24 May 2014

reading notes: I and Thou - Kaufmann's Prologue

"Reading Notes" is a new series, of sorts. I have a growing collection of academic literature that I keep intending to start reading, and then I don't always get around to reading things, or I start and then don't finish books. To motivate myself, and to collect some of my responses to what I read, I'll write a post on the chapter or article. The format is not unlike what I used in a readings course in grad school. I'll organize my thoughts, and maybe some of my readers will follow along. 

This is not an academic review, per se. This is a mixture of summary and my own thoughts on and responses to this work. As I and Thou is a somewhat religious work in nature, my own faith (Lutheran-ish with some strongly Catholic leanings) will inform my responses and interpretations. You have been warned.

Buber, Martin. (1996). I and thou: A new translation with a prologue "I and you" and notes by Walter Kaufmann. Walter Kaufmann (Trans.). New York: Touchstone.

I started reading Buber's I and Thou a number of years ago, and kept having to return it to the library when I got part-way into it and then found myself caught up with end-of-semester coursework. Eventually, I added it to my "to buy" list and then picked it up at Powell's down in Portland over Christmas. Now I'm actually going to finish it, make some notes and underline things in my very own copy (yes, in pencil, for those who wince at the idea of writing in a book), and hopefully it will go well. I start with Kaufmann's prologue, which requires another citation:

Kaufmann, Walter. (1996). I and you: A prologue. In Buber, Martin, I and thou: A new translation with a prologue "I and you" and notes by Walter Kaufmann (pp. 9-48). Walter Kaufmann (Trans.). New York: Touchstone.

I suppose it's not uncommon to skip the prologue if it's by another author, but I like prologue and introductions, and this one seemed particularly important, as even the best translator will bring their own biases to their work, and it's well to be aware of those biases as one reads. My summary/opinions of/responses to the prologue are followed by a few quotes I particularly liked.

Kaufmann's prologue to I and Thou, originally written in 1970, provides a background to both the book itself and Kaufmann's translation in particular. Kaufmann summarizes some of Buber's background and the context in which Ich und Du was written. He baldly states that, in comparison to his other works, that this one is overwritten to the point where many (if not most) readers will be unable to understand much of the book. To readers, he states, this "seems palpable proof of profundity" (p. 24). He goes so far as to describe I and Thou as more overwritten than Nietzsche's Zarathustra (I find Zarathustra more amusing than illuminating, and Nietzsche's expressed views on women in that work are abhorrent. My fondness for Nietzsche does not override my bemused response to the odd journey that is Zarathustra, which for me is reminiscent of works such as the second half of the book of Daniel and many of the Gnostic gospels). Kaufmann's note is that "Buber's delight in language gets between him and his readers" (p. 19), which may well be true. I love fine writing, even if I cannot always understand it, and my previous attempts at the book have convinced me that I can at least enjoy the book, even if I do not understand it, and Buber is, at least, not as confusing as Homi Bhabha.

Kaufmann strongly emphasizes the Jewishness of Buber's work, something he states is frequently overlooked. He takes time to provide a less familiar reader with some background on the Hebrew concept of God, and contrasts it with the Christian concept of God. He does state that his reading of the Hebrew idea (God as I-You) versus the Christian idea (God as I-It), are his interpretations of those relationships, and should not be attributed to Buber. My own response to his statements here is that we are all prone to see God as I-It, God as object, even if we are not to make a graven image. For me, a Lutheran, the Eucharist is not God as object in the bread and wine, but a profound experience with God as person, with God made flesh, a God who so longed for the people God created to know God as person. Images or representations of God do not have to divide us from God as person; I think they are often meant to help us remember to seek out God as person, rather than God as object. Naturally, it doesn't always work out that way in practice.

One of the most salient discussions in this prologue is Kaufmann's articulation of his philosophy of translation. His own attitudes are inspired by Buber's own work in translation. Kaufmann argues that it is his duty as a translator to suss out the author's intended meaning, and translate that as closely as possible, even if this leads to a less idiomatic translation, or in the case of poetry, a less poetic translation (this, he states, is an argument for reading poetry in the original if possible). I happen to rather like this philosophy. It's a departure from what I would have heard at school, where the translation courses took a slightly different tack. I believe the emphasis was on as idiomatic as possible, but with as much attention paid to getting the author's intent across as well. The courses never fit in with my schedule or interests, so I'm guessing on what classmates said and what occasionally came up in other courses. However, Kaufmann's philosophy of translation dovetails with my own reading instincts. For example, I prefer prose translations of Beowulf, since Old English poetic styles don't work well with modern English, which is structurally quite different. You can sacrifice meaning for poetry or poetry for meaning, and I tend to go for meaning over poetry. At any rate, his philosophy of translation is followed with a discussion of his choices of translation for certain words in the text (so it would behoove the reader to read that section of the prologue at minimum), and he states his intent to be as faithful to Buber's text as possible has affected the style of the book: "The style is not the best part of this book, but it is a part and even an important part of it. Nobody has to chew passage upon passage more slowly than a translator who takes his work seriously and keeps revising his draft. . . . But once he starts making an effort to improve upon his text, keeping only the most brilliant plays on words while leaving out and not calling attention to inferior ones, possibly substituting his own most felicitous plays for ones he could not capture, where is he to stop on the road to falsehood?" (p. 43). This attitude of reverence towards the text and its author is much to be appreciated. It's impossible, I think, for the translator to entirely avoid his own interpretation, but to acknowledge that those are there and to do one's best to not include them is admirable.

And that's the prologue. On to Buber and Part One!

"The straight philosophers tend to celebrate one of the two worlds [e.g. matter and mind] and depreciate the other. The literary tradition is less Manichaean" (p. 18).

"Buber taught me that mysticism need not lead outside the world. Or if mysticism does, by definition, so much the worse for it" (p. 23).

"Buber's most significant ideas are not tied to his extraordinary language. Nor do they depend on any jargon. . . . The sacred is here and now. The only God worth keeping is a God who cannot be kept. The only God worth talking about is a God that cannot be talked about. God is no object of discourse, knowledge, or even experience. He cannot be spoken of, but he can be spoken to; he cannot be seen, but he can be listened to. The only possible relationship with God is to address him and to be addressed by him, here and now - or, as Buber puts it, in the present" (pp. 25-26).

"As a translator, I have no right to use the text confronting me as an object with which I may take liberties. It is not there for me to play with or manipulate. I am not to use it as a point for departure or anything else. It is the voice of a person that needs me. I am there to help him speak" (p. 40).

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