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Which is the best translation
on 1 November 2014
The importance of the Critique of Pure Reason is well-established and requires no reviews. It is not a book one is likely to stumble across and think, "this looks interesting", if for no other reason (pure or otherwise) than that a quick dip into the book shows it to be dense and difficult. The key question is: which translation makes this dense and difficult book most clear now I have decided to tackle the most important philosophical thinker since Aristotle? The Cambridge edition (1998) is one of the most up to date and is, perhaps, set to become the standard. But Norman Kemp Smith's translation (1929) is still the standard used for reference, even though this Cambridge version is probably better. There is also the free version of Meiklejohn; venerable and old fashioned and not recommended. Pluhar is widely used in the USA and has its fans. And finally there is the Penguin 2007 translation, by Weigelt based on the Max Muller version, which has an attractive layout and style; to me this seems a more naturally flowing style. Compared to Kemp Smith the Penguin is clearer as the active voice is used more than the passive and key terms are set in bold.
The difference between translations in their use of words is not the only difference. The Critique was published in two editions and it is usual to combine the two and here's the difficulty: each translation orders the paragraphs from the two editions (A and B) in a slightly ways, as it seems to me. So to compare Guyer and Smith Kemp's translations is not so easy as they each choose the sequence of combining the two editions that seems to them most comprehensible. Weigelt uses italics to differentiate the first editions (A) from the second (B). As I wrote in the previous paragraph, the standard is still Kemp Smith, meaning that reference works will refer to his paragraph numbering. Over time the newer Cambridge translation will become the reference point; in the meantime expect to see Kemp Smith's paragraph numbering as usual reference in commentaries. So, although choosing this edition has many attractions, following the text in some commentaries may be problematic. This Cambridge edition has academic weight - it's part of a whole project covering Kant's work - and is the one I reckon is that reflects most up to date academic thinking. Added to that are the recommendations of Guyer's translation by most academics. All that said, Weigelt has had the benefit of reading the Guyer version and no doubt considering what it makes clearer compared to Kemp Smith. Incidentally, he considers Guyer has made some mistakes in translation, and although he is not an academic of the standing of Guyer, there is no doubting his understanding of his subject as demonstrated by his lengthy and insightful introduction.
Students will probably be advised to buy the version their lecturer is using, but for those with the freedom to choose (see what Kant has to say on this topic) then a more modern translation is probably best, and for that Guyer is the most academically respectable; but if you can afford it buy the Penguin as well; it does seem to me to be more readable. At the same time as buying the book you will need a guide. It is quite impossible to understand the book without one, not least because the arguments Kant puts forward address philosophical debates current when he wrote and which will not be apparent.I consider Sebastian Gardner's book to be quite brilliant. Also read the Prolegomena before reading the Critique.
Andrew Stephenson's diagram is very useful in summarising the overall architecture of Kant's book. http://nebula.wsimg.com/72e5f4d1fd8e675801ad578eba2fe8e4?AccessKeyId=A9004B8B795F6CE7B9FA&disposition=0&alloworigin=1
Finally, and not to miss the opportunity for praising Kant, reading this book will give you an insight into quite a remarkable mind as it works its way through some fundamental questions about our experience of reality, or do I mean the appearance of reality? All that said, I do think Kant would have benefited from an editor who could have helped clarify and standardise some of the terms used and reduce some of the repetition. If you are not confused by Kant you are either a genius or you have not been paying sufficient attention. It's a maddening book that requires effort.