Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Word for Wort

What's in a book title? Please allow me to extoll what seems (to me) to be a positive recent trend in the translations of academic works into English -- in theology texts, at any rate. Recent translations seem to be attempting to render titles in a way that actually reflects the titles as they are in the original languages.

In the old days -- during the 20th century, I mean -- it seems that publishers believed English speakers would be reluctant to buy a book without a title that sounded good to anglophone ears. Or perhaps they thought were less intellectual than the Germans, for example, and needed a little help to understand what the book was about. Take for example Albert Schweitzer's classic work, rendered in the zippy English title as The Quest of the Historical Jesus. The German original, Von Reimarus zu Wrede: eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, is slightly more intimidating. The publishers in 1910 perhaps judged that Reimarus and Wrede weren't exactly household names in England or the United States. (I doubt the situation has improved much since then.) And "research" (Forschung) is not quite as sexy as the ever popular "quest."

Ah, but the purists among us can celebrate some promising recent examples of a more recent trend (This is not an advertisement: Please keep in mind I'm just talking about the titles and not commenting on the new translations of the texts themselves).

The Word of God and Theology by Karl Barth, recently re-translated by Amy Marga. That is a literal rendering of Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie. In the older translation by Douglas Horton, the title is rendered The Word of God and the Word of Man. (I'm proud of my copy of the Horton text. I think we paid, maybe, ten bucks for it at a used bookshop somewhere in upstate New York. Thank heavens I didn't shell out $79 to buy it through Amazon.)

The older title, I think, is too vague and misrepresents the subtlety of Barth's thinking on the problem of what we now somewhat breezily refer to as "god-talk." In fact, I would argue that Barth has virtually no interest whatsoever in the question of how human language relates to the Word of God (meaning divine self-revelation) in general. Such a consideration would belong in a general epistemology or philosophy of language, and Barth doesn't really play those kinds of games. The old title almost has a dichotomous ring about it -- The Word of God vs. the Word of Man -- which is quite misleading in terms of Barth's intentions as well.

The good folks over at Augsburg Fortress have done us a tremendous service in the recent critical translation of Bonhoeffer's works. The title Nachfolge is now properly rendered simply as Discipleship, rather than the more familiar The Cost of Discipleship. To be sure, Bonhoeffer famously portrays grace in this work as "costly." But by now anyone who knows anything at all about Bonhoeffer knows that believed following Jesus, to say the least, entails some difficulties and risks. At the very least, anyone who has remotely attempted discipleship in her own life knows it ain't easy; thus, the old title is -- at best -- redundant.

Teilhard de Chardin's Le Phénomène Humain, which the old translation rendered as The Phenomenon of Man has been improved to The Human Phenomenon in Sarah Appleton-Weber's updated edition. That's fitting in light of more recent conventions for language inclusivity. Whether Ms. Appleton-Weber was able to make the ideas in the book any more believable today than they were six decades ago is another question.

(By the way, in case you don't recognize the painting above, it's The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Or perhaps we should call it: The Really Big Building with Lots of Different Languages.) 

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