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
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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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