BMCR 2023.01.24

A vocabulary of the ancient commentators on Aristotle

, A vocabulary of the ancient commentators on Aristotle: combining the Greek-English indexes from the eponymous series spanning works from the 2nd century CE to late antiquity. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. Pp. 352. ISBN 9781350250437

The series The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle, edited by Richard Sorabji, is an undisputed source for research on the Aristotelian tradition in both ancient and late ancient philosophy. Besides a translation and precise and copious endnotes, each volume of the series has a Greek-English index as appendix to the translation. In these indexes each translator offers a list of transliterated Greek terms with their translation(s), which are considered relevant for the understanding of the text. For each entry of the index, the translator provides the pages and the lines in which that particular meaning of the word can be found. Reference is not to the English translations, but to the pages of the Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca (CAG) that are indicated in a parallel numeration in the left margin of the pages of the English translation. For example: “sôma, body, 7,7” is listed in the index of Ammonius, On Aristotle On Interpretation 1-8, tr. D. Blank, 1996, p. 191. Following the parallel numbering provided in the English volume, we can find that p. 7 of Ammonius’ commentary in the CAG is translated on p. 16 of Blank’s volume.

The current volume, “Vocabulary of the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle”, by Richard McKirahan is the result of a combination of the Greek-English indexes of the first 100 volumes of the series in a single alphabetical list of terms.

This vocabulary is quite a new work in the field. It is a first clear answer to one of the main problems of a translator of philosophical texts, not only in the case of ancient Greek, namely the fact that dictionaries usually do not show the whole spectrum of specialized meanings, in the way a proper philosophical lexicon would do. The same happens in other fields and it is inevitable, for the aim of a dictionary is to provide a synthesis and representative overview of the use of that language. Therefore, many philosophical terms and some philosophical nuances of some words are absent from many well-known dictionaries, such as Liddell-Scott-Jones, or, if they are present, their definitions are not quite right for the context. McKirahan points out that over 195 translations of the Greek word “logos” are found in the indexes, with over 100 not found in Liddell-Scott-Jones. There is no doubt that this work is destined to become a useful tool for the scholars in the field of the Aristotelian tradition in late antiquity, but also for students of Neoplatonic terminology, since many of these Aristotelian commentators were Neoplatonic philosophers.

Beyond the vocabulary itself, McKirahan provides an insightful and detailed introduction on the method and structure of his vocabulary. After two chapters dedicated to a brief outline of the Aristotelian tradition in late antiquity (Introduction, pp. viii-x) and a short history of the series edited by Sorabji (Introduction, p. x), a first part of the introduction is dedicated to the explanation of the entries of the vocabulary (Introduction, p. viii). Indeed, as McKirahan says, “a system has been devised to refer readers to the relevant volume numbers of the series”[1]. The system is clarified by taking as example the first word of the vocabulary: abakion. The structure of the entry is the following:

abakion, abacus (4: 17, 59, 61, 90), drawing board (4: 60, 56, 61,70), sideboard (1: 80)

The Greek word is in bold; its translations are: “abacus”, “drawing board” and “sideboard”. Regarding the numbers in the brackets, the first number (in bold) is the number of the volumes in which that translation occurs; the other numbers are the individual volumes in which that translation can be found. So, abacus is in 4 indexes of the 100 volumes selected, more in detail, in volumes17, 59, 61, 90. Obviously, a list of the 100 volumes of the series used to make the vocabulary is given following the introduction, just before the vocabulary itself (pp. xiii-xv). So, looking at the list, volume 17 can easily be found: it is Philoponus’ commentary on Aristotle’s Physics II.  Note that the order of the volumes in this list is that of publication, from 1987 to 2012.

The vocabulary does not present references to the actual texts from which a particular meaning is taken. Clearly, the volume of the book would have been greatly increased if references to all 100 volumes had been added. However, this implies that one should own or have access to all 100 volumes. Furthermore, even with such access, the process of finding a reference is not smooth. For example, the reader finds one interesting meaning listed in the index of one volume, for instance volume 12: s/he has to check what volume 12 is in the list at the end of the introduction; then the English-Greek index of that volume has to be consulted; finally, s/he needs the corresponding volume in the CAG or should try to find the term in the English translation following the pages and lines of the CAG provided in the left-hand margin of the English translation.

It is important to note that this work is not just a matter of copy and paste. McKirahan provides two forms of correction: (i) corrections of clearly incorrect translations; (ii) rendering the words in a standardized lemma form in the standard layout of a dictionary.

To provide a taste of McKirahan’s work, let us take a random index of one volume of the series, the above-mentioned commentary by Ammonius translated by Blank, and some relevant examples of correction made by McKirahan.

The first kind of correction is basically the rejection of mistakes in translation. For example, Blank’s index has “wind” under empneustos. McKirahan changes it to empneustos: empneuston organon and translates it as “wind instrument”.

Regarding lemmatization, McKirahan pays more attention to grammatical coherence. I offer four examples:

  1. Blank’s index reports what can be found in his translation. Hence the index has “-ed” forms, “-ing” forms, or even conjugated forms. McKirahan’s vocabulary lists them with the standard infinitive form “to + verb”, e.g., aisthanesthai, Blank: “sensing”; McKirahan: “to sense”; apophaskein. Blank: “negated, denies”; McKirahan: “to negate, to deny”.
  2. McKirahan corrects adjectives and adverbs as follows: antiphatikos. Blank:“contradictorily”; McKirahan puts Blank’s translation under antiphatikôs, the adverbial form.
  3. When Blank’s index has a plural participle or noun, McKirahan reports it in the vocabulary in the singular. Under eisagein, Blank lists eisagomenoi, “beginners”; McKirahan changes it in ho eisagomenos, “beginner”.
  4. McKirahan corrects mistakes in transliteration: Blank has aruthmistos. McKirahan corrects to arrhuthmistos.

The only corrections, then, are either a rejection or a change due to a mistake of the translator. As a general claim, McKirahan clearly states that: “no additions have been made to what exists in the indexes as published”[2]. The vocabulary wants to be a re-writing of the indexes in a coherent and correct form. The work has been carried out with outstanding precision. This work is valuable and reliable, as the examples taken from a random volume clearly show: passing through the entries of Blank’s index, it is immediately clear how precise and well-done McKirahan’s re-writing is.

We now have a dictionary rather than a patchy group of indexes. However, there are still some points that require further attention, even if they are due to more to the form of the indexes themselves than to McKirahan’s vocabulary.

First of all, Greek words are transliterated. Therefore, the alphabetic order is not that of Greek. The indexes and McKirahan also follow the Roman alphabetic order. For example, the words beginning with p (π) and ph (φ) are both listed under the same letter “p”; the words beginning with o (ο) and ô (ω) are both listed under the same letter “o”. This can make the reading of the vocabulary bothersome, especially for someone who is accustomed to reading ancient Greek, though it must be said that the whole series is primarily meant to make these commentaries accessible to people who do not read Greek.

Another point concerns the structure of the entries. Let us consider for example the verb arkhein and just the meanings and the number of occurrences in the indexes: “to be in control” (1); “to be the starting point” (1); “to commence” (1); “to govern” (1); “to have a beginning” (1); “to initiate” (1); “to rule” (12); “to start” (8). These translations are arranged by McKirahan following the alphabetic order. However, as is the case in dictionaries, the most frequent meaning within the entry should be the first in the order of the entry. Obviously, in case of meanings having the same number of occurrences an alphabetic order is welcome, but when the number of occurrences is different, the meanings should be arranged from the most to the least common.

Finally, since each volume of the series has not only a Greek-English index but also an English-Greek glossary, it would be interesting to complement McKirahan’s work by a lexicon combining the English-Greek glossaries, using McKirahan’s method.

McKirahan himself points out some difficulties of his work both in the preface (pp. vi-vii) and in a section of the introduction, entitled “Idiosyncrasies” (Introduction, pp. x-xi). First of all, the problem of putting together different authors. Each ancient commentator has his own vocabulary (idiolect) and, obviously, many of these expressions proper to the author are listed in the indexes. Furthermore, the book puts together 100 indexes of different translators, who during four decades have worked with different methods of translation.

McKirahan answers these problems by leaving the whole spectrum of translations intact, thus offering a useful tool to evaluate the history of translations from the first volume to the hundredth.

This last point allows McKirahan to address another problem: the number of volumes involved. The initial decision to use ‘just’ the first 100 volumes, instead of all 116 of the series, was based on the opinion that “translations in later volumes will largely coincide with those already found in the first hundred”[3]. However, if this vocabulary shows anything, it is how much translators differ in their methods and translations. Hence McKirahan clearly states that this work should be extended to cover later volumes.

In the last section of the introduction, entitled “Some uses of this book” (Introduction, pp. xi-xii), McKirahan clearly states that “this book is not a dictionary, although it is a resource for many words, spelling and usages not found in classical Greek or included in standard dictionaries”[4]. Since no changes have been made to any translations, except for those we have mentioned, the idea is to present a complete overview of the differences in translation, with various solutions to render a Greek word into English. This work, then, is primarily relevant to understanding variety in translation. Indeed, it is worth noting that to have a non-Greek vocabulary of Greek terms means that synonymous terms such as “to commence” and “to start” appear as different meanings under arkhein. Hence this vocabulary seems to be not a list of meanings of a word but a list of possible translations of that word. Given a Greek term, McKirahan’s vocabulary allows us to know in how many ways this term has been translated within the volumes, not how many meanings this term has in the commentaries on Aristotle. Therefore, this vocabulary is a fundamental reference point not only for the philosophical language of Aristotle’s commentators, but also for the practice of translating from ancient Greek into English, while also being a significant first step towards a vocabulary that is completely specialised in the philosophical lexicon.



[1] Introduction, p. viii.

[2] Introduction, p. viii.

[3] Preface, p. vii.

[4] Introduction, p. xi.