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A First for Philosophy

To understand Edmund Husserl’s ideas regarding phenomenology in his native German is one thing, but to translate them into another language calls for a deeper power. Husserl, known as the father of phenomenology and for the intricacy of his writing, identified the relationship between human consciousness and objects in the real world. Mount St. Mary's University Associate Philosophy Professor Thane Naberhaus, Ph.D., recently tackled this translation challenge.

naberhaus-in-text.jpgIn collaboration with his co-translator, Sebastian Luft, Ph.D., a philosophy professor from Marquette University, Naberhaus translated Husserl’s Erste Philosophie, or First Philosophy, and recently published the text as a book. The translated manuscripts are Husserl’s lecture course from the winter semester of 1923-1924 at University of Freiburg im Breisgau. That semester Husserl lectured students about the history of philosophy and the significance of his own transcendental phenomeology while paying homage to “Socrates-Plato,” Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant.

Naberhaus's focus area of phenomenology, existentialism, and transcendental philosophy pushed him to “take a leap of faith” to co-translate the dense and challenging lectures. Most people who read Husserl focus on a small part of his work. Naberhaus accepted the challenge because First Philosophy is Husserl’s most systematic attempt to explain his philosophy as a whole.  “It is his philosophy of philosophy,” said Naberhaus.  It is also the only major work by Husserl that had not been translated into English.  The translation was a tedious voyage, but the translators were well equipped to undertake it.  Luft is a native German speaker who understands English well, and Naberhaus is a native English speaker who understands German well. 

Naberhaus, however, understood that the process would not be straightforward.  “I had to suppress the editor in me,” said Naberhaus. “I wanted to be Husserl’s editor. I found cases where I thought Husserl had said something badly, and I wanted to fix it or say it more elegantly, but I knew I was bound by the requirement of being faithful to the original. There was a tension between faithfulness and elegance.”

While some scholars believe that a thinker’s ideas are not truly expressible in another language, Naberhaus holds that thoughts can be articulated in any language, though it takes effort to translate them from one to another.  He described three principal elements to the translation process: understanding the text in the home language (German, in this case), getting the basic sense into the target language (English), and, within the limits imposed by being faithful to the original, making it readable and elegant in the target language.  “Most of the work went into the third step,” Naberhaus explained. “The first two steps are not that hard. The third step is a bear.”

Naberhaus was happy to make Husserl’s work more available to English speakers and said the task greatly improved his German.  Thanks to the cotranslators' unfailing endurance, English speakers are now able to tackle Edmund Husserl’s First Philosophy themselves.