11 June 2018: On Translating Kant

In Shenzen, I managed a Chinese translation group…without knowing Chinese.

Instead, the people reporting to me were well-educated mainlanders proficient in Puthongua-Mandarin. I used a method taken from computer programming.

In “extreme programming”:

* Working extra hours outside 9 to five, a source of illusory programming “productivity”, is strongly discouraged

* Instead, you and your mate develop and modify code sitting at the same desk and workstation all day

As you develop the code you discuss it with your workmate. This method of software development may seem as if it would outrage the notably hyper-developed sensibilities of typical programmers but at least in my own experience, this wasn’t the case. Indeed, I liked the camaraderie.

The concept of “extreme programming” transfers directly over to Chinese to English translation:

1. The bilingual staff translates the document from Chinese to varying levels of English, that is to “Chinglish” (often a literal translation, where Guyer/Wood seem to have translated Kant to “18thCenturyGermanlish”).

2. The manager of the Chinese to English group translates the Chinglish to a vernacular English, a freer translation that makes critical issues clear. We translate the literal “18thCenturyGermanlish” of Guyer/Wood to a free translation which engages the reader and is much clearer, at the risk, to be certain, of giving a wrong impression of what Kant thought.

The literal, English word for German word, translation of Kant by Guyer and Wood has outraged a number of Amazon reviewers because it makes their translation hard to read. The solution might be to create, whether on a selective or thorough basis, a continuum of “translations”: the German of the Kritik, the Guyer Wood literal translation in “18thCenturyGermanLish”, a translation written in a freer style (based exclusively on the 18thCenturyGermanLish) such that philosophers, and not German translators, could focus on producing a quality English translation and finally a “translation” that is more commentary than translation, perhaps just to supplement the free translation.

In the end, you would have done your readers a real service whereas Guyer and Wood are perceived as doing as little as possible…almost of having used a computer to translate. Their work is nowhere as useful as the translations of Edmund Jephcott of Adorno’s 1960s work on sociology, metaphysics, music and Kant himself, because Jephcott makes an effort to map 1960s German, an argot with its own rules, into 2000s English.

Guyer and Wood have produced at best harpsichord, Wanda Landowska versions of Bach. Jephcott is a Glenn Gould who as a translator went the extra mile just as Gould, innocently enough, delivered the essence of the Goldberg Variations and other works using the greater expressivity of the piano. But this parallel, which confronts schlamperei, going along to get along, good enough for government work, with truth, is an essay on its own. It is time to show the continuum of translation from source to literal to free to commentary.

Here is the original German of a passage on Noumena:

Ich nenne einen Begriff problematisch, der keinen Widerspruch enthält, der auch als eine Begrenzung gegebener Begriffe mit anderen Erkenntnissen zusammenhängt, dessen objektive Realität aber auf keine Weise erkannt werden kann. Der Begriff eines Noumenon, d.i. eines Dinges, welches gar nicht als Gegenstand der Sinne, sondern als ein Ding an sich selbst, (lediglich durch einen reinen Verstand) gedacht werden soll, ist gar nicht widersprechend; denn man kann von der Sinnlichkeit doch nicht behaupten, daß sie die einzige mögliche Art der Anschauung sei. Ferner ist dieser Begriff notwendig, um die sinnliche Anschauung nicht bis über die Dinge an sich selbst auszudehnen, und also, um die objektive Gültigkeit der sinnlichen Erkenntnis einzuschränken, (denn das übrige, worauf jene nicht reicht, heißen eben darum Noumena, damit man dadurch anzeige, jene Erkenntnisse können ihr Gebiet nicht über alles, was der Verstand denkt, erstrecken).

Here’s Guyer and Woods’ literal translation:

I call a concept problematic that contains no contradiction, but that is also, as a boundary for given concepts, connected with other cognitions, the objective reality of which can in no way be cognized. The concept of a noumenon, i.e., of a thing which is not to be thought of as an object of the senses but rather as a thing in itself (solely through pure understanding), is not at all contradictory; for one cannot assert of sensibility that it is the only possible kind of intuition. Further, this concept is necessary in order not to extend sensible intuition to things in themselves, and thus to limit the objective validity of sensible cognition (for the other things, which sensibility does not reach, are called noumena just in order to indicate that those cognitions cannot extend their domain to everything that the understanding thinks).

Here is a free translation which, I think, does a better job of communicating:

Call a concept “problematic” when

(1) It contains no contradiction

(2) It is connected with other cognitions whose correspondence to objective reality is doubtful

The concept of a noumenon, i.e., of a thing which is not to be thought of as an object of the senses but rather as a thing in itself (solely through pure understanding), is not contradictory; Nobody can claim of their sense input that their sense input is the only possible kind of intution.

Further, noumena are necessary in order not to extend sensible intuition to things in themselves, and thus to limit the objective validity of sensible cognition. Things unreachable to sensibility are called noumena just in order to indicate that those cognitions cannot extend their domain to everything that the understanding thinks: noumena-free sensibility consists of chimerical day-dreams and such: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, real friends, live or recorded music, a fine wool or a good meal are different experiences from the day-dreaming of the spirit-seeker or the dumbkopf because of the presence of noumena, which seek the company of the wise.

Finally, here is a commentary, a “translation” into something completely different:

Call a concept “problematic” when it isn’t self-contradictory but is connected to other cognitions which are not known to be real. The concept of a “noumenon”, that is of a thing in itself and impossible to sense, a thing thinkable only through understanding, certainly isn’t self-contradictory, because we don’t know for certain that sensibility is the only form of intuition.

Cognitions cannot extend their domain to everything the understanding thinks. We can “think” in words about “squaring the circle” and about noumena as just those things that lie beyond sensibility in a world of their own but this neither proves the existence of noumena nor helps us understand them. Kant needed “noumena” especially after the first edition of the Critique caused many people of accusing him of being a silly man like Berkeley who believed that the world was a dream,or Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter who believed three impossible things before breakfast.

Noumena exist, not in any way because we want them to exist, but because there’s a difference between a sensible intuition of something “out there” and mere day-dreaming. The ontological “assay”, as the Austrian critical realist Gustav Bergmann would say, gives us noumena in one case and not in the other…precisely what is different between imagining a delicious meal and actually having one served to one!

Change Record

18 June 2013 Error: “reporting me” should be “reporting to me”
18 June 2013 Change “This would be” to “the solution might be”
18 June 2013 Change Misc minor corrections based on review of Amazon version
18 June 2013 Change “day-dreaming of the dumbkopf” to
“day-dreaming of the spirit-seeker or the dumbkopf”

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