At the end of his favourable review of Pierre Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy?, Professor Gerson remarks that the translation is “rather disappointingly flat”. As the translator, I am concerned at being thus rendered solely responsible for one of what struck Professor Gerson as the only two negative aspects of M. Hadot’s important work.
Professor Gerson’s remark reflects a judgement of taste, which, I am happy to say, has not been shared by other reviewers;1 in any case, de gustibus non disputandum. Yet his remark, in its terseness, leaves one wishing for more elaboration. He found the translation “flat”, but flat compared to what? There would seem to be two possibilities here. Professor Gerson may have found the style of Hadot’s French original lively, fresh and jaunty; in which case he must feel I, as the translator, have simply failed in my duty to reproduce the qualities of the original. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to tell from his review whether Professor Gerson has actually read Hadot’s original French edition. If he has not, of course, he is wholly incapable of judging whether my translation accurately reflects the original or not.
If he *has* read the French original, we are presented with two further possibilities. If Professor Gerson finds I have failed to render the qualities of the French original, then I have betrayed the trust M. Hadot has placed in me, by failing utterly at what I consider to be the translator’s primary task: faithfulness to the original. I can only hope this is not the case, and the generally positive critical reception of my translations over the past decade or so allows me to hope Professor Gerson’s negative impression is due more to the idiosyncrasies of his taste than to any objective failure on my part.
On the other hand, perhaps Professor Gerson found the French original “flat” as well? If so, then I have merely reproduced the qualities of the original, and no translator has the right to do more than that — surely Professor Gerson would not have wished me to “jazz up” the style of a scholar as eminent as M. Hadot, perhaps by the insertion of a few well-placed one-liners?
Finally, if Professor Gerson did indeed find both the original and the translation “flat” — that is, presumably, with regard to Hadot’s other works, three of which I have had the pleasure of translating — one might have hoped he would wonder about the reasons for this subjective impression. One of the many important lessons M. Hadot has passed on to his students is the fundamental importance of context for understanding ancient literary and philosophical texts: before evaluating a work, we must decide to which audience the author was addressing himself, what effect he wished to produce on it, and what were the conventions of literary genre that induced the author to write the way he did.
This is surely no less true of modern works and authors. As Professor Gerson perspicuously remarked, the themes in What is Ancient Philosophy? have to some extent been dealt with elsewhere; the work is, in fact, a revised, updated, and expository version of themes M. Hadot has been writing about since at least 1981. Yet, whereas Philosophy as a Way of Life was a series of essays, many of which arose in the context of M. Hadot’s teaching at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, What is Ancient Philosophy? is a unified narrative study which attempts to present his view of the nature and development of ancient and modern philosophy in as clear and scholarly a way as possible, providing new evidence for some views expressed in the earlier work and thoroughly revising others. It would therefore be simply a mistake on the reader’s part to expect to encounter in What is Ancient Philosophy? the same tone or style as in Hadot’s earlier works. It is a different work, designed to achieve different goals and to appeal to a different audience. Clearly, to judge from the laudatory tone of his review, Professor Gerson believes M. Hadot’s book accomplishes its goals in an exemplary way. This is enough to satisfy me. Still, I do regret that Professor Gerson found my translation wanting, albeit in ways which are none too clear to me.
1. There are no negative remarks on the quality of the translation in the review by Barry Gewen ( New York Times, August 18, 2002), who merely speaks of the translation’s “clarity of prose”.