None of the Danish to English dictionaries the translator of Kierkegaard is likely to use is very helpful in identifying the meaning of the expression “Privat-Docent.” The expression does not even appear in the standard nineteenth-century Danish-Danish dictionary by Christian Molbech (Copenhagen, 1859). It is clear from the way Kierkegaard uses this expression that it refers to some sort of junior scholar or academic. The title Assistant Professor normally designates junior scholars (or at least scholars below the rank of associate or full professor, hence it would appear to be culturally equivalent to the Danish Privat-Docent.  Assistant Professor is not, however, the most junior title enjoyed by American academics: Instructors and adjunct professors rank lower in the academic hierarchy than assistant professors.  “Assistant professor” actually fails to capture something significant in the original, namely the first part of the expression, the reference to status of the scholar or academic.

But what is a private scholar or academic? The latter would appear to be an oxymoron. The former might refer to what has come to be known as an independent scholar. “Independent scholar” might thus be an acceptable functional equivalent of “Privat-Docent.” The difficulty with this translation is that it fails to capture the second half of the Danish expression. “Independent scholar” is used in American English to refer to scholars who do not have teaching positions or who are not affiliated with academic institutions. A “Docent,” Meyer’s Fremmedordbog (Dictionary of Foreign Words) (Copenhagen, 1863) informs us, however, is a “Lærer”—i.e. “teacher.”

“Tutor” might appear to be a rough cultural equivalent to Privat Docent. The only difficulty with this is that it fails to identify that the instruction in question is at the university level. The translator may want to resort to the procedure of supplying a descriptive equivalent, something on the order of “tutor at the university level,” or “tutor of university students.” If we turn again to Meyer’s dictionary, we discover, however, that a Privat-Docent is “someone who teaches at an institution of higher education [en Hoiskole] without, however, being employed by the institution. A Privat-Docent  is, therefore, someone who teaches at a university, but who is not officially a member of the department or faculty in which the instruction takes place and this, most Americans will recognize immediately, is precisely the situation of what is known as an adjunct professor. That is, Privat-Docent is culturally equivalent to “adjunct professor” rather than to “assistant professor.” This point is further supported by the fact that Kierkegaard clearly uses the expression “Privat-Docent” contemptuously. There is nothing inherently contemptible in the title of Adjunct Professor. Many academics do look down, however, on adjuncts, whereas there is less prejudice against assistant professors.

Translation is a tricky business. I worked for several years as a translator for the translation center at the University of Copenhagen. I did all kinds of translations, not just scholarly articles on Kierkegaard, which were my bread and butter, but also other sorts of scholarly articles on subjects as diverse as art history and horticulture. I did commercial work, such as tourist brochures, and even a little fiction. The more translations I did, the greater became my appreciation of the paradoxically ineffable nature of the translator’s art.  Something is always beneath the language of the original, which that language attempts to express.  It is this deeper meaning, in both its specificity and its ambiguity, which the translator must reproduce in the new language (TL).

A slavish adherence to literal translation even when such a translation is unnatural or misleading can have a variety of origins. Very often, however, it stems from an insufficient knowledge of the original language. Many translators have spent only a few years in the country whose language they undertake to translate. They have learned to understand the language at what one could call an instrumental level. That is, they understand the literal meanings of most of the words they encounter in everyday contexts and can use this knowledge to navigate their way through these contexts and to have rudimentary conversations. Nonetheless, they lack a deeper understanding of the language, an understanding that comes from many years of exposure, not just to the language, but to the culture, and so when they encounter passages whose meanings are more subtle than a literal translation of the words would make them appear, they either miss these subtleties entirely, or do not trust their own nascent intuitions concerning them.

It is difficult to know whether this is the reason for the problems with the new Princeton translations of Kierkegaard. Most translators have adhered, almost slavishly, to literal translation, even in cases when it is unnatural or misleading: They have overtranslated in an effort to be faithful to the substance of the text, undertranslated when complete fidelity appeared unattainable and, finally, have been too reluctant to employ shifts or transpositions out of what would appear to be a confused sense of loyalty to the grammatical structure of the language of the original.

Semantic translation is distinguished from literal translation in that it is more flexible. The translator who adopts this method is more likely than the “faithful” translator to depart, when necessary, from literal translation. He is less likely to overtranslate, since it is the text, rather than the thought, he is attempting to reproduce, as well as less likely to undertranslate since he will not abandon the ideal of conceptual rigor simply because complete fidelity appears problematic. Finally, he will be more inclined than the “faithful” translator to resort, when appropriate, to shifts or transpositions.

A semantic translation is a compromise, but to prefer, on that ground, a “faithful” translation is to obscure the fact than any translation is a compromise. It ought to be obvious that “fidelity” construed philosophically, and that indeed is the only way it should be construed with respect to the translation of philosophical texts, is an unrealizable goal. No text is ever entirely transparent. The opacity of texts, which extends of course to the thoughts it is presumed they are intended to express—the very life blood of philosophical scholarship—makes “fidelity” as a translation method self-defeating. A semantic translation is unsuitable as a foundation for serious philosophical scholarship, but in this sense it is no different from any other sort of translation, including a purportedly “faithful” one. Semantic translations are simply more honest expressions of the nature of the translator’s art than are “faithful” translations.

The resistance of philosophers to semantic translation undoubtedly springs from the fallacious inference that any translation that is not “faithful” must be unfaithful. But there is “faithful” and then there is faithful. The concern for precision in philosophical scholarship is best expressed by reminding the reader that a translation is an approximation. This can be done by abandoning the false pretensions to fidelity that characterize “faithful” translations and adopting instead the method of semantic translation which is very likely to be more faithful, in the genuine sense, to the original in that it will result in a text that is a literary work in its own right as was the original. 





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

Translating Kierkegaard by M.G. Piety