Aus krummem Holze

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 25, 2006

If a book is translated in your mother tongue, but the original was in a language that you understand, would you read the book in translation or in the original language? I (almost) always choose the original, despite that this generally requires greater effort. The reason is simple: many translated works are not able to capture the exact meanings of the original text (especially in the case of non-fiction), or do not breathe the same atmosphere (especially in the case of fiction). Even for single quotes, the original is often better phrased than the translated. But there are exceptions. Take the quote at the top of your screen: as far as I know, it is “Isaiah Berlin’s translation”: of Immanuel Kant’s original. I’ve always wondered how the original sounds, and since I couldn’t figure out myself, I asked “Pauline Kleingeld”:, a Kant Scholar. Here it is:

Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden (Akademische Ausgabe, Band 8, page 23).

For once, the translation beats the original.



Jacob Christensen 08.25.06 at 3:33 am

Well, Kant was never known to be the most elegant writer in the world.

But the Germans are catching up, though.

Anyway, if a text is in English, German, Swedish or Norwegian, I usually go for the original rather than the Danish translation. French, unfortunately, is beyond me.


bad Jim 08.25.06 at 3:35 am


The upfront aus/als parallelism, nearly a rhyme, is absent in the translation, and “kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden” is a bit of jovial guttural yodeling lacking in the English version.

In contrast, “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain” improves Schiller’s “Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens”, but that was a throwaway line to begin with.


Aidan Kehoe 08.25.06 at 3:38 am

Der Spiegel has the whole piece online . I really dislike the sentiment in its context, now I read the context; I think that the idea that every person needs a force majeure making them obey what laws exist is just wrong—look at places like Iceland or Costa Rica which have no army and concurrently perfectly stable societies.


Fergal 08.25.06 at 4:04 am

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read works in translation. Native English speakers, like me, are insular enough already…


djw 08.25.06 at 4:04 am

Both the original and the translation have their charms, and while the translation gains the “timber”, it loses the verb “zimmern“, which carries an immediate association with craftsmanship. The loss of Kant’s three-clause stuttering rhythm with its alliterations (or near-alliterations) comes at some cost as well, especially when “from which man was made” is collapsed into “humanity”. The English is smoother, but I’m not altogether certain that’s an improvement here.


michael ludwig 08.25.06 at 4:17 am

i will certainly agree with jacob christensen that Kant’s German certainly left much to be desired (i think he contends only with Apel for worst German philosophical style of all times).

The atmosphere of a language has a great impact on (philosophical) non-fiction too. Consider Hegel and Heidegger: i think we can safely say that they used the “ontological feel” of the German language not only to guide their philosophical musings but also to lend a special profoundness to their texts that almost entirely disappears in translation. A translation of Kant doesn’t loose much (and might gain in readability) but a translation of one of the Hs can only be considered a guide to the original. You don’t need to know a word of German to study Kant; that would be unthinkable for H&H, imho.


astrongmaybe 08.25.06 at 4:17 am

djw, you beat me to the draw, but here’s my two cents…

Berlin’s meter is better than Kant’s, but inevitably there a couple of shades of nuance changed. By my reading, a more literal translation is something like:

Nothing absolutely straight can be fashioned from wood as crooked as that of which humans are made.

Even then the humans have to be pluralized and the overtones of ‘zimmern’ (to ‘carpenter’, from ‘Zimmer’ =room, and thus vaguely house, home) are lost.

Barely relevant, but hey: among the major translators of German literature into English in the first half of the twentieth century were a couple named Willa and Edwin Muir. They are best known as the first translators of Kafka, but their versions are very much frowned on today and have nearly all been retranslated at least once. There’s quite an element of snarkiness and condescension towards them nowadays. I always find this quite amusing, because their critics usually refer to “the Muirs”, which makes the whole scholarly exercise sound like suburban griping about some awful couple who live across the street. All the more so, since there was another translator-couple of Kafka at some point, the Schmidts or the Steins or something.

(Ingrid: thanks for all your posts, btw, you’ve been a fantastic guest blogger.)


Aidan Kehoe 08.25.06 at 4:22 am

… the translation gains the “timber”, it loses the verb “zimmern“, which carries an immediate association with craftsmanship.

They have the same root (cf. the Dutch for “carpenter” is “timmerman”) and “timber,” correspondingly, does still have an association with craftmanship. You don’t use the word unless you’re describing wood that’s to be worked on or integrated into some human construction; firewood isn’t timber, for example.

I do prefer the translation, just because it’s smoother.


John F. Opie 08.25.06 at 5:24 am

The original:

Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.

Berlin’s translation: Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.

Not a good literal translation, but a very nice transliteration.

Better would be as translation:

Out of such crooked timber as man, nothing truly straight can be crafted.

Which could be transliterated as:

Out of such crooked timber as man can nothing straight be crafted.

Just my 2 cents.

And I would strongly disagree with the sentiment that Kant’s German is so terrible: we are, after all, talking about someone far removed from modern German. And I would definitely agree with the sentiment that Hegel and Heidegger, especially Heidegger, need to be read in the original to truly understand the nuances of what is being said. Same is true for Husserl.



Randy Paul 08.25.06 at 5:56 am

I (almost) always choose the original, despite that this generally requires greater effort.

It took me a year to read the Tin Drum in German and actually enjoyed the translation better.

Carlos Fuentes, who lived in Washington,DC for many years and speaks flawless virtually accentless English, was asked why he doesn’t translate his own works. He said that he just isn’t comfortable doing that.


Isabel 08.25.06 at 7:14 am

Antonio Tabuchi, an Italian writer that lives most of the time in Portugal and writes mostly about Portuguese themes (Fernando Pessoa, etc) does not translate his own works into Portuguese, although he has written a novel in Portuguese. His explanation is, predictably enough, that if he was to translate one of his books, he would end up writing an entirely different one.


a different chris 08.25.06 at 7:53 am

I’m always suspicious of poetry translations. I mean how close can you get when you have to not only translate the phrases but do so in a way that has the proper meter and rhyming structure?

Since I only speak English, this is alas something I’ve never been able to track down. Ironically nobody expects us to read Shakespere sonnets that have been translated into modern English, even though very few of us could carry on a conversation with him in his native environment.


Penelope 08.25.06 at 8:42 am

The words “nichts ganz Gerades” mean “no completely straight thing”. The implication is that humanity can come close, but never quite reach the ideal. Whereas the translation suggests rather that we cannot even come close. Quite a major reinterpretation, really, at least if you just consider the sentence in isolation.


Steve LaBonne 08.25.06 at 8:45 am

I hate having to read in translation any book that was written in the only foreign language I can read (French). I only like to read translated poetry in dual-language editions, and only from languages I know some words of and whose sound I can at least approximate (Spanish, Italian, German) so I can at least get some idea of the word-music.

Even so, in the spirit of the blog entry, I can think of one famous quote that does sound better to me in English. Pasteur’s “Le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés” is known to almost every English-speaking scientist as “Chance favors the prepared mind” which seems more succinctly epigrammatical than the original.


Michael Kremer 08.25.06 at 8:59 am

Steve Labonne:

But “Le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés” *doesn’t mean* “Chance favors the prepared mind.” It means, rather, “Chance favors *only* the prepared mind.” This is quite a different claim.


Guest 08.25.06 at 9:01 am

“For once, the translation beats the original.”

I’ll say! I can’t make heads or tails of that jibber-jabber! What is that, French or something?


Steve LaBonne 08.25.06 at 9:07 am

Michael, I agree. As discussed above with the Kant quote, that sort of meaning shift often does happen with translations. Traddutore, traditore!


chris y 08.25.06 at 9:13 am

does not translate his own works into Portuguese

It is or was until very recently a rule with most publishers to commission translations only from native speakers of the language being translated into, so that in most cases they would be at least marginally less fluent in the language of the original.

The reasoning is that the first priority is a fluent text for publication, but it’s clear that this could lead to the occasional inaccuracy.

Presumably exceptions like Nabokov are discounted by publishers’ agents.


Guy 08.25.06 at 9:20 am

“The reason is simple: many translated works are not able to capture the exact meanings of the original text”

Meanings as in “context” are almost impossible to translate without a whole bunch of footnotes, etc.

Take, for instance, the apple pie in “As American as apple pie”. Apple pie is not only American, it is very common in several other countries. Usually a translation would go along the lines of “typically American”. If, however, you need to keep the apple pie in your translation (literal plus figurative reference), well, then you are screwed as a translator. And being a translator, I am often screwed :-)

And I am not even talking about stylistical differences, etc.

“I’m always suspicious of poetry translations. I mean how close can you get when you have to not only translate the phrases but do so in a way that has the proper meter and rhyming structure?”

You can do two translations back-to-back, one with meaning and one with meter, etc.

By the way, Shakespeare is supposed to be eminently translatable in German. In any case, I avoid poetry like the plague (translation-wise, I mean).
The original is, almost always, better.


Steve LaBonne 08.25.06 at 9:25 am

I really feel for the poor slob who has to translate poetry that goes out of its way to avoid “meaning”. What’s the point of trying to “translate”, say, Mallarmé?


Henry (not the famous one) 08.25.06 at 9:35 am

A friend told me long ago that German students often read Kant in translation, supposedly because it was clearer. Anyone care to speak up in support of this academic folktale?

The first translation of “The Master and Margarita” allegedly translated “dentist” as “Dante scholar.” Probably not an improvement.


Guy 08.25.06 at 9:38 am

Ingrid, since you are Dutch, try and translate into English: Na Reagan komt zonneschijn.

For those who do not speak Dutch, the meaning is: There is a silver lining behind every Reagan.

Literally: After Reagan (Dutch: regen = rain) there will be sunshine.


Isabel 08.25.06 at 9:41 am

chris y: Did Nabokov translate his own books into Russian? I’m curious, because I would imagine that he would have the same reaction as Tabuchi: in Russian, he would have written a different book.


rgeorge 08.25.06 at 9:53 am

I highly recommend Milan Kundera’s “Testaments Betrayed” on this issue.


Michael Kremer 08.25.06 at 10:03 am

chris y (#17):

The practice you describe results in blunders like the translation of Foucault’s “Nous autres, Victoriens” (which is just an idiomatic way of saying that we are Victorians) as “We ‘Other Victorians'”.

The best practice would seem to involve a translation team of two members, one whose native language is the source language, the other whose native language is the target language.

This practice has resulted in highly acclaimed English translations of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other Russian authors, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky — since I don’t know Russian I have to take the word of those who do on the quality of the translations.


Aidan Kehoe 08.25.06 at 10:13 am

Samuel Beckett tended to write in French and do his own translations into English. I suspect lots of the writers who don’t despite being able to, consider writing a better (or perhaps just more profitable) use of their time. Umberto Eco’s only translation that I know of was one of Nerval’s Sylvie, and he’s certainly had the opportunity to do more!

Guy, it’s good to see one more person taking up Des von Bladet’s individual approach to European geography, but in that particular geopolitical state of affairs, “East Belgian” is the word you’re looking for, not “Dutch” :-) .

Less opaquely, Ingrid is Belgian, despite living in the Netherlands.


Guy 08.25.06 at 10:24 am

“Less opaquely, Ingrid is Belgian, despite living in the Netherlands.”

Oops, big mistake there. Thanks for pointing this out, Aidan. Ingrid, please, do not kill me…


Ben M 08.25.06 at 10:48 am


You comment that “many translated works are not able to capture the exact meanings of the original text”. Depending on your own fluency, though, *you* might also be unable to capture the exact meanings of the original text. Me, I’m happy to read Spanish newspapers, I certainly miss things in Garcia Marquez and Juan Ramon Jimenez, and Cervantes is a fog. So it’s hard to say whether I would lose some feeling, or idiom, or meaning, by reading in translation—I’m perfectly capable of losing feeling, idiom, and meaning on my own.

To take the example from #19, imagine a German reader with middling command of English coming across “American as apple pie”. The reader might skim over it and dismiss it as unintelligible, or look it up, or even, quite reasonably, take away the opposite meaning! Such a reader is better served by having the translator, who knows perfectly well what the idiom means, find a suitable way to convey it—they’d be better served by reading “typischer Amerikaner” than by muddling past the original.

“Traddutore, traditore”, yes, but sometimes “lettore, traditore”. There’s a balance between a translator’s superior insight (imperfectly conveyed into the target language) and the reader’s imperfect understanding (minus the extra layer) So, the question isn’t “Is it better to read the original?”, but rather “How fluent do you have to be before the balance swings?” And of course it will vary from author to author.

(The ideal solution, of course, is to read the original with an expert translator hanging over your shoulder making comments.)


Anderson 08.25.06 at 11:17 am

A friend told me long ago that German students often read Kant in translation, supposedly because it was clearer. Anyone care to speak up in support of this academic folktale?

Precisely what I was looking for in this thread–I’ve heard this, too, particularly about Kemp Smith’s English translation.

Also, the New Yorker recently noted that Beckett’s translations of his French novels into English are a bit loose:

After completing “L’Innommable,” in 1953, Beckett set about translating himself back into English, as he did with almost all his plays. It’s telling that his flattish French often comes into English with a snarl: the plain “Depuis ma naissance” becomes “Ever since I was whelped.”

What a great topic for a lit-crit/translation/textual-crit seminar. Is the English text a revision of the original, & thus expresses Beckett’s later intentions? Would we be better advised to read Beckett’s loose translation, or a more literal translation by another person? Etc., etc.


Anderson 08.25.06 at 11:20 am

One more thing–anyone fluent in French got an opinion on Lowell Bair’s translations?

His Stendhal and Dumas read very well in English (particularly his Charterhouse), but I’ve not sat down & tried them against the originals.


Isabel 08.25.06 at 11:24 am

My favourite translation blunder, that reproduces itself in all the langauges I know, is the title of Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smultronstället”, variously know as “Wild Strawberries” “Fraises Sauvages”, “Morangos Silvestres”, etc. It totally misses the original sense of that special place in your heart that you visit in your dreams and your nostalgia, your “secret little garden”.


Guy 08.25.06 at 11:27 am

“Is the English text a revision of the original, & thus expresses Beckett’s later intentions?”

How fluent was he in English? What, if any, dictionaries did he use?


chris y 08.25.06 at 11:29 am

Michael Kremer:

I’m quite sure you’re right that that’s the way to go, I’m just describing the common practice. After all, if you hire two translators you have to pay them both, so it’s not surprising.


Aidan Kehoe 08.25.06 at 11:42 am

Ben M, #28: I think your specific example underestimates people’s ability to work out things from context—certainly, I first came across the phrase in writing and didn’t give it a second thought.

As for the wider point that people don’t always get every nuance of a text on first reading it; of course! And that’s true for first languages just as it is for second languages; and with more exposure, it becomes less of an issue. I imagine, if you haven’t read any Jane Austen, that you would miss things on your first encounter with her that you’d be picking up easily by your third novel.

Guy, #32; English was his first language, he had a degree from and had taught at a decent university, and he’d worked as a gofer for James Joyce. It was good, in short.


Guy 08.25.06 at 11:57 am

Thanks, Aidan. I actually knew that and realised my stupidity when I hit the “post” button, but my mind was elsewhere (with translation strategies) and I mixed a few things up. Sorry.


Eszter 08.25.06 at 1:02 pm

There is always the completely masochistic approach when you decide that while you can’t read the original (because, say, three years of middle school Russian is just not enough to read Bulgakov) you decide to buy the book in a language that is by far not your best, but you like it, and figure it would be fun to read the book in it. This is why I own a copy of Master and Margarita in French. I never did get through it though. My French is pretty good, but it turns out not that good.:(


Randy Paul 08.25.06 at 1:15 pm

Chris Y,

Gregory Rabassa, arguably the greatest translator of LatAm literature, is a native Spanish speaker, but has translated Portuguese writers, and yes, there is a difference,


WorldWideWeber 08.25.06 at 1:15 pm

henry said:

The first translation of “The Master and Margarita” allegedly translated “dentist” as “Dante scholar.” Probably not an improvement.

I happen to be rereading Master and Margarita (again) and was confused by dantist in the Russian. There’s a perfectly good Russian way of saying dentist: zubnoi vrach [tooth doctor]. Dantist sure looks like it comes from the name Dante. If you know French (which has only given me pain throughout my life), you might eventually realize the “Russian” word is based on dentiste (Fr.). The impossible task for translator: let the English-speaking reader know we’re talking about a dentist, but that Bulgakov is transmitting Frenchy overtones, for whatever reason (to indicate pretension, perhaps—or maybe dantist isn’t pretentious in Russian?), or just using one word where two would do. Just for fun, I might render it “the dentist Dante Ivanovich.” Would Bulgakov mind? Let him come and get me!

In re Nabokov: he tended to extensively rewrite his Russian novels when he “translated” them in to English. I don’t think he translated any of his English books into Russian.


WorldWideWeber 08.25.06 at 1:43 pm

P.S. Scratch all that about dantist in Master and Margarita. Talk about the power of suggestion! I can’t find the word in Russian versions of the novel online. It seems I was confused by some other odd word. (Or maybe dantist occurs in the appendix, which contains rejected drafts. Or maybe it’s in some other book …) At any rate, a thousand pardons.


Anderson 08.25.06 at 1:53 pm

Guy: How fluent was he in English?

Well, true, he was Irish ….

(Guy is probably pulling my leg, of course.)


radek 08.25.06 at 3:26 pm

“The first translation of “The Master and Margarita” …”

One of the things me and my father agree on is that “The Master and Margarita” is one of the few works that is actually better in English translation than in original Russian, or Polish for that matter (must’ve been a later translation). If I had to think of another example I’d say Milosz’s poetry comes of a lot less preachy and sanctimonious in English, which is a good thing.
Can’t think of any other cases of hand. It’s a pretty small set. Of course most translations are at best a weak shadow of the original.


ingrid robeyns 08.25.06 at 3:27 pm

Ben (#28), I see the point your’re making; and I guess I was presenting the ‘rule’ I’m trying to follow rather than describing my actual practice – in practice I always read the original in English and German, but I don’t always read the original in French since I wouldn’t be able to get the exact meaning of many sentences. (In spanish I can only read easy parts of the newspaper, but I love dual language poetry in Spanish). There is a gain from reading in the original language, but if my estimate is that the gain will be smaller than the loss from not understanding, then I go for the translation. It requires a judgement for each book.

I very much enjoyed reading The Master and Margarita in Dutch, but still envy those of you who can read it in Russian !


Anatoly 08.25.06 at 4:21 pm

Re: #23 and #38, about Nabokov: he translated “Lolita” into Russian. There is no competing translation. It’s not a completely different novel, but he did occassionally felt free to change some minor details or expand or shorten some descriptive passages.


Ben M 08.25.06 at 4:28 pm

I’ve also wondered: will anyone admit to reading “The Da Vinci Code” in translation? Isn’t such a translation practically guaranteed to be stylistically better than the original?


Anatoly 08.25.06 at 4:43 pm

re: #39, #40: “dantist” is not pretentious in Russian, and it doesn’t transmit French overtones if you don’t already know it comes from French. It’s used alongside “tooth doctor” more or less synonymously; stomatolog is another word with exactly the same meaning in common speech, though medical schools probably insist on some standartised terminology, and probably don’t use “dantist”.

“Dantist” comes across as slightly more archaic than the other two alternatives, but it’s not extinct by any means. Interestingly, Ozhegov’s 1967 dictionary claims it was used in pre-1917 Russia to refer specifically to practicing dentists who didn’t have formal degrees, but this certainly isn’t true in modern Russian.

“Dantist” -> “Dante specialist” would be a hilarious case of mistranslation, but I can’t find “dantist” anywhere in Master and Margarita, either. Perhaps it was some other novel?


Anatoly 08.25.06 at 5:55 pm

michael krember, re: #25: opinions differ on the quality of Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of Russian authors.

A few years ago I compared a few chapters from Master and Margarita in the Glenny (1967) and the new Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, and was dismayed by how consistently tin-eared and untrue to the original the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation was. I wrote up my impressions, with some examples of particular (simple) passages in the original and in both translations, but that’s in Russian.

The most unfortunate thing about the PV translation of Master and Margarita is their consistent habit of literal rendering of this or that Russian idiom or turn of phrase, which, being completely unremarkable and typical in the original Russian, becomes something weird or quaint in English, something perhaps to draw the reader’s attention and make them think they’re experiencing the author’s unique style or “Russianness” (no doubt lost in previous, imperfect translations!). When, on the other hand, something unusual is going in the original text, that feeling is lost in the PV translation, or, even worse, the meaning is garbled.

It’s puzzling that this happens so often, sometimes in the most trivial cases. The first chapter’s title, rendered “Never talk with strangers” in PV, is a phrase in Russian that matches perfectly the idiomatic English “Never talk to strangers”. The Russian verb does take the preposition “with”, but that’s the normal way of saying that in Russian, and “talk to” is its idiomatic translation. Larisa Volokhonsky, with her native Russian, couldn’t possibly be unaware of that; the only reason I could think of for PV to use “with” here is to deliberately slightly “strange-ify” the text where there’s nothing like that in the original. And that’s one of the subtler examples; distortions that are much more blunt in their apparently deliberate desire to make the text “weird”, “raw”, “Russian” can be found on just about every page.

My conclusion was that any feeling of authenticity, of perceiving Bulgakov’s style or anything characteristically “Russian” about the text that a reader might get from the PV translation would be fake. Based on just a few excerpts that I compared, the Burgin-O’Connor translation of Master and Margarita seemed to be the most apt, but even Glenny’s old 1967 translation, with plenty of its own faults, would be preferrable to the PV version. I haven’t tried reading PV’s translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but if their method there is anything like what they did in Master and Margarita, the results couldn’t be much better.


WorldWideWeber 08.25.06 at 6:08 pm

Thanks, anatoly, for clearing things up. I found an old book review of August 1914 that mentions some of Michael Glenny’s mistranslations (including dantist -> Dante specialist), but the reference is more general (to Glenny’s “earlier translations of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novels”). I also found occurences of dantist in “rewritten chapters” of M&M. Now, if I can find them in the appendix to my edition, I’ll sleep easier tonight.


nick s 08.25.06 at 7:05 pm

I’m always suspicious of poetry translations. I mean how close can you get when you have to not only translate the phrases but do so in a way that has the proper meter and rhyming structure?

William H. Gass’s Reading Rilke is an excellent study of just that task, taking samples from pretty much every published English rendition of the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus and holding them up to the light.

Beckett composed in French to alienate himself from the language. (At least, that seems to be why he did it: his story shifted during his life.) This also makes his position on the English Lit syllabus somewhat idiosyncratic, especially if you hang around people writing doctorates on his French works. It’s cases like his that appeal to the ‘Cambridge’ approach to literary study, which cross lingustic boundaries to embrace common genres and themes, as opposed to the historical ‘Oxford’ approach which takes the national and historical sweep.


WorldWideWeber 08.25.06 at 8:25 pm

I’ve enjoyed the commentary about the Kant/Berlin quote. My question is this: if we leave aside the differences in meaning, to the extent that Berlin’s version is more “elegant” than Kant’s, doesn’t that make it a bad translation? And (returning now to the changed meaning) given that Kant’s formulation is very interesting in its own right, does that not also make Berlin’s version a bad translation?

In other words, Berlin’s sentence is interesting and euphonious. But what of Kant is left in it? And what’s so bad about a clumsy, or crunchy, or bumpy bit of German (or English) if the idea is worth considering? (Or is the consensus here that his version of the idea less worth considering?) I don’t imagine Kant thought he was writing an aphorism; Berlin’s aim, on the other hand, was most likely aphoristic. I guess I prefer my philosophy to be a little lumpy.

I agree with Anatoly: that a translator needs a good ear (in both the original and the target language), and that a mindless fidelity can produce dreck in translation. And, I might add, when one is dealing with so-called creative writing, a little creativity on the translator’s part comes in handy. But in this case, Kant/Berlin: was justice done? Again, not to denigrate the Berlin quote, but it’s really Berlin, isn’t it, not Kant? Berlin by way of Kant?

Again, thanks, all, for the interesting comments.


engels 08.25.06 at 9:32 pm

It’s probably a myth, but I remember someone saying that Kemp-Smith’s translation of Kant is so much clearer than the original that sometimes German students have been recommended to read Kant in English.


joejoejoe 08.26.06 at 1:33 am

I read Nabakov’s novel ‘Mary’ in English which he originally wrote as his first ever novel in Russian as ‘Marushka’. Nabakov’s commercial success largely came writing in English so his English-to-Russian translations are for his more popular later works.

Nabakov acknowledges that ‘Mary’ is autobiographical in nature in the forward. As a reader it was a unique experience to read an autobiographical fiction book written by a struggling young man in Russian, then translated into English some 40 years later by the same man who had grown old and successful in the intervening years. It’s an interesting little book and I highly recommend the English version. I don’ speak Russian but imagine bilingual Russian/English readers would have great fun reading the two brief novellas back to back and comparing the experience.


James Wimberley 08.26.06 at 6:00 am

Comment 52 already, and nobody else has posted James Thurber’s reply to an admirer who told him that his output read very well in French translation: “Yes, my works lose something in the original”.


bi 08.26.06 at 10:13 am

WorldWideWeber: on that note, I remember seeing a translation of the Tao Te Ching which added such a huge layer of “interpretation” on the original text that the meaning’s completely obscured… and it’s not even elegant.

That aside, perhaps philosophical works are best translated literally, but what are we to make of Also Sprach Zarathustra, which I understand is both a philosophical work and a literary work with word-play?

And I need someone to help translate my Pax Neo-TeX. :-)


~~~~ 08.26.06 at 11:22 am

Comment 54 already, and nobody else has posted Hegel’s reply to a French philosopher who asked him if he could state his views more concisely: “These things can be discussed neither concisely nor in French.”


Anatoly 08.26.06 at 3:31 pm

#51, joejoejoe: it’s “Nabokov”, and “Mashen’ka”, if it please you.

#44, ben m: Believe it or not, even Dan Brown can be traduced by translators. There was a choice quote from “Angels and Demons”, in its Russian translation, making the rounds on the internets a while ago; in it, the intrepid hero marks three churches on a map of Rome, looks at those three points, checks again… “there was no doubt left: it was a triangle!”

Turned out that the original read “… a symmetrical triangle!”.


language hat 08.27.06 at 9:36 am

Great thread!

Did Nabokov translate his own books into Russian? I’m curious, because I would imagine that he would have the same reaction as Tabuchi: in Russian, he would have written a different book.

Anatoly mentioned his translation of Lolita; a perhaps more interesting instance is his expanded translation of Conclusive Evidence (1951) into Drugie berega [‘Other Shores’] (1954), and then his final reworking of the material as Speak, Memory (1966). If you can get hold of The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, a superb compilation of mini-essays on every conceivable aspect of his work (including chapters like “Nabokov and Bergson,” “Nabokov and Chateaubriand,” “Nabokov and Evreinov,” “Nabokov and Poe”…), the chapter on Speak, Memory (by Georges Nivat) has a fascinating comparison of the Russian and English versions (e.g., the varied play of sounds in “I fancied that strange, pale animals roamed in a landscape of lakes” and “mne mereshchilis’ tomitel’nye dopotopnye dali”).

Incidentally, it’s worth learning Russian just to read Nabokov’s novels in that language; to my mind, Dar is one of the great novels of the twentieth century, a status that I don’t think is accorded to the English version, The Gift. (I had the great pleasure of perusing the Russian text in its original locus, the beautiful cream-covered volumes of the Parisian emigré journal Sovremennye zapiski, lovingly preserved at the Slavic Department of the NYPL.) Trust me, as wonderful as his prose is in English, it’s twice as good in Russian (which, lest we forget, was his native language).

And WorldWideWeber, thanks for that devastating Karlinsky takedown of poor Glenny! “Dante scholar” was just the tip of the iceberg.


John Emerson 08.27.06 at 12:29 pm

33-34-35: It is quite common for an Irishman to have a degree of literacy in English.


John Emerson 08.27.06 at 12:49 pm

Bi 53: That sounds like Chang Chung-yuan’s “Tao: A New Way of Thinking”, which rendered almost everything with an interpretation.

There’s a dogma in Chinese studies that no poetic translation can be accurate and no accurate translation can be poetic (or even readable). Edward Schafer enforced this dogma, which probably traces back to a 50s dispute between Schafer’s teacher Boodberg (a Russian emigre Orientalist) and Kenneth Rexroth.

I base this conclusion on a snide comment Rexroth made on St. Petersburg military schools — which is where Boodberg (like the composers Musorgsky, Cui, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakoff) received his early education.


Aidan Kehoe 08.28.06 at 7:40 am

John Emerson, #57: Really? Was Beckett Irish?


John Emerson 08.28.06 at 8:51 am

It’s wrong to judge the Irish simply from their drunkenness, filthy appearance and laziness. Many are quite bright.


Aidan Kehoe 08.28.06 at 9:29 am

Ah, but it makes it that much harder to believe someone well-known is Irish when they don’t drink themselves to death.


Anderson 08.28.06 at 9:33 am

Okay, but does NOBODY have the scoop on whether German students really read Kant in English?


Aidan Kehoe 08.28.06 at 1:38 pm

Anderson, #62: If you are really curious, try de.etc.sprache.deutsch. The below should do as an initial question, if your German is limited; it may be that you’ll get responses in English, if you’re lucky.


wir diskutieren gerade bei Crooked Timber, einem englischsprachigen akademischen Blog, über den Satz Kants „Aus so krummem Holze [ja, genau, “Crooked Timber”], als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden“ ( ) . Da hat jemand einen Kommentar geschrieben, worin er uns das Gerücht erkzählt hat, dass „Deutsche Studenten lesen häufig Kant in Übersetzungen, da diese Übersetzungen klarer sind.“

Niemand konnte bei uns diese Geschichte weder bestätigen noch verleugnen; weißt jemand hier mehr darüber?




Anderson 08.28.06 at 5:00 pm

Thanks, Aidan!


josh 08.28.06 at 9:21 pm

“Again, not to denigrate the Berlin quote, but it’s really Berlin, isn’t it, not Kant? Berlin by way of Kant?”
Yes. And this is true of many of Berlin’s ‘quotations’, which often ‘improve’ on the originals — that is, tend to be both more elegant, and more striking.
In the particular case of the Kant quote, I think this is pardonable, since Berlin is clearly using it as an aphorism, for his own purposes, and not seeking to convey or comment on Kant’s exact meaning. In other cases, when his expressed purpose is to portray or interpret the thinker he’s, erm, creatively quoting, it may be a bit more dubious …
(That said, as those who’ve read the preface to the Berlin collection that takes its title from the ‘crooked timber’ quote will know, Berlin’s ‘quote’ seems to itself be a refinement of a similarly loose translation by Collingwood, whose version was much the same as Berlin’s, but had ‘cross-grained’ instead of crooked. The book’s epigraph, by the way, is the original German, with a literal translation).
And, while we’re talking about Berlin, and related to Ingrid’s question: Berlin himself read Marx mainly in Russian translation, and appears to have prefered reading Hegel in French to either the original German, or English translations.
As for Germans reading Kant in English translation, I’ve heard that too, but can’t vouch for it. I did once find myself in a seminar, though, where the (English) professor said he found it easier to read Hegel in German, and one of the students (who was German) said she found it easier to read Hegel in English. Something about Hegel, I suppose.


Henry (not the famous one) 08.28.06 at 11:12 pm

And while we’re talking about Marx, he found it necessary to invent, not mistranslate, Hegel’s most memorable quotation.


Immanuel Kant 08.29.06 at 12:09 am

Ich ziehe es vor Crooked Timber auf französisch zu lesen.


astrongmaybe 08.29.06 at 12:09 am

#65 Yes. And this is true of many of Berlin’s ‘quotations’, which often ‘improve’ on the originals—that is, tend to be both more elegant, and more striking.

Berlin should be taken with some skepticism. I saw a talk a couple of years back which showed fairly conclusively that, contrary to what he let on, his knowledge of Hamann and Herder was rather limited. The killer example given was a particular quote of Herder’s which Berlin used and reused as epitomizing Herder’s supposedly Counter-Enlightenment worldview. It turned out to be taken spectacularly out of context: rather than the telling aphorism IB claimed it to be, it was a single line plucked from a bizarre and atypical love poem to Herder’s wife (in which he was impersonating a glow-worm [sic]). None of that would matter so much, except that on Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, Berlin is still taken as gospel by many. Maybe we shouldn’t so quickly “pardon him for writing well”.


gr 08.29.06 at 4:53 am

German students don’t read Kant in English (that is, they are certainly not made to read Kant in English rather than German in a course at a German university).

However, I’ve heard many people say in Germany (and I’ve made the experience myself, as a native German speaker) that the Kemp Smith translation of the Critique of Pure Reason is very helpful for understanding Kant. But this applies only to the Kemp Smith in particular, not to English translations of Kant in general. Some current standard English translations of some Kant texts are most definitely not helpful in the same way. So what you’ll hear in Germany is not that Kant is clearer in English than in German but rather that Kemp Smith was an exceptionally gifted translator (and by therefore inevitably: commentator) of Kant.


Mischa 08.29.06 at 5:37 am

When I was a philosophy student at Oxford many of my German fellow undergraduates would admit they found it easier to read Kant (_and_ Hegel, for the few people who did read him) in English rather than the original German. There is a certain intricate elegance to very long German sentences (Thomas Mann, W.G. Sebald — and Kant) if they are well-written which sometimes makes them hard to follow and is not usually carried over into other languages. And rightly so, because they just don’t have the same effect in, say, English or French.


Martin Walker 08.29.06 at 10:18 am

“It took me a year to read the Tin Drum in German and actually enjoyed the translation better.” Oh no, that’s one of the worst translations I’ve ever taken a brief & disgusted look at. It makes the beginning of the work sound like Chandler or something, instead of the gnarly post-Jean Paul thing it is.
Immanuel Kant oben (29 Aug) sollte zunächst mal die deutsche Interpunktion lernen: da gehört ein Komma hin.


Henry (not the famous one) 08.29.06 at 5:17 pm

In case you missed it: Andrew Lloyd Webber says that his next project will be staging The Master and Margarita as an opera. Perhaps he’ll do it in the original Russian–but it will still be his music.

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