In his opus magnum Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781⁄87), the founder of the classical German philosophy Immanuel Kant unfolded ideas that radically changed European philosophy. In doing so, he also placed overly complex challenges for his translators. As in Schopenhauer’s case, which I have already discussed in the previous post, the syntax of Kant’s work is utterly complex.
Using the example from the Preface (Vorrede) to the second edition of Critique of Pure Reason, I am going to show that the translation of Kant’s syntax requires not only mastery of the 18th-century German language but an understanding of his argument in general.
In В ХХХІ Kant claims:
“Denn irgend eine Metaphysik ist immer in der Welt gewesen, und wird auch wohl ferner, mit ihr aber auch eine Dialektik der reinen Vernunft, weil sie ihr natü̈rlich ist, darin anzutreffen sein”.
The problem which the translator is immediately facing is the meaning of personal pronouns “sie ihr” in the subordinate clause as well as nouns in the previous parts of this compound sentence these pronouns may refer to. Both pronouns are feminine; one of them, though, is dative feminine (ihr). The pronoun “sie” refers to the noun “dialectic” (Dialektik), which, i.e., dialectic, is natural to one of the nouns in the other parts of this compound sentence. We have here two possible options of how to interpret dative feminine. A dialectic of pure reason is natural to metaphysics (Metaphysik, f.) or reason (Vernunft, f.). However, we have to consider the overly complex syntactic structure of this sentence for the main compound sentence here is:
“Denn irgend eine Metaphysik ist immer in der Welt gewesen, und wird auch wohl ferner … darin anzutreffen sein”.
The inserted sentence is:
“mit ihr aber auch eine Dialektik der reinen Vernunft, weil sie ihr natü̈rlich ist”.
Now, let us look into the decision made by the English translators of this sentence.
That is how the authors of the last translation into English P. Guyer and A. W. Wood translated this sentence:
“For there has always been some metaphysics or other to be met with in the world, and there will always continue to be one, and with it a dialectic of pure reason, because dialectic is natural to reason.”
We can see that in their interpretation, the pronoun “ihr” relates to reason. Systematically, this translation is faultless since, according to Kant, the source of dialectic is reason, and only reason has nature. Moreover, unlike German, the English language does not have grammatical case. Hence, the personal pronouns are not modified like in German, which makes it impossible to render Kant’s pronouns “sie ihr” in a purely syntactic manner. That is why the explication of their meaning is needed.