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“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.

“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!

Kierkegaard on the Danish fear of Germany

I was reviewing some of Kierkegaard’s remarks on Germans and Germany recently, when I came across a passage I thought it might be interesting to try re-translating. Neither of the existing translation is a disaster, but each could stand some improvement. The translation below appropriates language from both but improves upon them in some important respects. The language of the Hongs’ translation is surprisingly lyrical with lots of alliteration and so I have preserved much of it in my own translation below. It’s not necessarily better in the sense of being more accurate than is the new English translation, but it reads better and in that sense is, at least in places, superior to the new translation the language of which is more formal than was the language of the original.  The following paragraph is my translation of the passage, which comes from Pap. VIII1 A 531.

All this fear of Germany is fantastical, it’s a game, a new attempt to flatter national vanity.  One million people who honestly admitted that they were a small nation, with each person resolving before God to want to be what he is, would be an immense force; there’s no danger at all in that. No, the calamity is something else entirely; the calamity is that this little nation is demoralized, divided in itself, each man nauseatingly envious of the other, unruly toward everyone who is supposed to rule, petty toward everyone who achieves anything, impertinent and undisciplined, riled up to a kind of rabble tyranny. This creates a bad conscience; therefore people fear the Germans. But no one dares to say what’s the source of the problem [hvor Ulykken stikker]–so one flatters all these unhealthy passions and becomes self-important by polemicizing against the Germans.

Okay, now where are the changes and why have I made them. I’m not going to address every change, but only the ones that merit examination. Many of the changes, such as my “fantastical” instead of the Hongs’ “hallucination” or the new “fantasy,” are purely stylistic (and mine is actually less literal in that the original, en Indbildning, is a noun not an adjective). Some of the changes do merit examination though.The new translation does a better job, I think, than the Hongs’ with the sentence that begins “One million people…” but regrettably uses the abbreviation “1 mill. ppl.” for the original “1 Mill. Msk.”  Kierkegaard often used abbreviations, but to try to preserve them everywhere is not only, as I argue in my review of the first volume of the new Journals and Papers in the Scottish Journal of Theology, an affectation, it’s occasionally even confusing to the reader.

The new translation has “problem” where I, following the Hongs, have “calamity.” The Danish is Ulykken (and later Ulykke without the definite article). Ulykke, according to Ferrall and Repp’s A Danish-English Dictionary (Copenhagen, 1845) is properly translated as “misfortune,” “calamity,” or “disaster.” There is a Danish word for “problem”; it’s “problem,” or in Kierkegaard’s time “Problem.”  “Problem” isn’t a disastrous translation (I couldn’t resist that!), but it’s isn’t a very good one either because it obscures the tone of the original. “Problem” is more neutral in tone than “misfortune,” “calamity,” or “disaster,” and hence takes some of the bite out of the piece, some of the bite that was in the original.

Both the Hongs and the new translation have also inexplicably stuck “root” in the text when it does not appear in the original. The Hongs have “the root of the calamity” and the new translation has “the root of the problem” for “hvor Ulykken stikker.” “Stikker” according to Ferrall-Repp, however, means to “poke,” or “prod,” or “jab,” or “stab.” “Root” works in both translations. The reason I pointed it out is that is illustrates how heavily later translations tend to be influenced by earlier translations.

My complaints with the new translation are generally minor ones that have to do with similar points of style. There’s only one place where I’d argue there’s a serious problem. The new translation leaves out an entire phrase that is actually very important. Where I have “petty toward everyone who achieves anything,” the new translation has simply “petty toward everyone.” “Petty” is better than the Hongs’ “malicious” (at least according to Ferrall-Repp), but the new translation omits any reference to the phrase “der er Noget.” That is, the original reads “smaalig mod Enhver, der er Noget.” The whole phrase translates literally as “petty toward anyone who is anything.” I used a bit of license in translating “er” as “achieves.” I think it makes the meaning of the passage clearer though. There is an important difference between “petty toward everyone,” as the new translation reads, and “petty toward everyone who achieves anything.” In that sense, the new translation is actually inferior to the earlier one. Let’s hope that’s corrected in subsequent printings.