“Crazy Capers”!

I promised I would do a post comparing my translation of a particularly tricky passage from Kierkegaard’s Repetition with the Hongs’ translation of the same passage. This comparison will give readers a sense for how difficult translation sometimes is.

The passage in question comes from the part of Repetition where Kierkegaard talks about farce. It begins on page 27 of Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009) with the paragraph that starts “They show farces in the Königstädter Theatre,” and ends just before the middle of page 34. This material on farce is really wonderful and ought to be excerpted and included in collections of writings on theater.

The narrator of Repetition is presented as an older man who has become preoccupied with the question of whether repetition is possible in the face of what would appear to be time’s relentless unfolding of the new and the novel. He undertakes a trip to Berlin as an experiment to test whether he can repeat the joys of an earlier visit. One of his chief pleasures is farce, so he had been a frequent visitor to the Königstädter Theatre which was famous for its farces. Pages 27-34 present his extended analysis of what one could call the logic of farce.

The narrator is particularly interested in two famous performers, Phillipe Grobecker and Friederich Beckmann (both genuine actors associated with Königstädter Theatre) whom he refers to as G. and B. respectively. B.’s dancing,” he asserts in a description of one of B’s performances,

is incomparable. He has sung his couplet and now begins to dance. What B. dares here is back-breaking because he does not presumably venture to affect the audience in the strictest sense through his graceful movements. He is well beyond this. The lunatic laughter that is in him cannot be contained in either physical form or spoken lines. Only a Münchhausen-like grabbing oneself by the neck and repeatedly transcending oneself in a crazy, riotous sort of leapfrog captures this spirit. (p. 32.)

That reads easily enough, doesn’t it. You’d never know it took me several days to translate those few brief lines. Compare the passage above to the Hongs’ translation of the same passage:

B.’s dance is incomparable. He has sung his couplet, and now the dance begins. What B. ventures here is neck-breaking, for he presumably does not trust himself to create an effect with his dance routines in the narrow sense. He is now completely beside himself. The sheer lunacy of his laughter can no longer be contained either in forms or in lines; the only way to convey the mood is to take himself by the scruff of the neck, as did Münchhausen and cavort in crazy capers. (p 164.)

The Danish is:

B.’s Dandsen [er] uforlignelig. Han har sunget sit Couplet, nu begynder Dandsen. Hvad B. her vover er halsbrækkende; thi han trøster sig formodentlig ikke til i strængere Forstand at virke ved sine Dandse-Stillinger. Han er nu aldeles ovenud. Latterens Vanvid i ham kan ikke mere rummes hverken i Skikkelse eller Replik, kun det, som Münchhausen, at tage sig selv i Nakken og henjuble sig selv i afsindige Bukkespring, er i Stemningens Medfør.

A literal translation would be

B’s dancing is incomparable. He has sung his couplet, now the dance begins. What B dares here is throat-breaking: because he presumably does not trust himself to, in a stricter sense affect [the audience] with his dance positions. He is now altogether out above. The frenzy of laughter in him can no longer be contained in either a figure or a line [as in lines actors recite], only that which like Münchhausen, to take oneself by the neck and cheer oneself in a deranged bucking is in [keeping with] what the mood brings along.

Pretty weird, eh? I’ll admit that I took a lot of liberties with the translation of this passage simply to come up with something that was readable in English while still conveying the essence of what Kierkegaard appeared to be trying to say. “Throat-breaking” is not idiomatic in English, so I changed it to “back-breaking.” “[O]venud” means “out above,” or “over” as in “the water ran over,” but “He is now altogether out above” isn’t even a sentence in English. It seemed to me that the context suggested Kierkegaard meant something like “beyond,” so I rendered “Han er nu aldeles ovenud”as “He is well beyond this.”

The biggest liberty was translating “henjuble sig selv” as “transcending oneself.” “Henjuble” appears to be a word Kierkegaard made up out of “hen,” which according to Ferrall-Repp can mean ”away,” “off,” “on” “to,” “toward,” or ”against,” and “juble,” which means to “call,” or to “shout.” So it would appear to mean something like “cheering oneself forth.” That doesn’t make much sense in English, though, so I came up with “transcending oneself.” I dropped all mention of “cheering” and replaced the literal “bucking” with “leapfrog.”

Again, I took some liberties with this passage, but if you have read my other posts on translation you will know that I am a proponent of what is known in translation theory as “semantic translation” (see Peter Newmark’s A Textbook of Translation) which is an approach to translation that privileges the sense of a passage over a literal word-for-word rendering of the original. Only in this way, I think, can a reader get a reliable sense of how a text reads in the original language. One of the complaints I hear over and over again about the Hongs’ translations is how wooden they are. They definitely do not read at all like Kierkegaard’s texts do in the original Danish. Kierkegaard was a brilliant prose stylist, one of the greatest in the history of Danish literature. The problem with the Hongs’ translations is that they tend to be too literal and literal translations almost never preserve the feeling of the original.

The Hongs aren’t always literal, however. “The sheer lunacy of his laughter,” for example, is simply wrong. The Danish is “Latterens Vanvid i ham” which translates literally as “The lunacy of laughter in him.” That is, the reference isn’t to his laughter, but to laughter as such, with which he, as a comedian, is intimately familiar. That is no small distinction from the perspective of philosophy.

The Hongs have also simply interpolated “sheer” in this passage. There is nothing that corresponds to it in the original Danish text.

There are other instances in which the Hongs deviate even more bizarrely from the original. I look at some of those instances in future posts.

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.