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Translation and the Classical Mind

In reading books and discussing ideas, it is easy to forget that persons put these things into our possession, and that one day the books and ideas of our own age will be possessed by later generations

In the preface to his translation of Plato’s Republic, Allan Bloom defends literal translations against contemporary conventions, which attempt to update old authors like Plato to modern standards. Bloom’s insights portray the kind of humility, deference, and intellectual curiosity indicative of the classical mind—the qualities classical teachers desire to embody before and impress upon their students.

In discussing the difficulty of understanding older writers, Bloom quotes from H.D.P. Lee to illustrate a common error. Lee says, “The translator must go behind what Plato said and discover what he means, and if, for example, he says, ‘examining the beautiful and the good’ must not hesitate to render this as ‘discussing moral values’ if that is, in fact, the way in which the same thought would be expressed today.”

To this Bloom replies that such translators have, “the assurance that they have a sufficient understanding of Plato’s meaning, and that that meaning is pretty much the kind of thing Englishmen or Americans already think. However, it might be more prudent to let the reader decide whether ‘the beautiful and the good’ are simply equivalent to ‘moral values.’ If they are the same, he will soon enough find out. And if they are not, as may be the case, he will not be prevented from finding that out and thereby putting his own opinions to the test.”

Bloom shows humility not only by not presuming to have understood Plato’s meaning better than any given reader might, but also by allowing the reader (even the lesser one) to make the discovery about what Plato meant (even when what Plato meant is what the translator thinks he meant).

After showing exactly why “moral values” is not an adequate expression of Plato’s thought, but rather mirrors the thought of the translator, Bloom interacts with a popular translator of Plato named Cornford who is critical of literal translations.

One of Bloom’s criticisms of Cornford involves Cornford’s decision to avoid the term “virtue” in his rendering because the contemporary meaning differs so much from Plato’s. Bloom remarks that this omission robs the reader of the conversation that authors of previous centuries were having with Plato about this term:

“’Freedom’ took the place of ‘virtue’ as the most important term of political discourse, and virtue came to mean social virtue—that is, the disposition which would lead men to be obedient to civil authority and live in peace together rather than the natural perfection of the soul. The man who begins his studies should not be expected to know these things, but the only tolerable result of learning is that he become aware of them and be able to reflect on which of the alternatives most adequately describes the human condition. As it now stands, he may well be robbed of the greatest opportunity for enlightenment afforded by the classic literature. A study of the use of the word ‘virtue’ in the Republic is by itself most revealing; and when, in addition, its sense is compared in Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Hobbes, and Rousseau, the true history of political thought comes to light, and a series of alternatives is presented to the mind.”

Bloom demonstrates deference to the history of thinkers who have wrestled with the meaning of “virtue,” now taking one side, now another. A translator that supplies his own gloss of the term does not invite the reader into this conversation of the ages, but merely gives the upshot of his own conclusion. Worse still, his conclusion hides the conversation from the reader, thus robbing him of the chance to draw his own conclusion.

As a last morsel, consider how Bloom shows how literal translation maximizes intellectual curiosity whereas contemporizing translations stultify the mind:

“[U]nwillingness to accept certain unpalatable or shocking statements or teachings is another cause of derivation from literalness. This unwillingness is due either to a refusal to believe Plato says what he means or to a desire to make him respectable. . . .At Book III 414 Socrates tells of the need for a ‘noble lie’ to be believed in the city he and his companions are founding (in speech). Cornford calls it ‘a bold flight of invention’ and adds the following note: ‘This phrase is commonly rendered “noble lie,” a self-contradictory expression no more applicable to Plato’s harmless allegory than to a New Testament parable or the Pilgrim’s Progress, and liable to suggest that he would countenance the lies, for the most part ignoble, now called propaganda.’ But Socrates calls it a lie. The difference between a parable and this tale is that the man who hears a parable is conscious that it is an invention the truth of which is not in its literal expression, whereas the inhabitants of Socrates’ city are to believe the untrue story to be true. His interlocutors are shocked by the notion, but-according to Cornford—we are to believe it is harmless because it might conjure up pleasant associations.”

Bloom goes on to show how Plato had carefully prepared the dialogue to lead up to the conclusion that the noble lie is a necessary act to institute the just polis, for without it certain compromises that lead to inequalities would naturally result. In other words, by attempting to make Plato respectable, the translator has undercut one of the principle claims Plato makes about the nature of human society and the prospect of ordering it upon a rational principle of justice. In his embarrassment of or for Plato, Cornford has stultified the reader’s ability to respond to one of the most provocative and curious aspects of Plato’s political thought.

In reading books and discussing ideas, it is easy to forget that persons put these things into our possession and that one day the books and ideas of our own age will be possessed by later generations. As guides, classical educators continually translate what authors are saying and what ideas mean to their students, even in the midst of reading primary works. The more literally teachers can offer up an author or idea to the student, the more we will be demonstrating the sort of humility, deference, and intellectual curiosity we desire our students to have. Not only these virtues will be on display, however, but whatever wisdom and knowledge the persons we read and discuss have to offer us will be their own, and not just our own conclusions peddled under the guise of their names.

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