Why do we always welcome a new recording of Beethoven’s String Quartets? Because every interpretation is singular and we are always looking for an even better recording. In a certain way this also applies to translations of Plato’s Republic. A number of them has come out in English recently,1 each of them unique, and we still always welcome a new one. In deciding to replace Shorey’s classic translation,2 the Loeb Classical Library may well have this purpose of improving our understanding of and fascination for Plato. Although announced as an ‘edition’, the work of Emlyn-Jones and Preddy should more properly be considered a translation. The editing is limited to sparse notes commenting on interpretative choices based on Slings’ edition3 and, following the typical Loeb format, a critical apparatus is not offered. There is a general introduction, which briefly discusses the influence of the text, composition date, Plato’s biography, dramatic date and setting, and specific introductions to each volume, which quickly inform the reader about some theoretical problems. The bibliographical references, with four honorable exceptions,4 are limited to works in English, and indexes for names and subjects can be found at the end of the second volume.
The general goal of rendering the Republic accessible to a beginner is clear throughout the work, a goal that contrasts with the more academic purpose of a bilingual edition. In opposition to a trend that they call “strictly philosophical commentaries” (vol. I, p. xlv), Emlyn-Jones and Preddy offer a translation that pays attention to dramatic and oral elements of the text, resulting in a flowing and colloquial composition. This virtue of the translation may also be its greatest flaw. The assumption that different contexts justify different translations of the same term leads to difficulties in understanding the general argument built along the whole work. I would like to address some examples.
Obscuring the fact that what they call “principle of specialization” (vol. I, p. lv) is a principle (ἀρχή) for the foundation of the city, they mistranslate τῷ λόγῷ ἐξ ἀρχῆς ποιῶμεν πόλιν (369c) as “let’s make a theoretical state from scratch” (again at 450a), hence missing the connection between this passage and the definition of justice, where ὃ γὰρ ἐξ ἀρχῆς ἐθέμεθα ποιεῖν διὰ παντός (433a) is translated as ”what we proposed from the start that we must do right the way through”.
Just as in Shorey’s translation, Plato’s use of ψεῦδος and its cognates is incomprehensible in this new Loeb. At first, these words are rendered as “fiction” (376e-377d); then, without warning, they are turned into “lie” (377e, also at 459d), then into “false impression”, “deceit” and “falsehood” (382a-c), all of this leading to a very weird conclusion about those who “mislead us with false tales in fact or fiction”(ἡμᾶς ψεύδεσι παράγειν ἐν λόγῳ ἤ ἐν ἔργῳ—383a). Things get worse when we see “falsehood” designating the objects of belief in the divided line (510a), which include living beings, and when in Book VII the translation of ἑκούσιον / ἀκούσιον ψεῦδος as “voluntary” and “involuntary lies” (535e) is followed by a footnote referring back to the “falsehood” at 382a-c.
The confusion relates not only to the ψεῦδος, but also to the object it concerns, identified at 382e with τὸ δαιμόνιόν τε καὶ τὸ θεῖον. Reading in the translation that it is about “the divine and holy”, or in Shorey’s terms “the divine and the divinity”, the reader cannot understand why, at 392a, Socrates announces that he has reached conclusions about “daimons” (περὶ δαιμόνων). What is more, the reader will find an explicative note referring him to 469a; however, this passage in Book V does not use “daimons” as a translation—a term that will only be used again at 540c – but three other expressions: “undefiled spirits”, “marvelous super-human beings” and “divine spirits”. The latter is the translation found in the myth of Er, where eventually we find the translators’ definition of δαίμον as “the personal spirit which watches over one’s life” (vol. II, p. 476).
These are not the only cases of unclear footnotes. In Thrasymachus’ famous critique of Socrates (337a), for example, εἰρωνεία is translated as “ironic evasion” and εἰρωνεύσοιο for “sham ignorance”. In the note, we are informed that the reading should follow the “original sense of ‘deliberate deceit’ . . . as opposed to the modern sense of irony, where the point is that there is a distinction between surface and underlying meaning. However, there is also a sense in which Socrates might be able to justify his claim of ignorance as sincere” (vol. I, pp. 44-5). It is hard to understand the choice of such different translations for the same notion and it is even harder to understand what kind of strategy Socrates is supposed to be using.
In contrast to Shorey’s constant choice for “high-spirit” as a translation to θυμοειδές and θυμός, the new Loeb translation in general prefers “passion” (411b, 435e, 441e, 440 c, 581a, 586d, 606d), although “spirit” can also be found (375b, 410d). However, at 439e, τὸ τοῦ θυμοῦ καὶ ᾧ θυμούμεθα is defined as “the faculty of passion by which we grow angry”, what makes “anger” another choice for the same term (580d). Problems multiply when ὀργίζεσθαι is also rendered as “become angry” (440c), and when passion is also used for ὀργή (440a), ἐπιθυμία (390c) and ἔρως (572e-573a; 578a; 586c; 587b, 607e, 608a), the latter also translated as lust (573c) or simply Eros (573d-e; 574d-575a). In the general scenario, the specificity of Plato’s parts of the soul is lost.
Another problem regarding this same theme is the use of the expressions “essential” and “nonessential desires” to translate the problem of (μὴ) ἀναγκαίος έπιθυμία (558d-559c). The problem here is that the text tells us that ἀναγκαίος designates the pleasures proper to money and honor when they are experienced by the philosopher (581d-e), which are to be contrasted with the so-called true pleasure, connected to contemplating reality, that is proper to the philosophers (582a-e). Since it is hard to separate truth and essence in the Republic, “essential pleasures” is not a good choice, and the translators seem to acknowledge this in at least two occasions where we can read, just as in Shorey, “unnecessary” desires (561a, 571b).
There is a large amount of confusion about Plato’s vocabulary for intellectual activities. διάνοια is interchangeably translated as “mind” (476b, 486a, 503c, 560b; 595b, 603c), “thought” (476d, 496a, 500c, 504e, 524d, 527b, 533d; 577a) and “intellect” (529d). In a renowned passage of the divided line, τὸ νοητοῦ γένους τε καὶ τόπου (509d) is translated as “the type and place that can be grasped mentally” or simply “the intelligible”, which is constituted by διάνοια as “thought” (511a, 511c, 511d) and νοῦς as “understanding” (511d). This should be enough reason not to accept the translations of νοῦς as “thought“ (376a, 586d), “mind“ (358b, 366b, 508c, 603c) or “intelligence” (490b). Despite that, an unclear footnote, to be found only in Book VII (vol. II, p. 175), emphasizes the importance of distinguishing the two kinds of intellectual activities. Moreover, νοῦς is often translated as “having sense” (331b; 358d; 416c; 427c; 477e, 580a, 598c, 605b), which is also used for σωφρονεῖν (471a, 501c, 573b), although σωφροσύνη and its cognates sometimes appear as self-control (389d-e, a translation also used for ἐγκράτεια in 390b), sometimes as temperance (423a, 430d, 571d, 575b). φρόνησις and its variants are also translated as “intelligence” (571d, 582d, 586a), “thinking faculty” (572a), “intellect” (583b, 603b) and “mind” (573c). Although the very specific context of the distinction between a philosophical and a non-philosophical use of mathematical subjects points to νόησις as a key operation, it is alternately translated as “mind” (523b), “intelligence” (523d, 526b) and “understanding” (524c, 524d, 525c).
The argument in Book V that presents the difference between opinion and knowledge is translated without concern for the philosophical implications. Translating τὸ ὄν as “what exists” (477a-b) and ἐφ᾽ ᾧ as “purpose” (477b-d, also in 603b) simply supposes the non-sensical two-world theory which is presented in the introduction to the second volume: “Behind this question lies a disputed issue, on which Plato himself seems never to have quite made up his mind: whether the realm of absolutes (the Forms) is the sole reality and quite separate from and independent of the world of senses” (p. xxvi). That this kind of two-world theory is read into the text, rather than found there, can be shown in some of the translation choices. In the sequence, we see that the existential reading of the verb ‘to be’ forces the description of Forms (ἐκείνης τῆς οὐσίας τῆς ἀεὶ οὔσης, 485b) to be translated as “that part of existence which is eternal”. The introduction of a notion of part where there is none results in a textual inconsistency with the following description of Forms as “the whole of it [reality]” (πάσης αὐτῆς, 485b). The results are no better when it comes to the objects of opinion, said to be “ambiguous, and one cannot be absolutely certain that any of these things exists or does not, either as both or neither” (479c). Surely, existence and non-existence cannot be taken as causes of ambiguity and Shorey remains much clearer in rendering τὸ ὄν as “that which is” and adding a simple note warning that “to understand what follows it is necessary (1) to assume that Plato is not talking nonsense . . . (3) to remember the greater richness of the Greek language in forms of the verb ‘to be’”.5
The translators eventually abandon the existential reading of the verb “to be” when, in Book VI, they characterize the objects of opinion as “many things that have many guises” (484b); when, in the cave, τὰ ὄντα and ἀληθής are translated as “real” (515b, 515d, 516a), when the curriculum up to dialectic should turn human-beings towards “reality” (521c, 521d, 523a, 526e) and when in the argument against the poets the participles of the verb ‘to be’ are rendered as “reality” (596e-597a, 601c). But this is not a sign of a different understanding of Plato’s metaphysics, since the two-worlds theory is still presupposed. This is the reason why the vocabulary of the “two worlds” is inserted at 529a, where εἰς τὸ ἄνω ὁρᾶν καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν ἐνθένδε ἐκεῖσε ἄγει is rendered as “lead us from this world to the world beyond” and τὴν περὶ τὰ ἄνω μάθησιν as the “study of the world above” (529b). The passage, ironically enough, intends to deny that the contribution of astronomy to philosophy is the observation of another world. In this sense, the notion of another world could even be inserted in the Socratic critique, but never in his conclusion about astronomy being a subject that deals, in Shorey’s words, “with being and the invisible” (περὶ τὸ ὂν τε ᾖ καὶ τὸ ἀόρατον), which Emlyn-Jones and Preddy translate as “what exists and the invisible world” (529b).
As I have tried to show, the confusion and unclarity the translators find in Plato’s views reflect on their own translation. The attempt to render the text accessible to a beginner should never be given priority over the weightier task of understanding what Plato says, otherwise the consequences are unforgiving. An impossible accomplishment for the brevity of human life? This is why, as with the recordings of Beethoven’s Quartets, we will always welcome a new translation of Plato’s Republic.
1. R. Waterfield (Oxford University Press, 1998); G. R. F. Ferrari (ed.) and and T. Griffith (transl.) (Cambridge University Press, 2000), C. D. C. Reeve (Hackett, 2004), R. E. Allen (Yale University Press, 2006), J. Sachs (Focus, 2007) and C. Rowe (Penguin, 2012).
2. P. Shorey (trans.), Plato V: Republic I (Harvard University Press, 1969) and and P. Shorey (trans.), Plato VI: Republic II (Harvard University Press, 1970).
3. I found eight variants compared with Slings’ edition (S. R. Slings, ed., Platonis Rempublicam, Oxford University Press, 2003): at 375b11, 430b8, 442c2, 452d10, 454b4, 551c6, 607c1, 613e1.
4. H. Diels and and W. Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Weidmannsche, 1961); A. Nauck, B. Snell, R. Kannicht, and S. Radt (eds.), Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1971-1986), M. Vegetti, Platone: La Repubblica (Bibliopolis, 1994-1995) (reference limited to the first five volumes), and G. Giannantoni, Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae (L’Ateneo, 1990).
5. Shorey, vol. 1, p. 520.