BMCR 2015.08.32

The Earliest Translations of Aristotle’s ‘Politics’ and the Creation of Political Terminology. Morphomata Lectures Cologne, 8

, The Earliest Translations of Aristotle’s 'Politics' and the Creation of Political Terminology. Morphomata Lectures Cologne, 8. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2014. 83. ISBN 9783770556854. €14.90 (pb).

Table of Contents

Professor Eckart Schütrumpf has had a distinguished career in classical philology and ancient philosophy. He is well known for numerous publications in these fields, especially his German translation and commentary of Aristotle’s Politics, published between 1991 and 2005. This little book is a reworked version of an oral text he presented from 2005 onward at various venues both in German and English.1 Schütrumpf examines the earliest translations of Aristotle’s Politics in the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance, i.e. the Latin versions by William of Moerbeke and Leonardo Bruni, and the French translation by Nicole Oresme.

In contrast with most of Aristotle’s other works, the Politics were unknown in the Arabic world. As a result, Moerbeke’s version, made around 1260, was the first to reach the Latin West. Moerbeke’s initial attempt to translate the work broke off in book II, as his Greek model turned out to be incomplete. He dutifully mentioned this deficiency at the end of his Translatio imperfecta : “Reliquum huius operis in Greco nondum inveni.” His second version was based on a complete Greek manuscript, which he used to correct his previous work. At this stage he also added the missing books. Schütrumpf does not mention the existence of a third revision, which is only preserved in manuscript Vat. Lat. 2104.2

About a century later, Nicole Oresme based his French translation on Moerbeke’s Latin text. Oresme’s Politics forms part of a larger program to translate and comment on classical authorities, in particular Aristotle’s works, in the vernacular, as commissioned by King Charles V of France. Oresme, who held a degree from the University of Paris, considered French inferior to Latin. It lacked the technical vocabulary that he found in his Latin source. In all, Oresme added more than a thousand words to the vocabulary of his native language through his translations and commentaries.

In the first half of the 15th century, Leonardo Bruni aimed at replacing the medieval Latin translation of the same text, which he deemed incorrect and obscure, with his new version. The main reason for the poor quality of his predecessor’s work, he claimed, was the interpreter’s inadequate knowledge of both languages, Latin and Greek. The 206 surviving manuscripts and the 51 printed editions of his translation are evidence of his enterprise’s success.

Schütrumpf intends to do more than just tell the story of these translations. In the preface, he presents the purpose of his book: to let “the voice of classicists whose scholarly focus is the Greek texts” be heard (7). This looks like a puzzling statement, as editors such as Lorenzo Minio-Paluello, Gerard Verbeke, and Carlos Steel (not Steele, as consistently cited in the notes and the bibliography) were and are trained classicists who produced editions of both Greek and Latin texts. However, Schütrumpf may be right that the older translations do not always receive the credit that is due to them as early hermeneutic attempts to make the original Greek texts understandable for a new audience. In the end, he seems to aim at an assessment of the quality of both Latin translations, i.e. to judge whether the translators understood the Greek text correctly and how they conveyed its meaning into Latin.

Classical approaches to translation activity were formulated in antiquity by Cicero and Jerome. Translators could either work ad verbum or ad sensum. The latter had to be preferred in all cases, although Jerome made an exception for texts from Scripture, where even the word order carries a mysterium. Bruni, being a 15th-century Italian humanist scholar, adopted the Ciceronian ideal in terms of language and style. He went so far in avoiding Greekness in his translation that he at times ran the risk of Romanizing Aristotle’s text. When Aristotle talks about the assessment of the property classes every five years, Bruni calls it lustrum, and the magistrates who controlled it censores. By following Cicero, Bruni not only Latinizes but Romanizes Aristotle (p. 44-45). This becomes all the more clear because Bruni allows for a clean view of his translation kitchen. Schütrumpf’s treatment of his method is facilitated by Bruni’s treatise De interpretatione recta and by the correspondence he had about it with his fellow humanist scholars.

As for William of Moerbeke, the absence of an explicit treatment constitutes a challenge to get a consistent view of his translation practice. His method as it appears from his works was conveniently characterized by Lorenzo Minio-Paluello who observed that he “wanted the Greek to be read in Latin characters”.3 Moerbeke meticulously tried to render the exact appearance of the Greek text in Latin words. His contemporaries praised him for this ad verbum method, which they favorably contrasted with the verbositas of translations that had come from Arabic sources. Obviously, William allowed himself to adapt the Latin language accordingly. In his view, Latin must still have been an evolving, if not a living, language. Yet clusters of Greek particles consistently rendered by the same Latin words were thorns in the eyes of later readers trained according to the Ciceronian ideal. Undoubtedly Moerbeke intended to shape a new technical vocabulary through his Aristotelian translations as an attempt to get as close as possible to the Greek original.

This hypothesis provides the only possible explanation for an undeniable tendency in his treatment of Greek compounds. In most cases, William rendered them by using two Latin words that mirror the etymology of the original Greek. It is not uncommon, though, that he transliterated later occurrences of the same compound, occasionally adding his previous translation introduced by id est or scilicet. The reason for this choice cannot lie in his lack of knowledge of either Greek or Latin. The conclusion must be that Moerbeke preferred the transcription of a Greek term to a Latin periphrasis if it resulted in a closer word-for-word correspondence with his model.

With this in mind, it is clear that Moerbeke’s translations fall short of expectations if weighed on Ciceronian scales. This leaves Schütrumpf’s judgment somewhat unbalanced. While he accurately describes Moerbeke’s method in chapter 1, he seems to follow Bruni’s Ciceronian stance in chapter 6, where he deems that Moerbeke’s version “does not seem to be proper Latin” (74). For this claim he uses the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae as evidence, but misses the obvious conclusion: he only proves that medieval innovations to the Latin language lie beyond the scope of the lexicon’s editors. In the end, the author is happy to enjoy Bruni’s elegant Latin “with a good conscience” (p. 76).

The book includes black and white photographs of four pages from the 1469 Strasbourg editio princeps of Bruni’s translation, as well as an appendix with some variants of this edition compared to others from the 16th century. In spite of the importance of Bruni’s version, a modern critical edition is not yet available. Moerbeke’s full translation suffers the same fate. Schütrumpf cites it according to Susemihl’s 1872 transcription that accompanied his edition of the Greek text. Only Moerbeke’s fragmentary version and Oresme’s French version can be studied in modern critical editions. This fact stresses the urgent need for new editorial projects. No reliable studies about the historical reception of a text can be made without an authoritative edition.

Schütrumpf is to be commended for bringing this somewhat neglected field of research to the attention of a less specialized public. Although his book cannot offer a complete and final treatment of the subject, it gives food for thought and opens new lines of inquiry.


1. The bilingual origin of the text may explain why William of Moerbeke is occasionally called Wilhelm.

2. Bernd Schneider, “Bemerkungen zum Aristoteles Latinus: Spuren einer Revision der Politikübersetzung” in Aristoteles – Werk und Wirkung. Paul Moraux gewidmet, ed. Jürgen Wiesner. De Gruyter: Berlin, 1987, vol. II, p. 487-497.

3. “Guglielmo voleva far legger il greco in lettere latine.” Lorenzo Minio-Paluello, “Boezio, Giacomo Veneto, Guglielmo di Moerbeke, Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples e gli ‘Elenchi Sophistici’” in Rivista di filosofia neo-scolastica 44 (1952), p. 398-411, quotation on p. 408 [reprinted in L. Minio-Paluello, Opuscula. The Latin Aristotle (Amsterdam, 1972), p. 164-177, quotation on p. 174.].