Jumping over one’s own shadow with Ernst Käsemann and David Lincicum: the challenge of translating unusual idioms

In today’s post I will attempt to respond to a question submitted by Dr. David Lincicum of the University of Oxford [now Notre Dame], whose forthcoming edited volume on F. C. Baur I discussed previously  (see here). His question concerned the translation of the idiom “über den eigenen Schatten springen”, which Ernst Käsemann uses in his introduction to the exegetical volume of F. C. Baur’s Ausgewählte Schriften, p. xi, and elsewhere. With reference to this example, Lincicum asked to hear my thoughts on “rendering vivid phrases like this into English”: [a] do I “keep the metaphor, though knowing that it will sound odd to English-speakers but perhaps more powerful for that reason”, or [b] do I “translate it into some kind of roughly equivalent English metaphor”, or [c] do I “simply opt for the sense of it?”

In my view, this is a very good theoretical question, which unfortunately allows for no easy answer, at least as I see it. The key point to note is that every solution has its pros and cons. Option (a) prioritizes the translator’s allegiance to the source language, which is good, but presses the limits of the target language, which is usually bad, though perhaps not here since the resulting oddness or awkwardness might increase the power of the metaphor. In general, option (b) is an attractive option with a view to the translator’s allegiance to the target language, especially if it is possible to find an especially suitable metaphor in English, and it has the advantage of retaining something of the metaphorical character of the source language. So this is often a good solution, i.e. if a suitable English idiom is available, and if the advantages of retaining the odd original idiom are not judged to outweigh it. Finally, (c) is often the best option with a view to readability and probably preferable to (b) in cases in which it is not possible to find a particularly suitable metaphor and to (a) if the German idiom is too awkward or too difficult to comprehend.

Before turning to the expression “über den eigenen Schatten springen” let me comment briefly on a comparable problem that I encountered in my translation of Martin Hengel’s essay “Eye-Witness Memory and the Writing of the Gospels” for Graham Stanton’s Festschrift The Written Gospel (eds. Markus Bockmuehl and Donald Hagner). Though it has been almost ten years now, I remember well struggling to figure out how I should translate the idiom “hat sich den Jüngern ins Herz gebrannt“ in the sentence: “Die Erinnerung an die letzte Nacht mit dem Passamahl und den Ereignissen in Gethsemane, an den Verrat des Judas, die Verleugnung des Petrus und die eigentliche Passion hat sich den Jüngern ins Herz gebrannt.“ In the end, I decided to stick closely to the German wording and write “were burned into the hearts of the disciples” [“were” is unfortunately incorrect: it should read “was burned into” or “burned itself into”!] with the exactly the rationale suggested by Lincicum, namely because it seemed to me that the retention of this unusual idiom might make it all the more powerful for the English reader. In other words, I decided that (a) was the best option, all things considered. But is this also the best solution for “über den eigenen Schatten springen”?

Let me begin by surveying some of the ways that the expression can be used. Here is what I have been able to find so far:

According to the Redensarten-Index, the phrase means “sich überwinden; ungewöhnlich handeln; für eine richtige Sache einen Grundsatz ignorieren“ (to overcome oneself; to act unusually; to ignore a principle for a right thing/just cause”).

According to Katja Grundman’s post at the GeoLino Redewendungen page, “‘Über seinen Schatten springen‘ sagt man, wenn jemand etwas tut, obwohl es seinen eigenen Überzeugungen oder seinem Charakter widerspricht. (“‘to jump over one’s shadow’ is what one says when someone does something, although it contradicts his [or her] own convictions or character”).

Duden explains the phrase as follows: “sich überwinden, etwas zu tun, was gegen die eigene Natur, die eigenen Vorstellungen, Absichten, Wünsche geht“ (to overcome oneself, to do something that goes against one’s own nature, ideas, intentions, wishes)

Not surprisingly, Linguee’s example sentences reflect a diverse range of solutions that move between (a) and (c), for example: (a) “jump over its/your own shadow”, “reach beyond their shadows”, (b) “to change their spots”, “breaking the mould”, “expand one’s horizons”, (c) “surpass ourselves”, “change the habit of a lifetime”, “change our attitudes”, “a change of approach”.

Finally, dict.cc translates the phrase “Man kann nicht über seinen eigenen Schatten springen” with “The leopard cannot change his spots”.

Against this background, let us now look at how the phrase is being used by Käsemann in his in introduction to the exegetical volume of F.C. Baur’s Ausgewählte Schriften, p. xi):

[x] Gleichwohl darf man Baurs Deutung nicht einfact als vermeidbaren Fehlschluß betrachten. Sie hat Ursachen, für welche Baur kaum verantwortlich gemacht werden kann, wenn man nicht von ihm verlangt, dass er auf der ganzen Linie die zu seiner Zeit geltenen Prämissen hätte überspringen müssen … [xi] Von den gegebenen Voraussetzungen aus ist solche Argumentation und Interpretation geschlossen und sogar überzeugend. Für eine echte Alternative war die Zeit noch nicht reif. Baur hätte über den eigenen Schatten springen müssen, um sie zu erkennen. Wenn der bedeutende Historiker jedoch aus dem Schatten seiner Zeit herausspringt, muß er gleichwohl dem Verhängnis, sich nicht völlig lösen zu können, seiner Tribut zahlen.“

Käsemann’s larger argument in this section is that Baur can hardly be made responsible for the problems with his line of argumentation because they are a result of the problematic premises of his time period that he was not in position to overcome completely. Against this background, the statement “Baur would have had to jump over his own shadow to recognize it [a genuine alternative]” appears to have the basic force of “Baur would have had to do the impossible to recognize it”. But how should it be translated? In my judgment, it is difficult to decide between the three options here, namely (a) retaining the idiom: “Baur would have had to jump over his own shadow to recognize it [a genuine alternative], (b) making use of a comparable English idiom: “Baur would have had to change his spots to recognize it” or “Baur would have had to play a different hand than he had been dealt to recognize it”, or (c) translating according to sense: “Baur would have had to do the impossible to recognize it” or “Baur would have had to break through his own historical limitations to recognize it”. In the end, I would probably retain the idiom together with the corresponding image of jumping out of the shadow in the next sentence. But I can understand why others might think it would be better to adopt options (b) or (c), and would certainly not be quick to criticize them if they did. If (c) were adopted, then one could perhaps write: “Baur would have had to break through his own historical limitations to recognize it. If, however, the important historian did break out of the limitations of his time, then he must nevertheless pay his tribute to the fate of not being able to completely overcome them.”

[In response to my original post, Christoph Heilig helpfully drew my attention to the moral dimension of this idiom: “Interestingly, the German idiom is used quite unusually here. You got the sense right (c)), because the context clearly speaks of real constraints and limitations. However, usually “über den eigenen Schatten springen” is used to describe decisions which are well possible but demand courage. Hence, this expression normally has a moral component.”]

Many thanks to David Lincicum for submitting such a stimulating (and challenging!) question.

For other posts on E. Käsemann in the blogosophere, see here.

For other posts on F. C. Baur in the blogosphere, see here.

For a complete list of my blog posts, please see here.

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For two interviews with me about the Baylor-Mohr Siebeck Series, see Clifford Kvidahl and Michael Hölscher.

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