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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!

“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!