Søren Kierkegaard is one of the few philosophers often found on the shelves of shopping mall bookstores. Why is Kierkegaard so popular? The answer is not simply that he addresses perennial human questions, like the meaning of life, the nature of ethical and religious truth, and the debilitating nature of guilt. The answer is that he does this in a supremely readable manner. He is one of the great Danish prose stylists. He deals with serious issues, but often with humor and sometimes with devastating sarcasm. His style is closer to Mark Twain’s or H.L. Menken’s than to Heidegger’s, with whom he is often compared.

Kierkegaard loved language, particularly the Danish language. He petitioned to be allowed to submit his dissertation in Danish rather than the then requisite Latin, and, although many of his Danish contemporaries sometimes wrote in French or German to insure their works a wider audience, Kierkegaard  insisted on writing exclusively in Danish. He particularly despised neologisms and the pedantic obscurity of academic writing. One should not, he cautioned, “get out of touch with everyday speech and usage. . . as sometimes happens to a scholar. . . with the result that  he continually collides with the everyday and, without really being aware of it, offends against the genius of the language and the legitimate shareholders in the common property of the language.”

So how does someone who reveres the everyday usage of language end up sounding so awkward and wooden as Kierkegaard does in most English translations? The fault is not Kierkegaard’s–it’s the translators’. The problem, for the most part, has not been a failure of the translators to appreciate the substance of his works, but a misguided commitment to fidelity to the language of the original texts.

Philosophy aims at precision, which means that translators of philosophical works are concerned that their translations be technically accurate. This concern is often so pronounced it leads them to adopt a translation method that is inherently flawed, a method that aims at a degree of fidelity which is unrealizable in any translation. This problem is particularly apparent in the new English edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works.  In 2000 the publication of the Cumulative Index to the Princeton University Press series, Kierkegaard’s Writings marked the completion of a gargantuan translation project. The twenty-six volume series comprises more than thirty works, each newly translated for the series. Many of these works had already been translated into English, but these, sometimes excellent early translations, had been done with little concern for consistency across the authorship as a whole. English-speaking Kierkegaard scholars wanted a definitive edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works in English; Howard and Edna Hong, the editors of the new series, convinced Princeton University Press, who held the copyrights on most of the original translations, to undertake its publication. Unfortunately, the series has failed to live up to expectations: Unlike Kierkegaard’s own Danish and unlike the first English translations, the language of these texts is often awkward and pedantic. Many scholars have stoically accepted this diminution in literary quality as a necessary sacrifice to technical accuracy. There is no question that form must sometimes be sacrificed to substance. The questions are whether this sacrifice should be a guiding principle of philosophical translations, or whether routine sacrifice of form to substance does not result in doing violence to the substance as well.

“The central problem of translating,” according to Peter Newmark in A Textbook of Translation (Prentice Hall International, UK Ltd., 1988) “has always been whether to translate literally or freely” (45). Varying degrees of freedom are generally agreed to be appropriate for various types of texts. Translation theorists have thus tried to come up with something that resembles a system for determining how to proceed in the translation of a particular text. This system can be broken down into translation methods and translation procedures. A translation method is probably best thought of as the guiding ideology behind a translation, such as fidelity to the author’s intentions, whereas translation procedures are the numerous ways that ideology comes to concrete expression. General criticisms of translations are thus properly directed against translation methods and specific criticisms against translation procedures.

Nonetheless, an intimate connection exists between methods and procedures in that the former often influence the selection of the latter.  Faithful translation, the method normally chosen, either consciously or unconsciously, for the translation of philosophical works, sometimes has a detrimental effect on the selection of translation procedures and can thus be self defeating.

Translation theorists speak of the source language (SL) as the language of the original text and target language (TL) as the language of the translation. A “faithful translation,” according to Newmark, “attempts to reproduce the precise contextual meanings of the original within the constraints of the TL grammatical structures. It ‘transfers’ cultural words and preserves the degree of grammatical and lexical ‘abnormality’ (deviation from SL norms) in the translation. It attempts to be completely faithful to the intentions and the text-realization of the SL writer” (46). Semantic translation, on the other hand, takes more account of the aesthetic qualities of the original text;  a semantic translation will sacrifice accuracy to avoid dissonance in the TL.  The difference, according to Newmark, between faithful and semantic translation is that “the first is uncompromising and dogmatic, while the second is more flexible, admits creative exception to 100% fidelity and allows for the translator’s intuitive empathy with the original”(46).

The first task of the translator is, of course, to determine what sort of text it is with which he is faced. Is the purpose of the original merely to impart information, to entertain, or some combination of the two?  The difficulty with philosophical texts is that they do not fall into neat categories. Philosophical texts are both expressive and communicative to varying degrees depending on the philosopher in question. The expressive dimension of Aristotle or Kant would not seem sufficient to warrant semantic translation, but the same thing cannot be said of Plato or Nietzsche, the form of whose texts seems inexorably intertwined with the content. It would do them considerable injustice, however, to suggest that the content of their works was less important, either to them or to us, than the form. But how is the translator to preserve both form and content? A semantic translation will preserve, depending on the facility of the translator, what one might call the flavor of the original, but that hardly seems sufficient from a philosophical perspective. Semantic translations have a touch of impressionism about them that many philosophers consider antithetical to the systematic rigor they feel should characterize the profession.

From the perspective of preserving both form and content, the method that at first appears most promising—the method that translators of philosophical works seem to prefer—is the so-called faithful translation.  That it is the method chosen for the new Princeton translations of Kierkegaard is no surprise; however, as has often been the case with these translations, fidelity can be problematic. 



Back to Archive

Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

Translating Kierkegaard by M.G. Piety