On Translating to Latin From Greek

Gellius 11.16

“We have frequently noted more than a few words or expressions which we cannot say in a few words, as in Greek, and which, even if we use as many words as possible to say them, cannot be articulated as clearly or pointedly in Latin as the Greeks can convey in a few words. For recently, when a book of Plutarch came my way and I was reading the title, which was “Peri polypragmosunes”, a man who didn’t know Greek asked me whose book it was and what it was written about. I spoke the name of the writer immediately, but the subject of the book was something I hesitated on. At first, since I did not believe that it would be an elegant translation if I said that the book was De Negotiositate (about busyness), I began to search my mind for some other description which, as the saying goes, would express it “word for word”. But there was nothing which I could remember that I read nor anything I could invent that would not in some way be harsh or silly—if I made a new word out of multitude and negotium, in the same way we say “multifaceted” or “multicolored” or “multiform”. But it would be said no less awkwardly than if one were to translate into a single world polyphilia (having many friends), polytropia (of many ways) or polysarkia (with much flesh). Therefore, after I spent a while thinking silently, I responded that it did not seem possible to me to communicate the subject in a single word and that, as a result, I was considering how to convey the meaning of that Greek word with a phrase.”

Adiecimus saepe animum ad vocabula rerum non paucissima, quae neque singulis verbis, ut a Graecis, neque, si maxime pluribus eas res verbis dicamus, tam dilucide tamque apte demonstrari Latina oratione possunt, quam Graeci ea dicunt privis vocibus. 2 Nuper etiam cum adlatus esset ad nos Plutarchi liber et eius libri indicem legissemus, qui erat peri polypragmosynes, percontanti cuipiam, qui et litterarum et vocum Graecarum expers fuit, cuiusnam liber et qua de re scriptus esset, nomen quidem scriptoris statim diximus, rem, de qua scriptum fuit, dicturi haesimus. 3 Ac tum quidem primo, quia non satis commode opinabar interpretaturum me esse, si dicerem librum scriptum “de negotiositate”, aliud institui aput me exquirere, quod, ut dicitur, verbum de verbo expressum esset. 4 Nihil erat prorsus, quod aut meminissem legere me aut, si etiam vellem fingere, quod non insigniter asperum absurdumque esset, si ex multitudine et negotio verbum unum compingerem, sicuti “multiiuga” dicimus et “multicolora” et “multiformia”. 5 Sed non minus inlepide ita diceretur, quam si interpretari voce una velis polyphilian aut polytropian aut polysarkian. Quamobrem, cum diutule tacitus in cogitando fuissem, respondi tandem non videri mihi significari eam rem posse uno nomine et idcirco iuncta oratione, quid ucliet Graecum id verbum, pararam dicere.

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