Lost in Translation

By Sean Carroll | November 22, 2006 12:19 pm

I love the internets, because they know more about the ancient Greeks than I do. Timaeus is one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, the one that deals with the origin of the universe. (Long story short: the demiurge created our universe, but not out of nothing; rather, by organizing some of the pre-existing chaos.) It’s also where Plato talks about Atlantis, and has remained popular for that reason. I don’t know much about Plato, but I do know something about the creation of the universe, so I’ve been invited to a conference on Timaeus to be held in Urbana next year. Which means, I suppose, that I should actually read the thing.

But my ancient Greek is rusty, so I’ll be reading it in translation. Anyone who has made any non-trivial effort to read classics in translation knows that the particular translation makes all the difference in the world — two different translators can render the same text as stilted and incomprehensible or cogent and compelling. But how to choose? I’m not so dedicated to this project that I’m going to pick up six different translations and compare them side by side.

Fortunately — the intertubes have already done it for me! We’ve reached that lovely critical point at which, given any question you have, someone has answered it on a web page somewhere, and Google can lead you to it. A bit of poking around led me to this page by Joseph Wells. He seems more interested in arguing about the existence of Atlantis than in addressing the qualities of different translations, but whatever — I didn’t say your questions would be answered intentionally. The page lists side-by-side tiny excerpts from the Timaeus in six different translations, so you can compare for yourself. For example:

Jowett 1871 Taylor 1793
for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; For at that time the Atlantic sea was navigable, and had an island before the mouth which is called by you Pillars of Hercules. But the island was greater than both Libya and all Asia together, and afforded an easy passage to other neighbouring islands; as it was likewise easy to pass from those islands to all the continent which borders on this Atlantis sea.
Bury 1929 Lee 1965
For the ocean there was at that time navigable; for in front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say, ‘the pillars of Heracles, there lay an island which was larger than Libya3 and Asia together; and it was possible for the travelers of that time to cross from it to the other islands, and from the islands to the whole of the continent over against them which encompasses that veritable ocean. For in those days the Atlantic was navigable. There was an island opposite the strait which you call the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar), an island larger than Libya (Africa) and Asia combined; from it travelers could in those days reach the other islands, and from them the whole opposite continent which surrounds what can truly be called the ocean.
Kalkavage 2001 Zeyl 2000
For at that time the ocean there could be crossed, since an island was situated in front of the mouth that you people call, so you claim, the Pillars of Hercules. The island was bigger than Libya and Asia together, and from it there was access to the other islands for those traveling at that time, and from the islands to the entire opposing continent that surrounds that true sea. For at that time this ocean was passable, since it had an island in it in front of the strait that you people say you call the Pillars of Heracles. The island was larger than Libya and Asia combined, and it provided passage to the other islands for people who traveled in those days. From those islands one could then travel to the entire continent on the other side, which surrounds that real sea beyond.

What more could you ask for? On this basis I’m going for the Zeyl translation, which seems to read the most like something that could have been written in English. I kind of like “navigable” rather than “passable,” but you can’t have everything.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Words
  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    In the 20th Century, most students were introduced to Plato via the Apology and the Republic. For most of the past couple of millennia, however, the Plato that mattered was the Timaeus—it was pretty much the only Plato available to the Christian West until the Renaissance. If any book was ever influential…

    Over and beyond its significance for intellectual history, the Timaeus also contains one of few basic exemplars of what a mathematical physics might look like. When I read accounts of string theory, I’m always reminded of the geometrical atomism of the Timaeus. I’ll be very interested to read your thoughts on the dialogue after the conference.

  • http://www.roe.ac.uk/~jbj Berian James

    Sean –

    …which seems to read the most like something that could have been written in English.

    I’m intrigued that you’ve picked one of the most recent translations – do you think there is a hidden prejudice among anyone reading in translation to use a rubric that likes ‘modern’ language, however subtle the shades between versions might be? The abundance of semicolons in the Jowett reading jumps out at me as very unorthodox today, but I can’t grasp how you would mechanistically decide that Zeyl is more like unfabriacted English – unless, of course, you mean that it is most similar to the language we hear and read in 2006.

    (I hereby disclose the utter paucity of my knowledge about Plato, ancient Greek or translation and linguistics in general.)


  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    Sean, not forgetting of course that in the grander picture, ie: looking at earth from space – the continent we know as America (north america & south america) is just one giant ISLAND between the waters (of the Atlantic and pacific oceans) separated by the panama canal.
    Remember when the conquistadors ‘discovered’ Mexico City some 500 years ago, it was already a vast city of some one million people, built on a lake

    The continent we know as Africa (the side of the pillars of Hercules known as Lybia) is another island
    Eurasia (gibraltar, the other side of the pillars of hercules) is another very large island.
    Australia the smallest (continent) island

    And if we really really want to be picky, Earth is Earth, and the waters or Oceans no more than seas or big lakes, above the sea bottom.

  • Blaine

    Interesting that you choose this…

    “in front of the strait that you people say you call the Pillars of Heracles.”

    In my humble opinion that sentence would sound terribly awkward in any century. There is something about using the word “you” twice that makes the words stumble in my mind.

    Personally, I like the Taylor. In my mind I hear grand rolling tones inspired by wonder. But hey, what do I know? I suppose whatever best gets across the meaning to you.

    Pardon the aimless meanderings….


  • Asher

    I feel that in selecting a Timaeus, the most vital thing is to have good explanatory footnotes with diagrams. It makes all the difference in the world.

    Also, interestingly, I prefer the Jowett, as it sounds in English the most like Greek. Especially with all the semicolons.

    Finally, you do know that all of the major classical works are available (in original language and translation) at Perseus, right?

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    He seems more interested in arguing about the existence of Atlantis than in addressing the qualities of different translations, but whatever — I didn’t say your questions would be answered intentionally.

    I like the concept of being given the information you wanted unintentionally….

    Historically, a lot of careful astronomy was done for astrological purposes. They needed careful star positions to cast horoscopes. Real astronomers have no interest in horoscopes, but it is nice that things like the precession of the Earth were figured out….

    (I mean, if Tycho Brahe could be employed as an astrologer, well, maybe that’s kinda embarassing… but Kepler _did_ use his data to come up with an elegant set of empirical laws that did a great job of describing planetary orbits!)


  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/11/timaeuslaying-ground-rules-on-genesis.html Plato
  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Also an interesting translation I came across recently:

    The Nobel Prize Medal for Physics and Chemistry

    The inscription reads:

    Inventas vitam juvat excoluisse per artes

    loosely translated “And they who bettered life on earth by new found mastery.”

    (Word for word: inventions enhance life which is beautified through art.)
    (From Nobelprize.org)

    I wonder where and when beautified through art became by new found mastery?

    Besides this it’s noteworthy that the reverse side of the Nobel Prize medal for Physics features a bare-breasted woman :-)

  • http://geezerfud.livejournal.com/ Dean

    For insight into translation, you might want to check out Hofstadter’s “Le Ton Beau de Marot,” which, despite its title, is written in English. It has several parallel sequences, as in this post.

    Hofstadter tends to come across as pretentious and even precious, but most of his passages are so excellent that the occasional excursion can be ignored.

  • http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/ John Baez

    The Timaeus is one of the most amazing books on the planet.

    To read it, you have to do your best to pretend you’re in Greece and it’s 360 BC. If you can’t pretend that, you need to read a bit about classical Greece. Read some Greek myths! And then, you’ll have your mind blown by this guy, Socrates – the figurehead for Plato – who describes a plan for understanding the universe by rational thought. Things like atoms… things like mathematics… and even better, the idea that the theory he’s describing is just a theory – it’s probably not right, just a step in the right direction! He’s not just propounding a theory. He’s propounding the idea of a theory.

    It will seem weird, old-fashioned, and bizarre. Lots of it will seem downright goofy. You have to resist your temptation to snicker. You have to remember that most things which seem “obvious” to us were not known in 360 BC. You have to remember that everything we say will seem equally stupid in the year 4366 AD. If you forget this, you’ll be blind to the incredible achievement, the incredible advance, that this book represents.

    I can’t imagine reading any translation other than Jowett.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    “Historically, a lot of careful astronomy was done for astrological purposes. They needed careful star positions to cast horoscopes. Real astronomers have no interest in horoscopes, but it is nice that things like the precession of the Earth were figured out….”

    I thought all that was done for the calender.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Dean beat me to the recommendation of Hofstadter’s _Le Ton Beau de Marot_, where Hofstadter gives 88 different translations (French to English) of the short 1537 get-well poem of Clement Marot. That particular Marot effort emerged from his involvement in the translation of his classic _Goedel, Escher, Bach_ into other languages. In Marot, he explores what is involved with poetry translation and how he sees translation as a means to understand human language and human thought. His translations explored many dimensions of what it might mean to capture the intent of the original. He became very interested in the translation concepts, so then after _Le Ton Beau de Marot_, he applied what he learned and undertook the translation of Pushkin’s classic _Eugene Onegin_ from Russian into English. Hofstadter is not a poet, but I am very impressed by what he accomplished. He used the project as a way to become more proficient in Russian, which he wasn’t before, in addition to using the project to study the nature of communication and translation of ideas and language.

    What does it mean to interpret or translate another person’s creative work? The first question to ask of the translator “is he/she true to the original?” If the originator is dead, then one must spend years in studying all of the historical environment to express the work close to the original. If it is not possible to translate the meaning then the viewer/reader/listener/etc. must accept that the translated/interpretted work is “derivative” or “evolved-in-time”. Observing interpretations of creative work over time can be interesting, anyway, for learning about that society in historical contexts.

    In the music world, musicians and conductors have to face this situation every day when interpreting works from long-dead composers. For example, I would prefer (the contemporary musician) Nigel Kennedy’s renditions of works of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Sibelius over any other classical musician at any other time. I think that poetry is more difficult to translate and interpret from the original than music I think that it is tied much deeper to the language and to the culture and other social contexts than music. Form, rhythm, rhyme, and embedded meanings within meanings would need to be translated.

    Consider form of the Shakespearean sonnet. The lyric poem is divided in 4 ways, three quatrains (4-line verse), each with a rhyme scheme of its own, usually alternating lines, and a concluding “couplet” at the end that rhymes. The couplet at the end is often a commentary on the preceding quatrains. Can you imagine the complexity of such a translation?

    In Le Ton, Hofstadter succeeds in translating Le Ton out of French, where it has rhythm and rhyme, into English so that it still has rhythm and rhyme. Hofstadter gave a talk at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, Calif. some years ago, when he talked about his translation approach. For a long time, he said that he stayed to the original syllable counts, since it was a particular French style with short lines. He tried changing that restriction, since English seemed to need more syllables to say the same things as French. He also varied vocabulary, strictness of rhyme, how closely he stuck to the original metaphors, and quite a bit more.

    I read an English version of Pushkin’s _Evgenij Onegin_ many years ago, but I am particularly interested to read Hofstadter’s version because of his obsessive attention to these dimensions. Some colleagues told me that there is an excellent Italian translation that promotes an Italian word-play on the ideas that ‘improve’ the original in a way that Pushkin would have approved. In particular, in Italian, the plural possessive pronoun for his/her is “suoi”, making a mystery of the gender, so when the poem jumps from Evgenij to Tatjana and vice versa, you do not know if suoi occhi are the eyes of Evgenij or Tatjana, adding an uncertainty to the already existing play in the dialogue between the characters while they are expressing their love. My Italian colleague thinks that such ‘imnprovement’ proves that the translator entered in the ‘soul’ of the original.

    Another amazing example of translated poetry is in the translated work of Stanislaw Lem, from Polish to English of _Cyberiad_. In this story are two robots engaging in a poetry duel. One of the robots has been challenged to write a poem about a haircut. His/its challenge is to write one that is lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treacher, retribution, and quiet heroism in the face of certain doom. It must be rhymed with every word beginning with the letter ‘s’. It’s so amazing and delightful, that here I must quote from the book.

    Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
    She scissord short. Sorely shorn,
    Soon shackled slave, Samson signed,
    Silently scheming,
    Sightlessly seeking
    Some saveage, spectacular suicide.

    “Well what do you say to that?” asked Trurl, his arms folded proudly. But Klapaucius was already shouting:

    “Now all in g! A sonnet, trochaic hexameter, about an old cyclotron who kept sixteen artificial mistresses, blue and radioactive, had four wings, three purple pavilions, two lacquered chests, each containing exactly one thousand medallions bearing the likeness of Czar Murdicog the Headless…”

    “Grinding gleeful gears, Gerontogyron grabbed/Giggling gynecobalt-60 golems,” began the machine, but Trurl leaped to the console, shut off the power and turned, defending the machine with his body.

    “Enough!” he said, hoarse with indignation. “How dare you waste a great talent on such drivel? Either give it decent poems to write or I call the whole thing off!”

    “What, those aren’t decent poems?” protested Klapaucius.

    “Certainly not! I didn’t build a machine to solve ridiculous crossword puzzles! That’s hack work, not Great Art! Just give it a topic, any topic, as diffiicult as you like …”

    Klapaucius thought, and thought some more. Finally he nodded and said:

    “Very well. Let’s have a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics. Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be. But with feeling, you understand, and in the cybernetic spirit.”

    “Love and tensor algebra? Have you taken leave of your senses?”

    Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    For the new edition of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, a seminal work on the origin and significance of modern nationalism, the author has written a last chapter that discusses what became of the book as it was translated into most of the major and many of the minor languages of the world. Discussions of translation are often written by the consumers of translations and sometimes by the translators themselves. It’s interesting to get the perspective of one of the victims/beneficiaries of translation for a change, especially since Anderson doesn’t presume to have an unlimited license to bitch about his interpreters. (“Imagined Communities is not my book any more.”) I wonder what Plato would have to say about the various Timaeuses?

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/11/timaeuslaying-ground-rules-on-genesis.html Plato

    John Baez:Things like atoms… things like mathematics… and even better, the idea that the theory he’s describing is just a theory – it’s probably not right, just a step in the right direction! He’s not just propounding a theory. He’s propounding the idea of a theory.

    I think this is where Aristotle comes into the picture and empiricism? The loftiness belongs to Plato, and the idea?

    But sure, reading so many of our scientist forbears, then how could we not find that pieces of the dialogues has been repeatly sent down the lines scientists in learning or to invoke different kinds of thinking? Holography and Gerardus T’ Hooft?

    It rubbed off on me.

    In terms of translation then?

  • Paul Valletta

    What is really astounding, is the thoughts revealed about:


    and the reference to past-histories, specifically Memory.

    The recent inquiry by a London Doctor (I dont recall his name, but know he was a Dr at a top london childrens hospital), which researched, and has specific proof that ancestors, pass on the life experience memory, via human gene’s. He found evidence that a living person (somewhere in I believe Norway), was recalling events of an ancestor, of some generations past, informations of a real-world event, was somehow encoded into the gene’s that was past on to following generations ?

    Plato’s allagory? of:The Transigration of the Soul, appears to be a very astounding action of pre-cognitive thinking, WRT past events baring influence on one’s own perceptive actions of reality?

    Whilst this recent discovery (I will find the link detailing the full documented Dr/data),seems to me as pretty far fetched, I now find myself reading this thread, with all the related links to Plato’s Republic, and am ashamed to state that I have had a copy of the said Republic, for quite a number of years, and have never prised it open to reveal it’s obvious amazing content, this will be rectified instantly.

  • Belizean

    I can’t imagine reading any translation other than Jowett.

    I’d have to agree. Not so much because of his superior translations (though I do like them) but because I’m so used to him. It’s kind of like seeing a particular actor in a role. If she does a good job, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.

  • http://brave-new-words.blogspot.com/ Brett

    You wrote that you chose the text “which seems to read the most like something that could have been written in English”. Whether that is what one necessarily looks for in a translation is a question, though. Similarly, Amara said “The first question to ask of the translator “is he/she true to the original?”” But what does that mean? What does being “true to the original” involve, exactly? Some would say that it means doing a word-for-word translation; others say it is sense-for-sense. Still others think that being true to the original really means doing whatever it takes to bring the text to the reader. And so on…
    Many people aren’t even aware of the fact that they are reading work in translation, so I applaud the fact that you are carefully choosing a translation to read!

    Best wishes,
    Brett, a translator

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    I have to agree with those above recommending Jowett–he’s the standard translation that everyone in Philosophy starts with, at least until they bother to learn ancient Greek. I wish I had the time to read more Plato


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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