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A Comparison of Translations of Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits

I know I promised a blog post on some of the more outrageous of the Hongs’ translations bloopers. I will do that. I came across a problem with both published translations of Kierkegaard’s Opbyggelige Taler I forskjellig Aand, however, in the process of preparing one of my own articles for publication in a book entitled Kierkegaard’s God and The Good Life (eds. Stephen Minister, J. Aaron Simmons, and Michael Strawser), and since I already had the data on it, I figured I might as well turn that data into a blog post, so here it is.

The passage in question comes from the section of the taler that was translated separately as Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing by Douglas V. Steere back in the 1930s. It was published by Harper and Row in 1938 and came out as a Harper Torchbook in 1956. Here is Steere’s translation of the passage:

In the recognition that contemplation and reflection are the distance of eternity away from time and actuality, there is indeed a truth; the knower can understand that truth, but he cannot understand himself. It is certain that without this recognition a man’s life is more or less thoughtless. But it is also certain that this recognition, because it is in a spurious eternity before the imagination, develops double-mindedness, if it is not slowly and honestly earned by the will’s purity (Steere, p. 116-117).

Steere’s translation, unsurprisingly, reads much better than the Hongs’. Here’s what the Hongs have:

In the knowledge. as contemplation and deliberation, that is the distance of eternity from time and actuality, there presumably is truth, and the knower can understand the truth in it, but he cannot understand himself. It is true that without this knowledge a person’s life is more or less devoid of thought, but it is also true that this knowledge, because it is a counterfeit eternity for the imagination, develops double-mindedness if it is not honestly gained slowly through purity of the will (Hongs’ p. 74)

Unfortunately, neither translation completely captures the meaning of the original. Here is the Danish:

I den Erkjendelse, der, som Betragtning og Overveielse, er paa Evighedens Afstand fra Tid og Virkelighed, er der vel Sandhed, den Erkjendende kan forstaae Sandheden deri, men han kan ikke forstaae sig selv. Det er vist, at uden denne Erkjendelse er et Menneskes Liv mere eller mindre tankeløst men det er ogsaa vist, at denne Erkjendelse, fordi den er i en forfalsket Evighed for Indbildningen, udvikler Tvesindetheden, dersom den ikke redeligen erhverves langsomt ved Villiens Reenhed. (SKS vol. 8.)

Steere’s rendering of “Erkjendelse” as “recognition” is fine, but the recognition in question is not that “contemplation and reflection are the distance of eternity away from time and actuality.” The Hongs’ appear to have gotten that right, anyway. Unfortunately, they got the article wrong. The definite article in Danish is enclitic. That means “the knowledge” would be “Erkjendelsen” (or “erkendelsen” in modern Danish). The “den” in “den Erkjendelse” is a demonstrative adjective. That means “[i] den Erkjendelse” translates literally as “in this knowledge.”

It’s bad form, of course, to start a paragraph with a demonstrative adjective, but Kierkegaard doesn’t actually do that here. Both English translations insert paragraph breaks that are not in the original. The beginning of the long paragraph in the Danish text of which this passage is a part talks about how a double-minded person might actually have “knowledge of the good” (Erkjendelse af det Gode, the emphasis is in the original). It’s this knowledge to which Kierkegaard refers at the beginning of the next paragraph. Hence the translation should read something like this:

In this knowledge, which, as contemplation and deliberation, is the distance of eternity away from time and actuality, there is indeed truth, and the knower can understand this truth, but he cannot understand himself. It is true that without this knowledge a person’s life is more or less thoughtless, but it is also true that this knowledge, because it is in the spurious eternity of the imagination, develops double-mindedness if it is not slowly and honestly earned through the will’s purity.

Steere got “Overveielse” wrong and the Hongs got it right. “Overveielse” is deliberation, not reflection. So that’s one for the Hongs. Unfortunately, the Hongs bizarrely interpolate “presumably” in the passage. There is nothing in the Danish that corresponds to it. The Hongs also erroneously translate “for” in “for Indbildning” as “for.” The Danish “for” is a preposition and prepositions are notoriously difficult to translate. Hell, they’re difficult even in one’s native tongue. I have a book of English prepositional phrases that I used almost constantly when I worked as a translator for the translation center at the University of Copenhagen. Anyway, the Danish “for” generally means “to,” but can also mean “too,” as in “det er for meget” (that is too much), and sometimes “for” as in “for tiden” (for the time being). It clearly doesn’t mean “for” here, however, because the “spurious eternity” in question is that of thought. That is, a person’s knowledge of the good is not presented to the imagination in some inexplicable counterfeit or spurious eternity. The spurious eternity is that of the imagination, or thought, itself. Thought, dealing as it does according to Kierkegaard, with abstract entities, has a kind of Platonic eternality to it. And yet, this is misleading, according to Kierkegaard, because all thought is some particular individual’s thought. A person can’t climb, so to speak, into eternity through thought, according to Kierkegaard, but only through faith.

There are lots of legitimate choices for a translator too make, here, however. Steere sticks more closely to the Danish in translating “vist” as “certain,” whereas the Hongs translate it as “true.” I think the latter translation is defensible, however, and that the resultant text reads a little more naturally. “Counterfeit” is just as good as “spurious,” but I prefer the latter for stylistic reasons. This little passage should give you, the reader, a good idea, however, of just how difficult and confusing translating can be.

Speaking of how difficult translation can be, I will soon put up a post comparing a passage from my translation of Repetition with the Hongs’ translation. I’m particularly proud of how I handled this little passage because, as I will endeavor to make clear, it was REALLY difficult to translate!

Kierkegaard on “Dialectic”

A reader wrote recently to inquire about what Kierkegaard meant by “dialectic.” That’s a good question because whatever he means, it is clearly not the same thing that Hegel famously means by this term. First, I have to say that like so many of Kierkegaard’s favorite terms, it does not appear to have a single meaning.

“Dialectic,” or more correctly, Dialektik, comes originally from the Greek διαλεκτική, dialektikē, so you won’t find it in Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordbog, the standard Danish dictionary from Kierkegaard’s time, but must turn to Ludvig Meyer’s Fremmedordbog (dictionary of foreign words) from 1853. Meyer defines Dialektik as “samtalekunst” (i.e., the art of conversation), as well as “Fornuftlære,” “Tankelære,” “Logik” (the first two translate literally as, ”teachings of reason,” and ”teachings of thought, ” but are probably best translated as ”informal logic,” while Logik is best translated as “formal logic”). In Plato, continues Meyer, Dialektik refers to “higher speculative philosophy,” whereas in Aristotle and more recent thinkers it refers to “probability theory” as well as “eristic,” “sophistry” and “casuistry.”

Interestingly, Kierkegaard never seems to use Dialektik in the last two pejorative senses. My guess is that that is not because a dialectical contemplation of something could never lead one way from the truth, but because of the high esteem in which he appears to have held ancient skepticism. That is, a dialectical contemplation of any question that does not admit of a clear and uncontroversial answer, will ultimately bring the individual back to him or herself and in that way accentuate the role of decision and the will.

There is an extremely helpful Terminologisk Register, or glossary, by Jens Himmelstrup in the second half of volume 15 of the second edition of Kierkegaard’s Samlede Værker. The glossary contains a long entry on Dialektik. Himmelstrup explains here that the term comes originally from the Greek διαλέγομαι, dialegomai, meaning “to carry on a conversation with someone.” “The term,” he continues, “became associated with Socrates, in that he employed the art of conversation, or dialogue, in his activity as a philosopher which was generally aimed at achieving clarity concerning the precise meaning of individual terms and concepts.”

Himmelstrup then proceeds to give a brief history of the meaning of the term in philosophy. What is important for our purposes here, however, is what he says concerning its meaning for Kierkegaard. Sometimes, he explains, “dialectic” refers to “purely logical determinations” (I presume that by this he means it refers to formal opposites such as a and ~a). Other examples he gives of Kierkegaard’s use of the term suggest it means something more like “dynamic,” as when Kierkegaard writes in the first volume of Either-Or: “Love from the soul has, secondly, yet another dialectic, for it differs in relation to every single individual who is the object of love” (This reference is from Alastair Hannay’s translation for Penguin. Even though the ebook version provides only a location number [1587-1588] rather than a page number, the Hongs’ translation of this passage is so tortured that I could not bring myself to use it. This is probably also a good place to point out that neither the Hongs’ “psychical love” nor Hannay’s “love from the soul” is a particularly felicitous translation of Kierkegaard’s “sjælelig Elskov.” That expression is probably best translated simply as “romantic love”).

Suffice it to say in answer to the question of what Kierkegaard means by the term “dialectic,” that the meaning appears to be as protean as is the meaning of the term “knowledge.” That’s not to say that Kierkegaard equivocates on its meaning, but simply, as I explain in Ways of Knowing, that Kierkegaard was extremely sensitive to how fluid are the meanings of most terms in everyday speech and that he abhorred the tendency of academics to artificially fix meanings.

Stay tuned for my next blog post “Those Crazy Hongs!” an examination of how the Hongs (or more likely Howard Hong) could conceivably have rendered “Sandselig Genialitet, bestemmet som Forførelse” as “The Elementary Originality of the Sensuous Qualified as Seduction.”

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.)


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.