The Lily of the Field and the Snake in the Grass

Arts and Letters is a great website that publishes blurbs about interesting articles that are available online and posts links to those articles at the end of the blurb. I have made it the homepage of my browser so that I can stay up to date concerning what is being published in the humanities. I haven’t been keeping up with it recently, however, because I’ve had so much work to do. I’m home sick today, though, and when I opened my browser to get to Blackboard (the online learning platform Drexel uses) to email my students that I was cancelling class, I was surprised to see a blurb about an article on Kierkegaard.

As it turns out, the article is a review in the Times Literary Supplement of two new books on Kierkegaard, and a new translation of some of his religious discourses. The books are Mark Bernier’s The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard (Oxford, 2015) and Sheridan Hough’s Kierkegaard’s Dancing Tax Collector (Oxford, 2015). The translation is of the discourses published under the title The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air (Princeton, 2016). It isn’t a particularly good review. The titles of the books are intriguing, but there is little indication of their content in the review. In fact, the “review” is basically a very short summary of Kierkegaard’s life and works that isn’t always even correct. Will Rees, the author of the review, identifies Either-Or as Kierkegaard’s “first book.” Either-Or was preceded, however, by first Af en endu Levendes Papirer (From the Papers of One Still Living) (1838), and Om Begrebet Ironi (On the Concept of Irony) (1841).

As a child, observes Rees,

Kierkegaard was sensitive, sulky, ironical and precocious. In other words, he had precisely that youthful temperament which, while not a sufficient condition, is nonetheless a necessary condition for the later burgeoning of genius.

Really, I’m not kidding you. He actually says that. He says that all geniuses are necessarily “sensitive, sulky, ironical, and precocious” as children. It may well be that such traits are more pervasive among people who later prove to be “geniuses” (whatever it is, exactly, that that means). It strains credulity, however, to assert without qualification that all geniuses have such traits as children.

Rees also repeats the trope that Kierkegaard renounced the joys of “earthly life” in order to pursue his vocation as an author. Kierkegaard does occasionally speak this way himself. It is clear, however, that what Kierkegaard actually renounced was the not the joys of “earthly” life, but of a conventional life. That is, he renounced the joys of marriage and a family for those of a literary life. Kierkegaard was no ascetic. He ate well and dressed well. He relied on the services of a personal secretary and lived in relative luxury. In fact, he occasionally justified the expenditures associated with this lifestyle as necessary to sustain his creative productivity.

Rees explains that Kierkegaard’s assertion that “truth is subjectivity” is often misunderstood, yet his own explanation of the meaning of this assertion is confusing. It doesn’t mean, he explains, that “something becomes true by virtue of my saying or believing it to be true.” What it means, he continues, is that “beliefs acquire truth only in relation to the individual’s lived orientation toward them.” What’s the difference? Isn’t my believing something to be true more or less equivalent to my having a “lived orientation” toward it? I suppose that depends, at least in part, on what one means by “belief” and “lived orientation.” What is missing from Rees’ explanation is the very thing the omission of which has led to the pervasive erroneous understanding of this statement. Only what Kierkegaard refers to as “subjective truth” requires an individual’s lived orientation toward it. There’s a whole host of objective truths, according to Kierkegaard, as I explain in my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology, that require no such orientation.

The strangest part of Rees’ review, however, is that it fails to indicate the translator of the one translation included in the books being reviewed. Rees mentions the translation is “new,” but not who did it. This is a clear departure from the normal editorial practice of the TLS (see, for example, “They do the war in different voices,” “Storm and stress,” and “Orphaned solemnity,” September 30, 2016). That omission was less puzzling to me after I looked up the book on PUP’s website. The translator is none other than Bruce H. Kirmmse.

Princeton’s website describes Kirmmse as “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars.” If Kirmmse is “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators,” it’s odd that a review of a translation by him would fail to mention that he was the translator. Could it be that the TLS actually wanted to avoid calling attention to the identity of the translator? Readers of this blog are likely aware that there would be a good reason for this. Kirmmse effectively bought the title of “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars” with the currency of his ethics.

Kirmmse didn’t become “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars” until after he translated a controversial Danish biography of Kierkegaard into English. As I explained in an article in Counterpunch back in 2005, there is reason to believe that Kirmmse deliberately tried to obscure that the author of that biography had plagiarized some of the book from earlier biographies. If he didn’t do this, then the anomalies described in the Counterpunch piece in Kirmmse’s translation suggest he’s not a particularly good translator.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography. Let’s assume he just isn’t all that good a translator. Being a mediocre translator isn’t a crime. But even if we assume Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography, he’s still guilty of failing to support the scholar who exposed the plagiarisms in the Danish media.

Of course failing to act in a way one ought to have done is not so bad as actually doing something one ought not to do. Unfortunately, Kirmmse is guilty of the latter as well as the former crime. He defamed me in an article entitled “M.G. Pietys skam” (M.G. Piety’s shame) in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen, when I discovered that the plagiarized passages remained in his English translation of the Kierkegaard biography Kirmmse had translated and began to write about this. The article is a straightforward piece of character assassination designed to divert the attention of Danish readers from the issue of the problems with the biography and the promise of the author to fix those problems before the work was translated. The piece appeared only in Danish, for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who reads my English translation of the article in an earlier post to this blog entitled “Bruce Kirmmse’s Shame.”

I don’t know whether Princeton knew of the controversy surrounding the book in Denmark when they agreed to publish an English translation of it. They should have, of course, but that doesn’t mean they did. They had learned of the problems with the book, however, by 2006 because Peter Dougherty, the head of PUP sent me a letter in which he explained that the then forthcoming paperback included “some 58 pages of corrections.” That’s a lot of “corrections.” You will search in vain, however, for any indication that the paperback is actually a new, or “corrected,” edition.

So there you have it. There’s good reason why the TLS might prefer that the name of the translator not be mentioned in the review of the translation. Perhaps Kirmmse ought to take a leaf from Kierkegaard’s book and start using a pseudonym.

Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks–OH NO!

I have only the first volume of the new English translations of Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks published by Princeton University Press and the reason I have that volume is that I was given a free copy by the Scottish Journal of Theology when I agreed to review it for them. The editors include some scholars, such as Alastair Hannay and Vanessa Rumble, who have an excellent command of Danish. I was suspicious, however, of the rate at which they were cranking out the translations.

Translation is hard work. Good translations take some time to produce. It was hard for me to imagine that anyone could translate all of Kierkegaard’s journals and papers in the short time Princeton had projected it would take and actually do a decent job. The first volume in the Princeton series appeared in 2007. Since then, nine of the projected 11 volumes have appeared. That’s more than a volume a year.

I’ve not made a serious study of these new translations of Kierkegaard’s journals, since I did my review of the fist volume. I generally work with the original Danish versions that are available for free in searchable editions online. I’m working on a paper on humor in Kierkegaard right now, however, and I ran across a passage from one of Kierkegaard’s journals that I wanted to use for my article. The late, and venerable George Kline taught me that even if one has an excellent command of a particular language, if there exists a definitive English translation of a work in that language from which one wishes to quote, it is incumbent upon one to use the language of the translation. It’s a courtesy to the reader. If everyone who knew German, for example, did his own translations of Kant when quoting Kant, those poor souls who did not know German would have a hard time locating the passage in question. So I figured that I should use the wording of the new Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks and dutifully looked up the passage that was, fortuitously, in the one volume of KJN that I happened to own. The translation reads as follows:

Humor is irony taken to its maximum vibration. Although the Xn aspect is the real primus motor, there are still people in a Christian Europe who have not come to describe more than irony, which is why they have also been unable to practice the absolutely isolated humor that subsists in the person alone.

That sounds kind of weird, doesn’t it? What is “the absolutely isolated humor that subsists in the person alone”? That doesn’t even sound like English, does it? I worked for many years as a translator when I lived in Denmark. I also know a little bit about translation theory. If I ever teach translation, or translation theory, which I hope one day to do, I am going to drill home to my students that translations should never sound awkward unless the original is awkward.

As I said, translation can be very difficult. It took me several days to come up with my translation of the passage from Repetition that I referred to in the blog post from 5 December 2015 Since, however, a translation is going to be around for a very long time, haste in seeing it to press is unadvisable. How does that saying go: “Translate in haste, repent in leisure”?

Here is the Danish for the passage in question:

Humoren er den til sin største Vibration gjennemførte Ironie, og omendskjøndt det Χhristelige er den egl. primus motor, saa kan der desuagtet findes i et christeligt Europa Folk, som ikke er kommen til at beskrive mere end Ironien, og derfor hell. ikke have kunnet gjenemføre den absolut-isolerede, personlig-ene-bestaaende Humor, d. 4 Aug. 37.

Here is my translation:

Humor is irony taken to its maximum vibration. Even though Christianity [det Xhristelige] is the genuine primus motor [prime moving force], it is still possible to find peoples in Christian Europe who have come no further than describing irony and who are hence incapable of achieving the absolutely isolated, uniquely personal humor.

My wording of the first sentence is identical to the wording of KJN. After that, the two translations diverge. There is nothing in the Danish that corresponds to KJN’s “aspect.” That’s an attempt on the part of the translator, or translators, to make sense of Kierkegaard’s “det Xhristlige” which translates literally as “the Christian” where “Christian” functions as an adjective. The thing is, there is no noun that it qualifies, so the translator simply added “aspect” without indicating that it was added. That in itself is no great crime (though it is a crime, interpolated material should be enclosed within brackets). The problem is, that it is actually misleading rather than helpful.

All genuine humor, according to Kierkegaard, has its foundation in Christianity. I won’t try to defend that claim here, suffice it to say in this context that it does. Kierkegaard is not talking here about some aspect of humor being Christian. How could some “aspect” of irony or humor be the “prime mover” that propels irony into the territory of humor? The prime mover has to be fundamental to the thing in question, not merely an “aspect” of it.

The “a” in front of “Christian Europe” is literally correct, but it’s unnecessary. What other kind of Europe was there? Danish, like German, uses articles more often than does English so to include them all in a translation is not only unnecessary, it yields a translation that is unidiomatic.

“[D]escribing” is a toughie. The Danish term in question is “beskrive,” a cognate of “describe.” It appears, in this context, to mean “describe” in the sense of “describing an arc.” That is, it appears to mean something like “exhibiting,” or better, “performing.” In fact, I think it means something closer to “understanding,” I was, therefore, tempted to use “understanding” instead of the more literal “describing.” What decided me against that was the fact that an astute reader could figure that out by him, or herself. Generally, a translator should not interpret the text for the reader unless that is the only way of making it comprehensible. There are often instances in which that is the only way to make a text comprehensible, but this did not seem to me to be one of them.

“Folk” unequivocally refers, however, to “a people,” and not to “people.” It’s a stab at the Danish people as a group. They are the “Folk” in “Christian Europe” to which Kierkegaard is snidely referring. If he had meant “people,” he’d have written “mennesker” (or “Mennesker” given that he was writing in the nineteenth century).

The worst problem with this translation, however, is the very last part: “the absolutely isolated humor that subsists in the person alone.” Really? That’s the best this august translation team could come up with? It doesn’t even sound like English. The minimum criterion for an English translation, it seems to me, is that it should sound like English, even if the translator needs to be rather free in the translation in order to achieve that effect. What is bizarre about the KJN version of this passage is that it is not, in fact, as one might expect, a literal translation. The Danish is: “den absolut-isolerede, personlig-ene-bestaaende Humor.” That translates literally as: “the absolutely isolated, uniquely personal humor.” Really, I kid you not. “[P]ersonlig” you can probably figure out for yourself, and “ene-bestaaende” translates as “unique.” Don’t take my word for it. Type it (or the contemporary “enebestaende”) into Google translate.

My guess is that the translators elected to use “subsists in the person alone” rather than the literal “uniquely personal” because Kierkegaard’s text has “personlig-ene-bestaaende” rather than “personlig enebestaaende.” That is, Kierkegaard appears to want to highlight the root words of “enebestaaende”: “ene” (which according to Ferrall-Repp means “alone, by oneself, solely”) and “bestaaende” (which according to Ferrall-Repp means “to consist in; to consist – be composed of; to subsist, exist, continue, endure”).

This shows the limits, however, of translation because while Kierkegaard can emphasize the parts of “enebestaaende” without losing the whole, a translation cannot do this. The translators, in this instance, appear to have elected to emphasize the parts, with the effect that they have lost the whole. Not only have they lost the whole, they’ve diminished what one could call the music of the text in the process. It is the chief sin of the Hongs’ translations, I believe, that they very often lose the music of the originals. Unfortunately, this would appear to be a problem with these new translations of Kierkegaard’s journals as well.

I don’t mean to suggest here that all the text of the new KJN is as bad as this particular passage. It isn’t. It is very disappointing, however, to see stuff like this in new translations when the point of producing new translations is precisely to make improvements on earlier translations.

Once Upon a Time in Denmark

j9987For as long as I can remember I’ve had what Kierkegaard would call “an extraordinary hankering” to get into The New York Review of Books. In fact, my entire literary and scholarly production: my translation, my book, my many articles and two blogs, has been one long and elaborate attempt to attract the attentions of Robert Silvers, the editor of the Review, in the hope that my work would so impress him that he would decide to add me to his stable of reviewers. So when I saw that Princeton University Press had released a new edition of Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary with a foreword by John Updike, I was immediately reminded of the one time I did actually make it into the NYRB–sort of.

I’ve been an avid reader of the NYRB since I was a child. My father, who was an editorial writer for a newspaper, used to get it at work and bring it home for me to read. I loved the NYRB. The articles were always so interesting and so well written. I would read nearly the whole thing, cover to cover.

Naturally, I tried to keep up with it even during the years lived in Denmark. I don’t remember whether I subscribed to it then, or whether I simply collected my father’s old copies on my occasional trips to the U.S. Somehow though, I kept up with it, despite the fact that it was nearly impossible to find a copy on a newsstand in Denmark (a detail that will be important later in this story).

I was pleased, one day in 1997, to see an article by Updike on “The Seducer’s Diary” portion of Kierkegaard’s Either-Or in the May 29, edition of the Review. Updike is a wonderful writer, so I knew the piece would be good.

I was disappointed, however, to see Updike cite the apocryphal story that Kierkegaard had once visited a brothel as if it were well-documented historical fact. Most Kierkegaard scholars know that the story is pure speculation, but almost no one knows how the speculations got started. That is, no one except my then boyfriend Paul A. Bauer who, though I don’t think he had read any Kierkegaard when I met him, had spent the seven years we’d been living together in Denmark acquainting himself with the more arcane facts surrounding Kierkegaard’s life and writings.

“God I wish I knew how that story got started,” I complained to Paul.

“I’ll tell you how it got started,” he answered placidly. “P.A. Heiberg started it. [Heiberg was one of the editors of the first edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works.] Heiberg decided,” Paul continued, “that Kierkegaard’s account in the book Stages on Life’s Way of a man who visits a prostitute and becomes obsessed with the idea that he might thus have fathered a child was autobiographical. He didn’t have any real evidence to support this theory though,” Paul explained. “All he had in the way of ‘support’ was a few drafts of that passage from Stages and the fact that there was a gap in Kierkegaard’s journals of about six to seven weeks from the end of April until the beginning of June in 1836. Heiberg figured the brothel visit had occurred around the beginning of that period and that it has so traumatized Kierkegaard that he couldn’t write again for weeks.”

Paul knew this because among the arcana that made up his growing library was a monograph by Heiberg entitled En Episode i Kierkegaards Ungdomsliv (an episode in Kierkegaard’s youth) from 1912 and a book entitled Et Segment af Søren Kierkegaards religiøse Udvikling (a segment of Kierkegaard’s religious development) from 1918 where Heiberg presented these speculations, and Paul, unlike probably anyone else alive today, had actually read both these works.

Ecstatic at the realization that I was more knowledgeable about something than was John Updike (well, okay, Paul was the one who was really more knowledgeable), and that maybe I could leverage this knowledge to get into the NYRB, I suggested we write a letter to the Review pointing out Updike’s error in presenting mere speculation as fact.

We drafted the letter and sent it off directly to the NYRB. I assumed we’d be notified if they decided to print the letter, which I was initially confident they would, since revealing as it did for the first time in modern memory, the source of this famous story about Kierkegaard, it promised to create something of a stir in scholarly circles.

Weeks passed.  The whole thing had faded from my memory when my eyes unexpectedly lit upon my own name in a sort of “Heard About Town”column entitled “Dyt-båt” (that’s supposedly the sound of an old Model-T horn) in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen.

“Two University of Copenhagen students really took it to John Updike in the most recent edition of The New York Review of Books” the column blared.

I leapt right out of my chair.

“We’ve got to get a copy of The New York Review of Books!” I exclaimed to Paul.

I can’t remember now how long it took us to find a copy. I do remember, though, that we combed almost the entire city looking for one. When we finally found one, we went immediately to the “Letters” section at the back. There it was, our letter in all its lengthy erudition. My joy at this triumph was somewhat short lived, however, because following our letter was a disappointingly curt reply from Updike, who appeared to think that our objection to the brothel-visit story had been motivated by some kind of prudishness.

So there you have it. That is the story of how my longtime ambition to appear in the pages of The New York Review of Books was finally realized–sort of.