Wednesday, March 05, 2014

I and You


I first read Martin Buber's I and Thou in the Scribner's Library paperback edition of Ronald Gregor Smith's 1937 translation, which I still own. It came out, I believe, about the time I graduated from university, deep in the throes of a religious search. The book had a profound effect on me at the time, with its straight-forward emphasis on mutuality of relationships and definition of God as "eternal Thou." It was a refreshing change from the hopelessly legalistic R.C. theology of my youth.

The book maintained a nostalgic hold on me into adulthood; I referred to it at length in the last chapter my Skeptics and True Believers.

A few weeks ago I came across a newer translation of I and Thou in our tiny island library and nostalgia got the best of me. The 1970 translation is by Walter Kaufmann, and I hadn't come across it before. I took it home and had a look.

The most striking departure is Kaufmann's decision to translate Buber's Ich und Du as "I and You." Thou is archaic, says Kaufmann, and you is closer to the German du. Only the title of the Kaufmann edition is unchanged.

The funny thing is, reading Buber with "I and You" is an altogether different experience. It was something of the biblical "Thou" with its hint of transcendence that lifted -– or seemed to lift –- the book above the level of grandfatherly advice. There was also an Amish simplicity about the word, a horse-and-buggy theology to replace the clunking, Rube-Goldbergish mechanical omnibus of Catholic dogma.

Reading the new edition made me wonder what attracted me in the first place. There is less there than met the young man's eye: Treat the other as you would have the other treat you, as a person worthy of love. But then, maybe that's enough.

And God? The eternal You? Doesn't quite work, does it?