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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.


Tudvad Interview (Part 2)

Piety: Your new book, Stadier på Antisemitismens vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne is not simply about Kierkegaard. It’s a comprehensive look at attitudes toward Jews and Judaisim in 19th-Century Denmark. Are there other books that do this, or is yours the first?

Tudvad: As I far as I know, this is the first comprehensive look at the way people – theologians, philosophers, politicians, publishers, authors, etc. – described the Jews in the so-called Golden Age in Denmark (i.e., Danish romanticism). Of course you may find quite a few articles about aspects of this topic, e.g. the “eternal” or “wandering Jew” as a literary figure, but I’m quite sure that until now nobody tried to see all of it as parts of one single question, the Jewish question (even though it was seldom addressed in exactly this way, there certainly was a continuous discussion in Denmark of the Jews and their position in the Danish society, in particular in relation to the church and Christianity as the dominant religion).

I try, in my book, to trace the sources of the question in order to identify possible agendas which might reveal things like that, for example, a political discussion, underneath the surface, is in fact a cultural or theological one. The best work on some of these matters is no doubt professor Martin Schwarz Lausten’s thorough study of the relation between the Christians and Jews in Denmark from 1814 to 1849, i.e. from the formal equation of Christians and Jews in civic matters until Jews were accorded full civil rights in the first free constitution. I rely naturally very much on this excellent work.

Piety: Reviews, or at least articles about the book began to appear before the book did itself. How did people get word of the book’s appearance? Did the publisher send out review copies in advance of the book’s release?

Tudvad: As I just told you, a newspaper published an interview with me about the book about three weeks before the book appeared. Shortly after that, a PDF file of the book was sent to the major newspapers and handed over to the reviewers. We had some troubles with the printing of the book, thus a copy of the book itself was not posted until about a week before the publication on Nov 9. The reviewers naturally did not interfere in the row, which would have discredited them as reviewers. Nobody among the many persons who spoke out on the case had had the opportunity to read the book, except one who – if I am not wrong – all of a sudden stopped commentating on it, after he had received it, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn. I made the publisher send him a copy in advance although he was naturally not supposed to review it. I just thought that he might change his mind if he took a close look at the book, i.e. return to his original point of view.

Piety: Do you think Kierkegaard was anti-Semitic? If so, in what sense?

Tudvad: Yes, I do. Sure he was not a kind of anti-Semite as the Nazis. He hated any kind of collectivism, and he would certainly not have participated in the pogrom in 1938. Nevertheless, I published my book on November 9, i.e. on the anniversary of the Kristallnacht in 1938, but my point was, that anti-Semitism and pogroms are not exclusively a German phenomenon. We had one, a pogrom, in Denmark in 1819 too, which was so severe that the king had to declare Copenhagen, his capital, in a state of emergency. The city was under a curfew for several weeks, and the military patrolled the streets of Copenhagen. Nobody was killed, thanks to the king and the military, but many Jews were injured, their houses vandalized, and a lot of rioters sentenced to prison. Before the pogrom in 1819 we had experienced a long period of literary attacks on the Jews, something which, so to speak, fertilized the ground for the physical attacks. My point is, that Danes are not less disposed to anti-Semitism than Germans, Poles, Russians or any other peoples, and that words are not harmless. So, Kierkegaard’s words are not harmless either. Some Danish Nazis actually referred to him in 1940 as their ally against the Jews.

(I will post the rest of my interview with Tudvad on Friday.)