Isaiah Berlin's translation:

In a previous post, I mentioned Kant's phrase, which Isaiah Berlin translated as: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made." This is a loose translation from Kant's original "Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden"; Berlin seemed to have valued pithiness over accurate translation.

But now a copy of Berlin's book The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas (1991) has just arrived, and it does seem that, as an epigraph (p. xi), Berlin does translate the Kant fairly accurately:

Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.

This is in addition to the pithy translation, which is on p. 19. For an intermediate translation, see Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (1980), p. 148: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can ever be made."

raj (mail):
kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden

This doesn't really translate as Berlin translated it. In "gezimmert werden" (which is in the passive voice), "gezimmert" is the past participle of "zimmern," which translates to "framed"--as in carpentry, such as framing a house. It does not mean "built"--"bauen" and "aufbauen" (which will be used depends on the context) does. The phrase would be better translated as "...nothing entirely straight can be framed."
10.10.2006 3:57pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Berlin seemed to have valued pithiness over accurate translation.

Well, it depends on what you mean by "accuracy." Pithiness is part of what's to be conveyed.

The only potentially material difference would seem to be whether anything straight *was ever* made (which wouldn't rule out its being so made in future) or *can* be made.
10.10.2006 4:00pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
The LEO Dictionary has "zimmern" as to carpenter or to timber. This includes framing but also arguably includes other forms of carpentering.

The Grimm Dictionary says it means, among other things, "ein Zimmer bearbeiten und zurichten, ein Zimmer errichten," and one of the meanings given is "ein Haus errichten, bauen."

So I'd let Berlin off the hook here.
10.10.2006 4:10pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I'd add that the Kant quote in its original German isn't terribly pithy.
10.10.2006 4:11pm
Glenn. (mail):
I have nothing to add to the language discussion, but I would like to note that Sasha has good taste in reading material. It's an excellent book.
10.10.2006 4:49pm
Berlin knew what Voltaire knew:
Les traductions sont comme les femmes: lorsqu'elles sont belles elles ne sont pas fideles, et lorsqu'elles sont fideles elles ne sont pas belles.
[= "Translations are like women: When they're beautiful they're not faithful and when they're faithful they're not beautiful." I think that's a faithful translation.]
[N.B. This is *obviously* not true re: women, but it's on the mark re: translations.]
10.10.2006 5:03pm
I can't remember for sure anymore, but I think Berlin borrowed the less precise translation from the philosopher R.G. Collingwood. He liked its poetry better.
10.10.2006 5:34pm
Does Berlin cite precisely where Kant wrote that statement?
10.10.2006 7:28pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Yes he does. For the exact citation (in slightly different form, but fully adequate), check out the "Kant bleg" post in this chain.
10.10.2006 9:10pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
I knew that first quote could not have really been Kant: he never wrote an elegant sentence.
10.10.2006 10:28pm
sammler (mail) (www):
Surely "such crooked timber" would be both more natural English and more faithful than "timber so crooked". Thus I must find fault with Mr. Berlin's second translation.
10.11.2006 4:49am
I'm not familiar with the original context of the Kant quote, or of the translations, but the looser translations seem to have two possible and very different meanings:

(1) human individuals cannot be made perfectly straight, as by training, or

(2) human institutions cannot be made perfectly straight, because they are made out of crooked humans.

The stricter translation seems to indicate that Kant intended only the first meaning, but the second seems to me far more interesting. Madison and other Founders made similar observations.
10.11.2006 3:21pm