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“Disciple” vs. “Follower” in Philosophical Crumbs

imagesI’m teaching an upper-level seminar on Kierkegaard this term. The text for the course is my own translation of Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009). We’re reading Crumbs right now. One of my students, Victoria Godwin, asked what I thought was a very good question about the translation, so I thought I would share my answer with readers of this blog.

The Crumbs, as most readers will remember, looks at what Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus) asserts are two exhaustive and mutually exclusive interpretations of how people are related to the truth. The first interpretation he presents is what he calls the “Socratic” one. According to this interpretation, people are assumed basically to possess the truth, but to have contingently forgotten it. They thus need only to remember the truth, not to have it imparted to them by a teacher. This, of course, is the famous Platonic “doctrine of recollection,” or anamnesis. According to this interpretation, the role of a “teacher” in helping a person to remember the truth is merely what Kierkegaard calls “assisting” (105). The teacher and the student/learner/pupil are essentially equal.

The problem, according to Kierkegaard, is that the Socratic interpretation makes both the point in time at which a person “recollects” the truth and the “teacher” who helps occasion the “recollection” unimportant. This is not, in itself, a problem. The Eleatics, and in fact many people throughout the history of philosophy right up to the present have no problem with this. Even Kierkegaard does not suggest that this interpretation of our relation to the truth is inherently problematic. It’s a problem only for a reader who is already committed to an account of existence that attributes decisive significance to the point in time at which one comes to understand the truth, and requires that this understanding be facilitated by a “teacher” of equally decisive significance. This, of course, is precisely what Christianity does and Kierkegaard’s note at the end of the first chapter of Crumbs makes clear that he assumes his readers would immediately recognize that.

That is, Crumbs is a straightforwardly theological work despite what are obviously the disingenuous protestations of Climacus, the pseudonymous author. Hence the “learner” (Lærende) referred to in Kierkegaard’s explication of the “Socratic” interpretation of the relation of the individual to the truth, becomes the “disciple” (Discipelen) on the “alternative” view. From then on, the discussion concerns the relation between the “the god” and “the disciple.”

So back to my student. Victoria asked why sometimes the person whose relation to the truth was in question was referred to as a “learner” and other times as a “disciple.” The answer, of course, is that those two different characterizations appear in the original text. The reason this might be difficult to appreciate is that Howard Hong’s translation of Philosophiske Smuler (Philosophical Fragments, Princeton, 1985) obscures this fact. David Swenson’s translation of Smuler from 1936 translates Discipelen consistently as “disciple,” but Hong’s translation consistently renders Discipelen as “follower.”

“Follower,” isn’t dead wrong, of course, but it’s misleading to the extent that it obscures the explicitly theological nature of the work. Hong appears to have deliberately desired to do this in that he inserts a footnote to explain his preference for “follower.” “The Danish term Discipel,” writes Hong, “means ‘pupil,’ ‘learner,’ ‘apprentice,’ ‘follower,’ and ‘disciple.’ Here and elsewhere in Fragments (except for references to the relation of teacher and pupil or learner), ‘follower’ is most appropriate” (Philosophical Fragments, p. 281 note 38). Hong gives no justification, however, for his preference for “follower” over the English cognate “disciple.” He just claims “follower” is better.

“Disciple” is, actually the third of the three possible translations listed in the Ferrall-Repp A Danish-English Dictionary from 1845 (Hong would appear to have been relying on a 20th-century Danish-English dictionary). The first two are “pupil” and “scholar.” “Follower” is not listed as an acceptable translation, and the context of the appearance of this term in Crumbs makes it clear that “Disciple” is the most appropriate of the three suggested translations. “Pupil” is too close to Kierkegaard’s “Lærende” (i.e., “learner”) and would thus obscure the distinction he was trying to make with the the two terms “Lærende” and “Discipelen,” and “scholar” is obviously wildly inappropriate. So Hong’s claim that “follower” is a better translation of “Discipelen” than is “Disciple” is just wrong. It is worse because it makes the work less obviously theological than it is. Contemporary Western society has become so secular that that in itself makes it difficult for readers to appreciate how thoroughly religious was all of Kierkegaard’s authorship. The Hong translation of Philosophiske Smuler simply exacerbates this problem.

My guess is that Hong hoped to appeal to a broader audience by making the work less obviously theological. I fear that may amount, however, to throwing the baby out with the bathwater in that it encourages misinterpretations of what is perhaps the most central work in Kierkegaard’s corpus. This takes us into the area of translation theory. Should a translator adapt a work to appeal to a specific audience, or should he or she endeavor to represent the work in a manner that most closely approximates its original character? I’m a proponent of the latter approach. If a translator thinks he can improve on an author’s work, I think he should go write his own book!

Observations on the Various Editions of Kierkegaard’s Collected Works

SV 2 two pages

There are now four different Danish editions of Kierkegaard collected works. The first edition, edited by A.B. Drachman, J.L. Heiberg, and H.O. Lang was published by Gyldendal between 1901-1906 and comprised 14 volumes. The second edition, published between 1920-1936, was essentially a corrected version of the first edition with the inclusion of a very helpful fifteenth volume that contained author and subject indexes for all the individual volumes as well as a glossary of the more important terms in Kierkegaard’s authorship.

A third inexpensive popular edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works in 20 volumes was published in the 1960s. This edition was never intended for use by scholars and is marred by numerous errors that were more than likely a result of how quickly the edition was produced (one volume per month according to Tony Aalgaard Olesen).

The second edition is generally considered to be the best of the collected works as well as the most readily available. It’s still possible to find it in used bookstores in Denmark for a reasonable price. A casual web search I did just now turned up three copies at Vangsgaards Antikvariat for between 1,000DK and 1,800DK (approximately $150-$300).

The first edition is still preferred by scholars, however, because the second edition, produced as it was during a period of the resurgence of Nordic nationalism was printed in Blackletter, or Gothic type, and many contemporary scholars find that difficult to read. The English translations of Kierkegaard supervised by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong and published by Princeton University Press in the ‘80s and ’90s thus have page correlation numbers to the first, rather than the second, edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works.

Unfortunately, the first edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works is increasingly difficult to find and generally very expensive. Fortunately, there is a new edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works. This new edition, produced by the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen is distinguished from the earlier editions by a new title. Whereas all three earlier collected works were titled Søren Kierkegaards Samlede Værker (literally Søren Kierkegaard’s collected works, or SV), the new edition is titled Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter (Søren Kierkegaard’s writings, or SKS).

There is much to recommend the new edition. The individual volumes have been beautifully produced, at least from an aesthetic standpoint, and each is accompanied by a helpful companion volume of commentary. The edition purports to be a “critical” one, but unfortunately falls short of that ideal. It was produced too quickly to ensure the kind of quality that is requisite for a critical edition and the editorial staff was generally too inexperienced in that type of work. The 55 volumes were produced between 1997 and 2013, or 16 short years compared, for example, to the critical edition of Kant writings on which work began in 1900 and is apparently still continuing!

The haste with which this new edition was produced is likely the explanation for problems such as the one I identified in the notes to my translation of Kierkegaard’s Repetition. The fictional narrator of that work refers to the “disappearance” of the young man who was the subject of his observations. “[D]isappearance,” as I explain in a note, was originally “death.” Kierkegaard apparently changed “death” (Død) to “disappearance” (Forsvinden) after learning that his former fiancée, Regine Olsen, had become engaged. SKS has Forvinden (recovery), however, rather than Forsvinden. The original 1843 edition of Repetition, on the other hand, has Forsvinden, not Forvinden and since there is no explanation for the change in SKS, it appears it’s simply an error.

So the new edition is not perfect. The critical apparatus is extensive, but somewhat arbitrary in what it includes and does not include and the price for all 55 volumes (at approximately $100 each) is prohibitively expensive. Despite this, however, it will become the standard scholarly edition because not only can volumes be purchased individually, but the entire edition is available in searchable form online! For that reason alone, I find myself often referring to it.

In my opinion, however, the most reliable text is still that of the second edition. The type takes a little getting used to, but not so long as many people seem to fear. I’m very fortunate, actually, in that not only do I have a second edition in excellent condition, someone actually went through my edition and put page correlation numbers to the first edition in the margins. I kid you not, there are page correlation numbers on every single page of every single volume. Not only are there these numbers, whoever put them there also put a tiny mark at the point in the line of the text where the new page began.

You can see these lines, just barely, in the photo above. There’s one between “saa” and “aldeles” on the page at the left, and another after the dash and just before “Om” on the page at the right. Pretty cool, eh! My theory is that my copy of the second edition must have been used in the production of the page correlation tables in the third edition, or in Alastair McKinnon’s concordances. It’s hard to imagine someone would have undertaken the labor involved in putting in all those numbers unless he were being paid to do so. I’m grateful to whoever did it though. I can now quickly check the accuracy of the Hongs’ translations even though they include page correlation numbers only to the first edition.

This extremely rare (very likely one of a kind) copy of the second edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works is only one of the many antiquarian treasures I collected while I lived in Denmark. I plan to write about more of my treasures later.

Interview with Peter Tudvad

As I mentioned last week, Peter Tudvad was in New York recently doing research for his forthcoming book on Bonhoeffer. He graciously consented to be interviewed about the controversy surrounding his new book on Kierkegaard and anti-Semitism. The first part of that interview is below. I will post the second part next week.

Piety: Not much is known in the English-speaking world about the controversy over your new book. Can you give a brief summary of it?

Tudvad: That might be difficult as the row lasted for about two months, and was very intense. A newspaper, Berlingske Tidende, published an interview with me about three weeks before the book was actually published. The reporter was shocked by the quotations I had included in the preface, which I let him see, such as Kierkegaard writing that the Jews were typically usurers and as such bloodthirsty, that they had a penchant for money (due to an abstract character, as Kierkegaard supposes), and that they dominated the Christians. As I told the reporter, Kierkegaard was of the opinion that the Jews would eventually kill the European Christians – something which he wrote in an entry in his diary, but which was omitted from the Hong’s translation, I guess on purpose – and that they had an extraordinary sexual appetite and thus many children. They were, according to Kierkegaard, mundane and had no real spirit, no quest for the eternal bliss.

Never mind, the former head of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center at the University of Copenhagen, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, was interviewed too for the very same edition of the newspaper, and he actually agreed with me that what Kierkegaard had said about the Jews was something which we today must term antisemitism. He agreed, too, that the reason that we have seldom discussed this aspect of his theology might be that we were afraid of damaging his image, his reputation, thus losing the prostrate respect many have for one of the few internationally renowned Danish authors. Nevertheless, the day after, in another newspaper, Cappelørn said the opposite. Many other people seemed to be offended by my labelling Kierkegaard as an antisemite and began polemicising against me without ever having read my book. Especially theologians were eager to make the case smaller than I think it is, saying that it was only in entries in Kierkegaard’s private diary that he wrote bad things about the Jews – which, by the way, is not true, even though I don’t see why we should not discuss his “private” antisemitism, when we have discussed so many other “private” aspects of his thoughts. His diaries have always been considered a key to the understanding of his published works, so if one, for example, with the help of his entries can link his antisemitisme with his theology, and vice versa, I think we really ought to discuss the problem seriously

The rest of the interview with Tudvad will appear next week.