This volume contains a translation of Plato’s Gorgias, with introduction and notes, as well as a glossary, bibliography and three appendices. The Gorgias, among its other merits, is a superbly written piece of dramatic literature, and sets the translator who would endeavour to capture its effects in modern English a considerable challenge. The authors acknowledge the difficulty with wry modesty (ix), but it seems to me that some of the translation principles they employ serve at times to make their task harder than it might otherwise have been.
In particular, they adopt a policy (set out at viii-ix) of placing in square brackets words that are required to be inserted in English to fill out the thought of the original Greek in order to make a proper English sentence. Thus, for example, when Socrates says, at 456a4,
The justification given for the plethora of brackets is that “the reader will be compensated in accuracy” (ix), but I wonder if the authors are not simply confusing, or conflating, accuracy with literalness here? Given that the participle at 456a4 surely has causal force in its context, there is, with respect, nothing inaccurate about a bracket-free rendering as “because I’ve been wondering”, even though the Greek literally just says “wondering”. We are left with a needless stylistic awkwardness that permeates the translation.
It is not as if the policy is applied with complete consistency. In response to Chaerephon’s “What shall I ask?” at 447c10, Socrates replies
An apparent taste for literalness for its own sake affects the translation in other areas too, for example that of word order. Take the very first lines of the dialogue (447a1-2), spoken by Callicles, which the authors render as follows: “War and battle — that’s the way, Socrates, they say, to participate in [these]!” (23). The word order of the Greek, beginning with
Demonstratives provide a further small example of the authors’ slightly mysterious penchant for literalness. The Greek
Despite these largely self-imposed problems, the translation does have a certain rugged charm, and at times dexterity. I particularly enjoyed the use of “polo-pony” to capture Socrates’ punning use of
The glossary (221-9) is a largely sensible discussion of certain key terms. The authors have my sympathy in their selection of “technical skill” to translate
Judicious use of notes can, of course, help readers understand better the rationale for such choices (see n. 41 on “experience”). The notes to the translation are in fact a useful resource, providing a wealth of philological and historical background and explanation that complements the translation well. The introduction (1-21) covers a lot of ground succinctly. The authors are right, in my view, to bring out the fact that the positions and attitudes of the character Socrates are not necessarily endorsed (any more than those of other characters) by the author Plato (2-6). However, I am not sure it is correct to say that this is because Socrates is represented as standing “for the cloistered and isolated world of contemplation” (5). That is, perhaps, how Callicles scornfully represents him (485c-e). But Socrates is far more socially engaged than the caricature Callicles offers, as his activities within the dialogue itself illustrate. By the same token, the authors seem to me mistaken in describing Callicles as Socrates’ polar opposite, “concerned not with abstract reflection or contemplation but with the life of action” (5). One merely concerned unreflectively with the life of action would not, I think, have such a powerfully developed thesis to unfurl about what true justice and virtue are. Part of the unending fascination of interpreting Plato is that his characters are rarely presented as simple “extremes” (5-6); this, it seems to me, is as true of the exchanges between Socrates and Callicles as any other place in the corpus.
The bibliography has no work later than 1998, which is peculiar for a volume whose preface is dated July 2006. Perhaps the authors consider that nothing of value has been published on the dialogue since then? Either way, Kahn’s “Drama and Dialectic in Plato’s Gorgias” ( OSAP I, 1983) is a strange omission; as is, from the alternative translations listed, that of Zeyl (1987) in the Hackett edition.