Plato’s Symposium is among his most translated and popular dialogues. There are more than ten translations of the Symposium in the English language, the majority of which have been published in the previous two decades.1 Having previously published new translations of the Sophist (1996) and the Phaedo (1998), Brann, Kalkavage and Salem now offer a new translation of the Symposium, like them published in the Focus Philosophical Library. The choice of this specific Platonic dialogue undeniably raises certain questions: “Why do we need another translation of the Symposium ?” for example, and, of course, “What does this translation offer compared to the previous ones?” Hence, this new translation of Plato’s Symposium has to overcome significant challenges in order to prove that it deserves a position in the rich existing Platonic bibliography.
This new edition contains a very short introduction, the English translation (which is annotated with 170 footnotes), an interpretive essay, a glossary, two appendices and a select bibliography. The authors᾽ goal was to provide “a translation that was as faithful as possible to the Greek original in vocabulary and syntax, and that captured the playfulness of the interchanges and the varying tones of the formal speeches” (xv).
The five-page introduction addresses only the fundamental topics that may prove useful to the first-time reader of the Symposium, focusing mainly on the subject of the dialogue, Eros. It sketches the poetic tradition concerning the god Eros, briefly discusses the narrative framework, the characters and the structure of the dialogue and provides a list of basic points intended to promote a better understanding of the dialogue.
Brann, Kalkavage and Salem᾽s translation is literal, but reads naturally in English. The translators succeed in two important respects: first, they use clear and simple language; second, they avoid under-translating words, which is relatively common in literal translations. Therefore, the translation is accessible and easy to read and achieves the ultimate purposes of the translators, which are to reflect on the dialogue’s principal themes and to ensure that it is pleasurable to read. As the manner in which some difficult words (such as deinos, thaumazein, phronêsis, sôphrosynê, mousikê, synousia) are translated shows, the authors are flexible and aware of the different meanings and connotations of particular words; for instance, they recognize that mousikê does not always denote “music.” In addition, despite the high degree of linguistic accuracy that the authors maintain, they also convey the playful tone of the dialogue: they are alert to the humor and irony that pervade the text and they effectively handle the literary (mostly poetical) passages when they occur. In general, they do not provide restrictive interpretation; rather they open the text up to alternative readings. More importantly, the translation is accompanied by useful notes that either focus on the text itself (e.g. on the etymology and meaning of words) or go beyond it (e.g. they offer additional information about the characters of the dialogue and its intertexts).
However, in rare cases, I do not agree with the translators’ choices. For example, the word phronêsis at 202a is considered a synonym of sophia, and it is, thus, translated as “wisdom.” It seems, however, that, in this specific context phronêsis is closer to epistêmê than to sophia; therefore the translation “understanding” favored by the majority of previous translators is more suitable. In addition, the absence of the original text may make the life of a student or scholar who needs to focus on the Greek language or compare the two texts somewhat challenging. Of course, including the Greek text would increase the length, and thus the cost, of the book, which may lead to certain publishing issues. However, the authors could have included the most important and hard-to-translate Greek words in brackets and provided more extensive explanatory notes regarding their word choices (although they partly address this issue with the inclusion of the glossary towards the end of the book). Furthermore, the translators have not identified the primary edition and the variant readings that they employed (or at least the most important among them).
The 47-page essay that follows offers useful details that emphasize the dramatic aspects of the dialogue. The essay is principally aimed at undergraduate students of the Symposium or a general audience. Beyond providing a description of the dramatic framework, it pays close attention to the form and content of every speech on Eros, examining the arguments used by each speaker and providing valuable insights into love (Love) and beauty (Beauty). The notes that accompany the essay provide additional detail concerning the speakers, the cultural and historical context of the dialogue and references to other Platonic dialogues (namely the Republic, Theaetetus, Apology, Phaedrus and Protagoras), which enable various comparisons between the Symposium and these other Platonic works. In general, the essay, like the translation itself, is written in a less formal style. It clarifies many challenging aspects of the discussion featured in the text and raises some important questions concerning the general structure of the dialogue and the Socratic way of thinking. It is true that it does not provide a profound interpretation of the dialogue and fails to open up new possibilities for research, but doing so might exceed the scope of this edition.
The glossary is extremely helpful and illuminates the various meanings of certain Greek words. Glossary entries are arranged not alphabetically but thematically (“according to associated meanings,” 108). Under every entry, detailed information is provided concerning the uses of the words, and their common roots or synonyms used through the course of the dialogue. The glossary explores interesting relationships between these, and expands on the concepts they refer to, as, for example, the association between epistêmê (knowledge), sophia (wisdom) and philosophia (philosophy).
Two appendices consist of a conjectural depiction of the spatial layout of the symposium and the positioning of the participants (A), and a chart that depicts the relationships between the first six speeches, focusing on their shared characteristics: the number of gods, the age of speaker, the parentage of Eros and the function of Eros (B). The book ends with a concise bibliography.
Overall, this book is well balanced: it addresses significant issues and provides the reader with a high-quality translation that is faithful to the original text and yet versatile and undogmatic. It also offers valuable and reliable interpretive tools for approaching this widely read Platonic work. I also did not detect any misprints. On the whole, this is a well-produced edition, with a logical structure, clear objectives and a reasonable price. It is lucid and accessible and it should be counted among the best English translations of the Symposium. It may perhaps not satisfy the demands of an advanced student or scholar, but it could certainly be included in introductory philosophy and ancient Greek literature courses.
1. B. Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1889) (this still remains the standard English translation); W. R. M. Lamb, Lysis, Symposium, Gorgias (Cambridge ΜΑ: Harvard University Press, 2915); A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, Symposium (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989); T. Griffith, Symposium of Plato (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989); S. Benardete, Plato᾽s Symposium (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993); W. S. Cobb, The Symposium and the Phaedrus: Plato᾽s Erotic Dialogues (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993); R. Waterfield, Plato: Symposium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); C. J. Rowe, Plato: Symposium (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1998); A. Sharon, Plato’s Symposium (Newburyport: Focus Press, 1998); C. Gill, Plato: The Symposium (London; New York: Penguin Books, 1999); D. O᾽Connor, The Symposium of Plato. The Shelley Translation (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustin᾽s Press, 2002); M. C. Howatson and F. C. C. Sheffield, Plato. The Symposium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
2. Plato ̓s Sophist (1996) and Phaedo (1998) are also published by the Focus Philosophical Library.