Swensons. The plural of “Skabning”–that is, “creatures”–is not “Skabning,” but “Skabninger.”

I could go on, but the rest of the problems I’ve found are similar to those listed above. There are good things, though, about the translation. It reads, for the most part, very naturally and the problems, at least in the first discourse, are all minor.  It is definitely an improvement on the Hongs’ translation and it is less expensive. My advice, however, if you do not yet have an English translation of Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses, is that you hunt down the Swensons’ translation on Abebooks–lots of copies are still available and for less even than the new Harper edition.

Tudvad Interview (Conclusion)

Piety: Were there anti-Semitic remarks in Kierkegaard’s published works or only in unpublished ones such as his journals?

Tudvad: Most of his anti-Semitic remarks are in his journals but quite a few can be found in his published works too. But I don’t think that it is really approprite to distinguish between these to parts of his authorship as he himself did not doubt that his diaries too would be published after his death. He even had a title for them: “The Book of the Judge”.

Piety: Has anyone advanced an argument that Kierkegaard was not anti-Semitic that is based on anything other than the claim that Kierkegaard’s remarks have to be placed in their historical context?

Tudvad: Yes, several have argued that anti-Semitism is a notion which was not defined until a couple of decades after Kierkegaard’s death, thus, he can not be labeled an anti-Semite. Others have argued that anti-Semitism is a purely racist concept, and that Kierkegaard almost never defines the Jews as a race. But today, in dictionaries of contemporary Danish, you do not define anti-Semitism as something purely racist, but rather as a hostile attitude towards Jews.

Piety: The English theologian George Pattison actually admitted in his article “Søren Kierkegaard was neither better nor worse than his times” that he had not read your book. Is that right?

Tudvad: Yes. – ”Neither better nor worse!” He was surely not worse than some people, and surely not better than quite a few liberal politicians, the ones who fought at the same time for a free constitution that would guarantee freedom of religion. Now, is it really a relevant argument that somebody, and especially one who is considered a genius and far ahead of his contemporaries, was neither better nor worse than his times? Would you excuse somebody living in Germany in the 1930’s or 1940’s the same way?

Piety: How many other people who published articles claiming that Kierkegaard was not anti-Semitic had actually read your book? How many admitted that they had not read it?

Tudvad: Until recently none of my critics had read the book but nobody did – without being explicitly asked – admit that they had not read the book. That does not mean that they pretended they had read the book, only that nobody seemed to care about having read the book or not. The conclusion was given: Kierkegaard was not an anti-Semite. So why read the book?

Piety: What do you think was the biggest problem that critics of the book had with it?

Tudvad: That I made clear a tight link between Kierkegaard’s theology and his anti-Semitism. People seemed to be surprised that anti-Semitism as such has it’s origin in Christianity. Maybe they are sincere, but if they are, they certainly do suffer from a heavy suppression of a historical fact. The Nazis did not invent anti-Semitism, did they?

Piety: Is there anything else you would like to say on this controversy to Anglo-American readers?

Tudvad: Yes, I’m very sad that I was not born in the US, where I could have raised this discussion without being met by so much ignorance and prejudice, so much unwillingness to discuss a rather important aspect of western civilization and the Christian religion.