How Kierkegaard Got Into English

by Walter Lowrie as attached to the end of his 1941 translation of Kierkegaard’s Repetition.

Repetition: an essay in experimental psychology by Kierkegaard, Søren, 1813-1855 (1843), tr. 1941 Princeton University Press p. 177ff

After the last war I was impressed by the importance the name of Kierkegaard had acquired throughout the Continent, especially in Germany. I could hardly pick up a serious book without finding his name in it. Every writer who claimed to be abreast of modern thought had to say something about him, and every reputable publisher had to bring out something. S.K. had already taken the place of Nietzsche as the literary vogue in higher circles. I sought to orient myself in this field, but it was not easy. S.K. was accessible to me only in German translations, most of which were not faithful interpretations. I read many commentators, but I confess that I got precious little out of them, except from Geismar and Hirsch. It is not creditable to German scholarship that few of those who lately have been writing about S.K. had taken the pains to lean Danish. At that time I wondered greatly at Unamuno, who in his Del sentimiento tragico de la vida traced all his quotations from S.K. to the Danish text. I learned lately from Dr. John Mackay that Unamuno said somewhere, “I learned to language for the sake of reading Ibsen, and I was rewarded by reading Kierkegaard. At that time the excellent French translations of S.K. were not yet in existence. Now that the French display so fervent an interest in him I remember with amusement the remark may by S.K.’s one-time fiancée in her mature years: “The French will never be able to understand Kierkegaard.”

But at the time of which I am speaking Karl Barth began to make S.K. widely known in religious circles, and his words were being rapidly translated into English. Seeing that Barth expressly claimed S.K. as his spiritual progenitor, it seemed only courteous to take him at his word. This proved to be a misunderstanding, for in 1934 he excommunicated S.K. and Brunner in the same breath … on the ground that they were essentially Catholic. However, two years before he uttered his famous NEIN! I naively set about interpreting Barth in terms of S.K. in a series of lectures I delivered on the Bohlen Foundation (to an audience of one). In publishing these lectures (Our Concern with the Theology of Crisis) I stuck into it a short list of books of and about S.K. in German (there were no others available) and half apologized for this “accusing bibliography as an intrusion,” but I added, perhaps impertently, “But for what reason have we so many universities? Is it to insure that studious youth shall be shielded from all contacts with contemporary thought?” This was printed in such small type and in so insignificant a place that I could reasonably hope it might be overlooked. However, as it has been quoted by two reviewers of the translations of S.K. it may be regarded perhaps as the first shot, a mere pistol shot, in the campaign to introduce S.K. to the English speaking world.

I did not know then that David F. Swenson, Professor of Philosophy in the University of Minnesota, had for many years been trying in a more mannerly way, and therefore with less obvious success, to put S.K. over. He was by far the most competent translator and expounder of S.K. in the English-speaking world, and now after his death the rich fruit of his study has been made available to the public.

My campaign in favor of S.K. was at first exceedingly desultory – in the literal sense which S.K. attached to that word, that is to say, I was hopping about from place to place. “Superannuated” as I was, I declined no invitation to talk in any theological seminary or before any group of ministers. I sometimes used Karl Barth as an entering wedge. I thing still that my misunderstanding of Barth was excusable; for when I became acquainted with S.K.’s words I say that Barth owed much more him that he could acknowledge without pedantry, for he owed him very many of his most telling phrases. That that time I chided Professor Wilhelm Pauck for not expressing wholehearted admiration for Barth, and he replied not ineptly that he might have written more enthusiastically as I if he had felt as free to select only those pars of his doctrine which he liked.

In my desultory campaign I made a tremendous hop to China, where I was invited to lecture to the professors of Yenching University. I grasped eagerly at that invitation, not because I cherished any illusions about furthering there the cause of S.K., but because from my childhood I had a passionate interest in China, and as a serious man I could not without loss of face make so long a journey unless could allege a serious pretext. The winter in Peking was a memorable experience, but of course I made no converts to S.K. Modern Chine looks so exclusively to America for its modern culture that S.K. was not know there the inference was inevitable that he could not be worth knowing. But, as I said, the winter in Peking was a memorable. We discarded the palace of Marquis Li Hung Chang in favor of the more glorious residence of the Prime Minister of Chien Lung, who impoverished the Empire and provoked rebellion in the provinces by the exactions he made to provide for his private extravagances, and was sentenced to death by the next emperor. Yenching University is established in the beautiful park of the Prime Minister’s summer residence, and in one of the American mission compounds I looked with wonder at the monument he was politely allowed to erect in commemoration of his virtues. All this for the glorification of S.K. But to tell the truth we took this big house because we were unable to the little one we wanted. With scant justification I adopted as my style: Dr. Lowrie of Rome and Peking. But S.K. got precious little out of it.

In Japan the situation was very different, for Japan looks quite as much to the Continent of Europe for the enrichment of its culture. There I found myself compelled by a mere change to make an address before the whole University of Doshisha. I protested that I could not speak about S.K. before so general an audience, but I was assured that no subject could be more acceptable, since several articles had lately been written about him in the University Review.

But my interest is in home-missions, and here at home I was soon in touch by correspondence with allt he men in England and America who were then known to be interested in S.K., and enough interested to want to so something about it. How few there were! In Great Britain I know of only three besides Alexander Dru. Two of them, Dr. Bain and Mr. Allen, when in an incredibly short time they had finished their little books, washed their hands of Kierkegaard – Mr. Allen the more vaingloriously because like Schrempf he had been led to him to renounce the Christian faith … and he could not forgive him for the embarrassment in which that had placed him. In America besides Swenson I can enumerate only six, and in the end only one of these did something. The voluminous correspondence I carried on with Professor Swenson for seven years has been collected by Mrs. Swenson and presented to the University of Minnesota. It was exceedingly encouraging and helpful to me.

For some years my correspondence with Mr. Dru was quite as active, and on his side it was highly entertaining. My correspondence with him and Mr. Williams,, supplementing the letter which passed between me and Swenson, provides abundant documentation for the whole story. Charles Williams is the only man I have ever taken to my heart “unsight unseen.” It was a wrench to both of us when eventually I had to withdraw from my association with the Oxford Press. But Dru was twice in the States and therefore I had the pleasure of knowing him face to face. He was perhaps more inclined to accept me as a partner because I am not a don like Professor Swenson and because I do not live in the Middle West. One summer when I was in Italy we almost got together. He had promised to bring Haecker to meet me there in a remote Alpine valley, and I agreed to bring Ferlov, who was cooperating in the French translations, and the first Italian book on S.K. … and then washed his hands of the subject. But the best laid plans. … Dru’s very liberal education includes even Danish. He is a young Catholic layman, and (if I may say so without offense) a man of fashion. He seemed to me ideally fitted to be a translator and expounder of S.K., who only too rightly feared that he would fall prey to the pedantry of the professors and might with even more reason have feared the narrowness of the parsons. In fact Due had done notable service to the cause of S.K. and had proposed to do so much more when his plans were nipped by the war. And yet perhaps his big plans might not have materialized in any case, and that precisely for the reason that he was not a professor or a parson and therefore lacked the indefatigable industry the professor and the parson sometimes have.

Lately I was struck by the justice of an expression which Dr. John McConnachie applied to me: “the indefatigable Dr. Walter Lowrie.” At least so I read it at first. It was hardly a flattering expression. And yet how true! I am exceedingly industrious – and I know that the definition of genius as “an infinite capacity for taking pains” is as far as possible from the mark. I must be indefatigable if, besides having other things to do, I managed to publish four volumes of Kierkegaard translations last year and six this. But in fact Dr. McConnachie described me as “irrepressible.” I don’t like that word. And yet Dr. McConnachie has commonly been generous in his reviews of my books. But this particular book was not about S.K., it was about SS. Peter and Paul in Rome, and because I was spending that winter in Rome I did not go far out of my way when I drew a comparison between the Empire of Augustus and the Fascist regime. But in the meantime came the war. And I have some acquaintance with the perfervidum ingenium scotorum. And yet perhaps there may be some justification for the word “irrepressible.” Mrs. Swenson said of her husband that he did not succeed in making S.K. widely known because he was not so “aggressive” as Dr. Lowrie. That is a hateful word, and yet I know that it is commonly used in America without any notion of implying belligerency. Not travelling salesmen only but simple Christians are told that they must be aggressive. Perhaps I am aggressive in the proper sense of the word. I have had an experience which suggests that this may be so. And the annual garden party of the Graduate College at Princeton I was told that Henry Goddard Leach is looking for me. Mr. Leach is the editor of the Forum and also president of the American-Scandinavian Foundation. I found him surrounded by sever admiring youths whom he was about to send with scholarships to Sweden. When I approached he drew their attention to me and apostrophized me in these words: “The man who has done more than any other to bring Scandinavia and America together… and done it by making everybody mad.” These words were a revelation to me – but thereby hangs a tale which I must tell at some length because this is where Providence comes in, the Providence which rules and overrules, the Divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them as we will, the Providence for which Danish has a distinctive name, Styrelsen, which I have ventured to translate by Governance, and which I am too aggressive to give up, although it has met with no commendation and with some criticism. For it seems to me a pity that in English we have no name to distinguish Providence which rules from the Providence which provides.

It seems to me obvious that a fund must be secured for the publication of S.K.’s works, inasmuch as the public could not be expected to support the venture in its initial stage. It was natural to appeal to the American-Scandinavian Foundation, and Mr. Leach was well known t me. He entered ardently into the plan and made no doubt that ten thousand dollars could be raised by appealing to the friends of the Foundation. It happened at that moment that Mr. Cumberlege of the Oxford University Press was in New York. Mr. Leach charged me to draw up a contract with him. The contract proposed was agreeable to everyone. Mr. Leach was ready to sign it as soon as he had the money in hand, and he drew up at once the preliminary draft of a letter which was to be sent to prospective donors, sending it to me first with a request for my criticism of its form. I was naïve enough to take him at his word, and perhaps I criticized that letter too drastically. At all events I was told by return post that unexpected obstacles had arisen and the whole thing was off. Even then it did not occur to me that I had made “everybody mad.” I learned that some years later at a garden party.

But this is where Providence comes in. Mr. Cumberlege returned to England impressed by the importance of S.K. Mr. Dru wrote to me at once that at last the doors of the Press at which he had knocked in vain were open to him. He had already gained the adhesion of Mr. Charles Williams, who has continued to be the foster father of our undertaking. While Dru held the door open I walked in – metaphorically. This was in 1936. By that time I had ready may big book on Kierkegaard. I could be sure that Oxford would publish it, Dru could go ahead confidently with his big work of translating the Journal, and Swenson, having translated the Philosophical Fragments, got ahead of us all and had it published by the Princeton Press for the American-Scandinavian Foundation, which again later displayed its magnanimity by contributing a part of the cost of publishing Professor Swenson’s translation of the Postscript.

But of course the Oxford Press had not yet committed itself to the plan of publishing all of S.K.’s works, it was prepared only to take one step at a time, tentatively, and therefore to encourage it in this enterprise I undertook to defray the cost of publishing whatever I might produce, with the tacit understanding that it would assume responsibility for all other translations it would publish. I had no notion then how much I was letting myself in for, since at that time I did not thing of translating anything more than The Point of View, which was published in 1939, and the two volumes entitled Training in Christianity and For Self-Examination which for various reasons was not published until the middle of this year. On the other hand, the English collaborators seemed to going ahead with all sails set. A letter from Mr. Williams of January 21, 1938, said, “Fear and Trembling and Repetition are done… the translations of The Concept of Dread and The Sickness unto Death are well on the way.” Nothing came of all this except the publication of Fear and Trembling – and that I have had to do over again. The consequence is that, while Oxford has received the praise it merited for launching out upon so bold an adventure, I have borne most of the expense. And now that because of the war, and for other reasons, I have had to transfer to the Princeton Press the responsibility of completing the English edition, the cost of it still rests upon me, except so far as it is shared by Mrs. Swenson. I may remark by the way that the total costs involved in the publication of S.K.’s works in English far exceed the sum Mr. Leach and I originally reckoned, and that in spirt of the fact that translators have been paid nothing at all. That had to be a labor of love. And yet that sum as a revolving fund might have been sufficient if the production had been less rapid and more time had been left for the turnover.

It was not until May of 1938 that the Oxford Press resolved to commit itself to the plan of publishing all of S.K.’s works, and as that too came about in a providential way I must express my gratitude by telling the story in some detail. I can say of the success of this edition, as S.K.’s said of his works, that if I must ascribe it to anyone, I must ascribe it to Governance.

From the moment my Kierkegaard biography was published I have been engaged in a constant struggle to keep prices down. I was concerned chiefly about the American price, for, strange as it may seem, we have never been willing in America to pay extra for quality; and in this case the American prices were necessarily enhanced by the duty exacted on books printed abroad, an exaction which, when the author happens to be an American, is so considerably increased that it may be regarded as a penalty upon disloyalty. But surely it was going too far when the New York branch advertised at ten dollars my Kierkegaard when it was sold for half that price in Great Britain, i.e. for 25s.  I was so indignant at this that I wrote at once (perhaps “aggressively”) to the Oxford Press, demanding the return of the manuscripts they then held in order that I might have them published in America. By return post on the date of May 26, 1938, Mr. Williams wrote that he himself characterized as “a passionate appeal” to me to reconsider my decision. He promised, “officially and unofficially,” to remedy the grievances I complained of, which besides the question of price included vexatious delay in printing and negligence on the part of the New York branch in failing to keep on hand a stock of books sufficient to supply the demand. To this letter was appended the following postscript:

“Sir Humphry has been at Oxford while I was writing this letter. He has just returned and has seen the correspondence. He endorses everything I have said above, and has asked me to tell you that the Vice-Chancellor (Dr. Lindsay, Master of Balliol) was so excited by the copy of your book which he had, that he found it difficult to turn to the business of the meeting before him. He insisted on being given all possible information about it, and about any further possibilities.”

This was decisive. Not only did it decide me to continue with the Oxford Press on the assurance that prices would be kept at a tolerable level (my Kierkegaard being at once reduced to seven dollars), but it decided Sir Humphrey Milford to proceed resolutely with the publication of S.K. Dru wrote to me at once:

“Now that the OUP are really excited (as much as they can be) about S.K., all should go smoothly. Williams is always good about it, and now, as you know, Sir Humphrey is convinced that he is backing the right horse.”

The question of the price of these books continues to be a serious problem. It cannot be greatly reduced by the Princeton Press, for most of the volumes are not only bulky but difficult to print and at this stage the editions are necessarily small. I rejoice that the Augsburg Publishing House is able to issue books at a cheaper price, for I desire above all to see them made available to the clergy. But it must be admitted that these are cheaper books, and I have often thought that preachers, if only they knew how many headaches they would be saved in a frantic search for a theme, might count that they could well effort to spend fifty dollars for a whole shelfful of S.K.’s works. Or a parish might well make this gift to their preacher, with better effect and at far less cost than if, as sometimes is done, he were to be sent on a trip to the Holy Land with the vain hope that this experience might make his sermons more glamorous.

But I exaggerate. For I am well aware of the fact that a great many parsons, especially in America, if they were to become acquainted with S.K., would indignantly reject him. He is a “corrective,” and they want no correction. Today as in his own age he presents an either/or – either New Testament Christianity/or none at all – and perhaps there are not many willing to face that dilemma. Moreover, it is true now as then that not all – not even all the reverend parsons – are competent to understand him. For them, if they are men of good will, his thought must be popularized (preferably in cheap books), otherwise he must remain inaccessible to them. For, eager as he was to be heard by the “simple man,” his words, even the Discourses, were addressed to the cultured class. It is inappropriate therefore that in English they are published by a university press. In spite of war and everything else, it has proved to be a great advantage that the first works were launched by the Oxford Press. But for that the reviewers would hardly have been so friendly. And again it was providential that, when I resolved to have my translations printed in my own town, Princeton University Press was under the able direction of Mr. Joseph A. Brandt, who has taken a lively interest in this edition. It should be understood that this change did not involve an absolute breach of continuity, inasmuch as Princeton is careful to maintain the uniformity of the edition, and Oxford is not merely the agent for sales in Europe but in certain cases has adopted the policy of purchasing in sheets a considerable number of copies of translations published here.

But I have got too far ahead with the story. I must return to a point near the beginning.

At the beginning it was obvious that before S.K.,’s works were sprung upon the public totally unprepared to understand them, an entering wedge was needed, in the form of a pretty big book about him. I wonder now that I had the temerity to undertake such a thing, that is, to write a life of S.K. on a large scale. I hardly realized then that, although an immense amount of biographical material had been collected by Danish scholars, nothing that could properly be called a biography had yet been written. I was not so much dismayed as I ought to have been at the necessity of learning Danish; for, though I have no aptitude for learning languages, I have from time to time have been obliged to learn so many that the thought of adding a new one to the list was not an appalling obstacle. When I had barely acquired the rudiments my wife and I made a visit to Denmark, which was made profitable by the extraordinary kindness of Dr. Johannes Prip-Moller and his wife, friends we had made in China, who were our constant guides and instructors during our whole stay in their land. Upon returning home I took the precaution to engage a Danish butler, to help me if necessary over hard places. He was more capable of rendering such aid than one might suppose, for it chanced that he had a passion for philology. Though I hardly had to appeal to him, it gave me peace of mind to have him in the house. Although one-third of my book was translation from S.K., I was in this case free to sidestep or leap over passages which were too hard for me. I did not then foresee that I must subsequently undertake the more exacting task of translating the works as a whole, which did not permit me to avoid difficulties – as the German translators commonly have done. In one way or another I gathered only too much material for my book, and in the end I had to eliminate one-third of what I had written in order to reduce the volume to a possible size.

p. 202

Go here to read more.

Repetition: an essay in experimental psychology, translated by Walter Lowrie 1941 Princeton University Press

Lowrie’s introduction to Training in Christianity