BMCR 2007.04.25

Plato, Gorgias

, , , Gorgias. The Focus philosophical library. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub, 2007. ix, 236 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 1585102431. $12.95.

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, Ταῦτα καὶ θαυμάζων, this is rendered as “And it’s [because I’ve been] wondering at these things” (40). Not surprisingly, the policy on occasion results in pages strewn with square brackets, giving an impression of jerkiness that repeated readings never quite dispel, and making the reading experience a not entirely happy one. The authors anticipate an “initial adjustment needed to read the text” (ix) in light of their bracketing policy, but this, I fear, is somewhat optimistic.

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 Ὅστις ἐστίν (d1), which the authors render as “Ask him who he is” (24) without bracketing the first two words although they correspond to nothing in Socrates’ Greek. Nor, as it happens, is the addition of “Ask him” obviously demanded in the interests of comprehensible English. Is that indeed the reason why brackets are dispensed with here? If so, “[to wish]” (59) and “[witness]” (67), among a number of other cases, should have lost their trappings. Conversely, the failure to bracket e.g. all but the last two words of “I’ve answered well enough” (25) as a rendition of ἱκανῶς at 448b1 remains unexplained.

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 Πολέμου καὶ μάχης, is more or less preserved, but at the cost of a rather artificial English sentence that fails to capture the naturalness of the original. Moreover, the square brackets here are misleading even in their own terms, since there is nothing elliptical about the Greek. “War and battle” is the object of “participate”. There is no demonstrative that a Greek reader would need to infer implicitly. It is called into existence in English when a foreign word-order is imposed. Greek can quite idiomatically emphasise the important words in a sentence by use of word order; English, by and large, cannot. It does the translation no favours in terms of either accuracy or fluency to pretend otherwise.

Demonstratives provide a further small example of the authors’ slightly mysterious penchant for literalness. The Greek ὅδε placed before a proper name is translated as “this X”, rather than, say, “X here”, resulting in unidiomatic phrases such as “is this Callicles saying the truth” (25) as a rendition of ἀληθῆ λέγει Καλλικλῆς ὅδε (447d6-7). (And are we given “saying” rather than the more idiomatic “speaking” because the verb λέγειν must at all costs be translated as “say”?) Again, the policy is not applied with perfect consistency: a little earlier we encounter the odd hybrid “this Chaerephon here” (24) for the simple Χαιρεφῶν ὅδε at 447a7.

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 Πῶλος at 463e2. It is a pity that the authors allow their translation to be hamstrung by some dubious initial decisions.

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 τέχνη, a rendition which seems to me to capture well the flavour of the term as used in much of the dialogue. Similarly, the choice of “experience” for ἐμπειρία is probably a more accurate rendition than the “knack” beloved of many translators. The authors then attempt, understandably, to apply their favoured renditions consistently, which results on occasion in some rather sticky English: “justice becomes the medical [technical skill] for wickedness” (81) is opaque almost to the point of unintelligibility as a rendering of ἰατρικὴ γίγνεται πονηρίας ἡ δίκη at 478d6-7. Though ἰατρική ought in theory to have τέχνη understood with it, perhaps the authors could have relented and simply allowed themselves “the medicine for wickedness”? So too, having Socrates say that rhetoric “is an experience” (e.g., 50) suggests in English not, as Socrates means, that it is the product of experience, but that it is something experienced in perhaps a particularly distinctive way. Since this might easily also be true of rhetoric, the connotation is unfortunate. I do not have any neat solution to the problem of reconciling a reasonable consistency of terminology with readability; the authors’ efforts illustrate the difficulty that translators face in this regard.

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.