Translation is difficult. This is particularly true of the translation of philosophical texts because even slight variations in the meaning of certain terms can have enormous philosophical significance. I heard a fascinating lecture by Jessica Moss at the University of Pennsylvania a few weeks ago that addressed this issue. It was on whether Plato’s epistêmê should be translated as “knowledge.” That seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Increasing scholarly attention is being focused, however, on precisely that issue, and Moss presented good arguments both for and against such a translation.
Sadly, there are no Greek-English dictionaries from Plato’s time to help scholars understand how to translate Plato.
Fortunately, we Kierkegaard scholars are better off. Unfortunately, few translators of Kierkegaard appear to refer to these dictionaries, with the result that many English translations of Kierkegaard are sometimes seriously misleading. This point was brought home to me with particular force just yesterday. I was reading chapter 4 of Hannay’s Postscript in preparation for the seminar I am teaching on Kierkegaard at Haverford, when I came across a passage that I found deeply puzzling.
The paradox-religious posits the contradiction between existence and the eternal absolutely; for the thought that the eternal is at a definite moment of time expresses precisely the abandonment of existence by the hidden immanence of the eternal. In the religious A the eternal is ubique et nusquam but hidden by the actuality of existence; in the paradox-religious the eternal is at a definite place, and precisely this is the breach with immanence (pp. 478-479).
The Danish for the passage is:
Det Paradox-Religieuse sætter Modsætningen absolut mellem Existentsen og det Evige; thi netop det at det Evige er i et bestemt Tids-Moment er Udtrykket for, at Existentsen er forladt af det Eviges skjulte Immanents. I det Religieuse A er det Evige ubique et nusquam, men skjult af Existentsens Virkelighed; i det Paradox-Religieuse er det Evige paa et bestemt Sted, og dette er netop Bruddet med Immanentsen. (SKS, AE)
I actually prefer the Hongs’ “paradoxically-religious” to Hannay’s “paradox-religious.” There is a problem, however, with the rendering of Kierkegaard’s Modsætningen as “contradiction” that, bizarrely, affects all three English translations of this passage in the Postscript. Modsætning, comes from the verb modsætte. Modsætte is actually a compound term comprised of the verb sætte, which means to “set” (as in to set something down), and mod, which means “against.” Modsætte thus literally means to set against (sætte mod), or to contrast.
And, indeed, modsætte is defined by Ferrall-Repp as “to oppose,” or “to contrast.” It’s modsigelse, not modsætning that means “contradiction.” One doesn’t even need to refer to Ferrall-Repp to confirm this. Vinterberg-Bodelsen makes this clear.
To render Modsætning as “contradiction” gives undue support to the erroneous view that there cannot be any point of contact, according to Kierkegaard, between time and eternity. Since Kierkegaard claims that “the moment” (Oieblik) is precisely such a point of contact, the rendering of Modsætning as “contradiction” would appear to support those who claim that Kierkegaard is advocating an extreme form of irrationalism where one is asked to believe things that are purportedly formally impossible.
The rendering of Modætning as “contradiction” isn’t the only problem with the passage in question. It wasn’t even the problem that concerned me most. What really troubled me was the reference to the “abandonment of existence by the hidden immanence of the eternal.” That can’t be right, I thought. The appearance of the God in time is not a rejection, but rather a redemption of existence.
Unlike the problem with the translation of Modsætning, however, I wasn’t sure how to fix the problem in the passage that referred to the “abandonment of existence” by the eternal. The Danish term that is translated as “abandonment” is actually forladt. Forladt comes from the verb forlade, which, according to Ferrall-Repp means “1. to leave, quit; 2. to forsake, abandon, desert;” but also “3. to pardon, forgive.” It was that last definition the grabbed me because the Danish for “the forgiveness of sins” is syndsforladelse.
That’s what Kierkegaard is talking about, I thought. The appearance of the eternal in time redeems existence. It doesn’t “abandon” it. The problem, I quickly discovered, is that no form of “forgive” works very well for forladt in this passage because Kierkegaard is clearly trying to emphasize the contrast, or opposition, between time and eternity, or between “existence” and eternity.
It’s possible that if anything is abandoned in the passage, it is the “hiddenness” of the eternal, rather than existence. The only problem with that reading is that the appearance of the eternal in time is not something that is directly perceptible according to Kierkegaard, so if the “hiddenness” of the eternal is abandoned by its appearance in time, this is in only a metaphorical sense.
I sat with my crumbling copy of Ferrall-Repp in my lap as I struggled to make sense of how best to translate this passage. I read and reread the definition of forlade hoping to find some term that would work, when suddenly, my eyes lit upon a second instance of forlade. Forlade actually appears twice in Ferrall-Repp (three times if one counts forlade sig paa, which means to depend on). The second instance has only one definition: “to overload.”
Eureka! That’s it, I thought. That is IT! That’s what he means. Not only is the “overloading of existence by the hidden immanence of the eternal” idiomatic (or as idiomatic as metaphysical language can get), it makes sense. The temporal manifestation of the eternal is referred to by Kierkegaard, following scripture, of course, as “the fullness of time” (Crumbs, 95). The eternal fills time to the bursting point, according to Kierkegaard, and indeed fills the individual to the bursting point “if he does not become a new person and a new vessel” (Crumbs, 109).
The “overloading” of existence by the eternal heightens the contrast between existence and the eternal in precisely the way Kierkegaard means to emphasize in this passage. My guess is that Kierkegaard’s choice of forladt was meant also to evoke in the reader the sense of “forgiven” as in the forgiveness of sins. What I don’t think he meant, however, was to suggest that the appearance of the eternal in time, or in existence, amounted to an abandonment of existence. That just doesn’t make sense.
So why does Hannay have “abandonment”? Hannay isn’t the only translator of the Postscript to make this mistake. Every English translation of the Postscript makes this mistake. Why all the English translators of the Postscript have gotten Modætning wrong remains a mystery. My guess, however, as to why they all get forladt wrong is because there is no second occurrence of forlade in contemporary Danish-English dictionaries. There isn’t in my Vinterberg-Bodelsen anyway. Forlade as “overload” appears to have fallen out of usage. That means even native speakers of Danish will very likely be inclined to misinterpret this passage of the Postscript.
This is a striking example of how important it is to use dictionaries that are contemporary with one’s source. The late George L. Kline, my M.A. thesis director at Bryn Mawr used to emphasize this over and over again. Thank you, George, for drilling this into me!