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Translation: Nietzsche’s boat

As my last few posts show, I’ve been reading Nietzsche recently. What they don’t show is that slowly, laboriously, over the past few weeks, I’ve also been making my way through Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinne. (The original German version of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense. I finished it this morning.) Not out of any dissatisfaction with the English translation I was reading, I decided to try my hand at translating a short passage from it: the Nietzsche’s boat passage (quoted here, second block quote). Since I’m vain, I also decided to post it here (critical comments from native German speakers especially welcome). Here is the German:

Jenes ungeheure Gebälk und Bretterwerk der Begriffe, an das sich klammernd der bedürftige Mensch sich durch das Leben rettet, ist dem freigewordnen Intellekt nur ein Gerüst und ein Spielzug für seine verwegensten Kunststücke: and wenn er es zerschlägt, durcheinanderwirft, ironisch wieder zusammensetz, das Fremdeste paarend und das Nächste trennend, so offenbart er, daß er jene Notbehelfe der Bedürftigkeit nicht braucht und daß er jetzt nicht von Begriffen, sondern von Intuitionen geleitet wird.

I’ll offer my translation, then make a few comments:

That enormous timber- and plankwork of concepts, to which the needy man clings to save himself through life, is to the liberated intellect only a scaffolding and a plaything for his rashest feats; and if he smashes it, mixes it up, ironically reassembles it, combines the most alien and separates the closest things, so he reveals that he does not require that stopgap of neediness, and that he now is guided not by concepts but by intuitions.

My guiding light in this translation was my reverence for concision. Nietzsche’s sentence is quite long, but flows extremely well in part because Nietzsche was quite economical with his words. My main gripe with the Speirs translation is that it loses this concision. For instance, where Nietzsche has the compact phrase, “das Fremdeste paarend und das Nächste trennend,” Speirs has, “pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another,” a wordy mouthful. Nietzsche’s two nouns (“Fremdeste” and “Nächste”) are both superlative adjectives made into nouns. This can’t be replicated in English, so extra words will have to be added, but when a single word (“Nächste”) becomes seven (“things which are closest to one another”), something has gone wrong. I tried to resolve this by simply translating the superlative nouns to adjectives (“Fremdeste” to “most alien”; “Nächste” to “closest”) and letting them share a single noun (“things”) placed at the end of the clause. Still a bit ungainly, but, I hope, better.

Likewise, Speirs renders the German phrase, “an das sich klammernd der bedürftige Mensch sich durch das Leben rettet,” as “to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life,” again adding words to preserve the meaning. In this case, neither “thereby” nor “journey” is anywhere in the German. A first pass at the German looks something like this: “to which clings the needy man through the life to save himself.” Cleaned up: “to which the needy man clings to save himself through life.” This is still somewhat ungainly. “To save himself” comes very abruptly (an “in order to” would be nice, but is alas absent from the German), and “through” is ambiguous. Does it show that life is the mechanism by which the needy man saves himself, or does it show that life is the context in which the needy saves himself? Context (the earlier specification of clinging to the timber- and plankwork of concepts) indicates the latter, but it would be nice if the language were unambiguous regardless. I don’t know how to fix this, but I think leaving in the ambiguity is preferable if it can only be eliminated by inventing a journey Nietzsche never conceived.

The only other major change from the Speirs translation is my rendering of the opening. Speirs’ “vast assembly of beams and boards” becomes my “enormous timber- and plankwork.” I think mine is closer to the German, that is all. Speirs’ is perhaps more natural in English; on the other hand I like the offbeat rhythm of my translation.

Thanks for humoring me. Again, comments from native German speakers criticizing my work are more than welcome.

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