A footnote in Kaufmann’s translation of “I and Thou”

I was struck just now to find, tucked away at the end of a footnote discussing the technical details of one of the many tricky bits of translation in Buber’s “I and Thou”, this paragraph from Kaufmann:

The main problem with this kind of writing is that those who take it seriously are led to devote their attention to what might be meant, and the question is rarely asked whether what is meant is true, or what grounds there might be for either believing or disputing it.

It is easy to read this as a sort of jarring Philistinism, as though Kaufmann is wondering wistfully (or grumpily) why Buber has to use all of these coinages and poetic turns of phrase, all of these images and metaphors, rather than laying out his argument clearly, in simple and common words, perhaps as a set of bulleted lists (maybe a PowerPoint deck!), so that one could analyze it logically and decide whether or not it’s likely to be true.

Which seems like a hysterically inappropriate thing to think, given that what Buber is doing here is laying out a particular way of thinking about the nature of reality and each individual’s relationship to God (or equivalent). A deeply personal way of seeing the world, that he invites the reader to consider, and (implicitly) to adopt or not according to taste.

This isn’t really a thing that admits of being true or false, or of being expressed in plain and simple words (or at least of words where “what is meant” is immediately evident without special attention being paid to the question).

For me at least, Buber is saying, “think of the things we do as divided into two kinds: the I-It and the I-You; then think of…”. This is in the imperative, and doesn’t admit of being true or false (or likely or unlikely).

And surely Kaufmann, being the translator of the silly thing, realizes this.

I see only three plausible theories here so far: that Kaufmann is just pulling our leg in this paragraph (which would be wonderful); that there is an entirely different way of understanding Buber under which the paragraph makes more sense (I would be very curious what that way is); and that Kaufmann really does fail to understand the material as anything more than muzzily-expressed truth-claims that, if only more concretely written down, one could study objectively in the lab (this seems both the most obvious, and in some way the least plausible, explanation).

It’s a funny world. :)



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