The first difficulty is that fidelity is often confused with literalness, e.g., the title of one of Kierkegaard’s most famous works, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton, 1992), the companion volume to his Philosophical Fragments (Princeton, 1985). Readers have long been puzzled by this title, which is the same in both English translations of the work. Why “unscientific” when the concern of the work—i.e., the relation of the individual to “the truth of Christianity”—has nothing to do with what English-speaking readers would identify as science? The Danish “Videnskab,” is defined in most dictionaries as science. Like its cognate,. the German “Wissenschaft,” however, it is much broader in meaning than the English “science.” Any systematic discipline can be referred to in Danish as “videnskabelig.” “Unsystematic” and “unscholarly” are less literal translations of “Uvidenskabelig” than is “unscientific,” but they are much closer to conveying the sense of the Danish term in this context.

A similar problem is presented in the Hongs’ translation of “den videnskabeligt Forskende” as the “scientific researcher” (Postscript, 21). Depending on the context, “Forskning” is probably best translated as “research;” however, in this case it is somewhat misleading to translate “Forskende” as “researcher” because while it is generally idiomatic to speak of research in the humanities, people conducting such research are usually referred to as scholars. “Researcher” is a term that is normally reserved for the natural sciences, which makes, of course, the translation of “videnskabeligt Forskende” as “scientific researcher” doubly unfortunate in that it practically compels inappropriate associations in the reader’s mind.

Both faithful and semantic translations take what the translator perceives to be the meaning of the text as their point of departure. Both assume an understanding of the text. Another difficulty, however, with faithful translations is that the meaning of the text can become too important: Fidelity is construed, quite reasonably, as fidelity to the author’s intentions; hence the task of determining those intentions can assume such immense proportions that it is no longer the text one is translating but the thought. This gives rise to the phenomenon of over translation.

To over translate is to render a translation that is, in fact, more specific than the original, e.g., the Hongs’ translation of the single Danish expression “Vished” as both “certainty” and “certitude” and, likewise, “Uvished” as both “uncertainty” and “incertitude.” The English term “certainty,” like the Danish “Vished,” has two senses. One sense refers to an objective state of affairs as is indicated in the claim that the truths of mathematics are certain. The other sense refers to subjective conviction as is indicated in the claim that I’m certain I locked the front door. The two senses are related, of course, in that the latter type of certainty is often a product of the former type, but they are nevertheless distinct. Many philosophers working in English have thus reserved “certainty” to designate an objective state of affairs and have appropriated the French “certitude” to designate subjective conviction. It is not always immediately obvious, however, in which sense Kierkegaard is using Vished. The translator should not make this decision for the reader. When there is such an ambiguity in the original text, it should be left to the reader himself to decide how to interpret it.

Translation, even the most rigorous sort, is often thought of as an art. Nonetheless, to assert that translation is an art—rather than the science that faithful translations would make it appear—is not to say that it is unsystematic. An accurate reproduction of an impression requires a certain rigor and system of its own. In the context of translation, this system, if it can be called that, is expressed in translation procedures.

Translation methods relate to whole texts; translation procedures relate to portions of text, such as phrases, expressions or even individual words. The most important of the numerous translation procedures is literal translation, what Newmark refers to as “the basic translation procedure…in that…translation starts from there” (70).  However, literal translation is sometimes problematic,  as we saw in the Hongs’ translation of “Videnskab” as “science;” hence literal translation is supplemented by a number of other procedures including natural translation, a cultural equivalent, a functional equivalent, a descriptive equivalent, and  shifts or transpositions.         

An example of constraints on literal translation can be found in the new Princeton translation of Either-Or, where [s]kal da Aandens Tungebaand aldrig løsnes paa mig” appears as “[m]ust the tongue ligament of my spirit never be loosened” (Either/Or [Princeton, 1987], 24). This literal translation is a disaster from the perspectives of both naturalness and intelligibility, not merely unidiomatic, but conjuring up bizarre anatomical imagery.

Because of the obvious inadequacy of the procedure of literal translation, translators employ a number of other procedures as well, among which natural translation is probably most common. Natural translation means nothing more nor less than idiomatic translation, e.g., Alastair Hannay’s translation of [s]kal da Aandens Tungebaand aldrig løsnes paa mig” as “Is my spirit to be forever tongue-tied” (Either/Or [Penguin, 1992], 45).

Literal translation is also sometimes constrained by the fact that the concept or phenomenon denoted by a particular expression in the original text is unknown in the culture using the target language. This would appear to be the case, for example, with the Danish expression “Privat-Docent” which occurs frequently in Kierkegaard’s authorship and which, according to Vinterberg and Bodelsen’s Dansk-Engelsk Ordbog (Danish-English Dictionary) (Gyldendal, 1966), “is unknown in England and the USA.” Here the translator must resort to an approximate translation using one of the procedures referred to in translation theory as a cultural, functional or descriptive equivalence.

A cultural equivalent is a word or expression in the language of the translation that approximates the meaning of the corresponding word or expression in the language of the original text. ‘Halloween’ is, for example, occasionally translated into Danish as “fastelavn.” Because the two holidays occur at different times of year, the translator also has the option of resorting to a functional equivalent, in this case, “Shrovetide.” The difficulty with “Shrovetide,” however, is that while it accurately identifies the holiday as such, it does not have the same connotations as “fastelavn.” That is, the single term “Shrovetide” will very likely not contain enough information for the reader of the translation to appreciate its significance in context. In fact, most American readers are unfamiliar with this holiday. Fortunately, the translator may also resort to the use of a descriptive equivalent.

A descriptive equivalent is precisely what the name implies, a description of the term or expression in the original language that serves as a translation of that term or expression. “The holiday at which one masks and mums” can thus be used as a translation of “fastelavn” when the context requires this level of specificity.

Before the translator can apply these procedures, however, he must be certain he has properly understood the precise meaning and significance of the term, or expression, in the language of the original text. It is tempting for a translator, who ideally possesses extensive knowledge of the relevant language, to rely exclusively on this knowledge to produce a cultural, functional or descriptive equivalent when faced with an expression that defies literal translation. Guessing one’s way to equivalent expressions sometimes leads, however, to undertranslation as can be seen in the Hongs’ translation of “Privat-Docent” as “assistant professor” (cf., e.g.,  Postscript, 84).


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

Translating Kierkegaard by M.G. Piety