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St. Vincent College grad, professor dig into Nietzsche's works

| Tuesday, May 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Saint Vincent College associate professor of philosophy George Leiner has begun to translate some of the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Saint Vincent College associate professor of philosophy George Leiner has begun to translate some of the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

St. Vincent College graduate Alexander Crist of Oakmont compares learning more about philosophical thought with taking an adventure through the woods.

Like curiously turning over rocks to see what's hidden underneath, he said, philosophy inspires critical thinking about important ideas of being and purpose.

Crist is assisting George Leiner, an associate philosophy professor at St. Vincent, in translating the works of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

“Nietzsche is one of the most extremely important voices of the last few hundred years,” Leiner said.

Lining his office are books on the philosopher and cultural critic who lived from 1844 to 1900 and is best known for his idea that God is dead and for his work in existentialism.

No complete critical translation of Nietzsche's works exists in the English language, but Leiner is helping to translate an extensive German edition while using the philosopher's journals.

“His handwriting is awful,” Leiner said. “It's enormously difficult to read.”

Leiner got involved with the project, begun by Stanford University Press, when he presented a paper at an October 2010 conference attended by the editors.

He is translating 400 pages of unpublished material, written between 1886 and 1887, and will prepare an afterword during a sabbatical from teaching. He hopes to complete the work, which will include a trip to the Nietzsche Archives in Weimar, Germany, by Dec. 31.

“I think Nietzsche really gives us a path to try to capture what our human circumstances are and a way to engage them in a positive way,” Leiner said.

The philosopher wrote in composition books, which have been cataloged, scanned and transcribed into a 50-volume German “critical study” edition begun in 1964. The notebooks are a daily journal of Nietzsche's thoughts, including portions that are crossed out or amended, trip itineraries, daily budgets and hand-drawn maps.

Nietzsche uses his own abbreviations and a cursive German last used in the late 1800s.

Leiner said the difficulty in translating comes with not sinking too deep into small details. But minutiae, such as how much Nietzsche planned to pay for a hat, helps to give context.

“To decipher the order of ideas and way they fit together is a highly interpretive task,” Leiner said. “Existentialism argues if you want to understand what a human is, you have to understand the way they exist in their individual lives.”

He reviews his rough drafts during Skype and in-person meetings several times a week with Crist. They consult with St. Vincent German professor Thomas Ernst on particularly difficult passages.

Crist, a 2011 philosophy graduate who is applying to graduate schools, completed his senior research project on the difficulties of language, meaning and translation in philosophy.

Once entrenched in the Nietzsche work, Crist said, the time and effort required to analyze word choices and the flow of ideas are mentally and physically exhausting.

“It's just a lot of pieces of the puzzle,” he said.

“You have to always remember that each person is in the world in a slightly different way,” Leiner said. “The truth means incorporating yourself into the world in which you find yourself.”

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or

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