The Intellectual Importance of Translation

Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition, (Chp. 6)

The intellectual importance of translation is so obvious that it is often overlooked. No language, no nation is sufficient unto itself. Its mind must be enlarged by the thoughts of other nations, or else it will warp and shrivel. In English, as in other languages, many of the greatest ideas we use have been brought in through translation. The central book of the English-speaking peoples is a translation — although it comes as a shock to many to realize that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, and translated by a committee of scholars. There are many great books which none but specialists need read in the original, but which through translation have added essential ideas to our minds: Euclid’s Elements,  Descartes’s Discourse on Method, Marx’s Capital, Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

The artistic and linguistic importance of translation is almost as great as its importance in the field of ideas. To begin with, the practice of translation usually enriches the translator’s language with new words. This is because most translations are made from a language with a copious vocabulary into a poorer language which must be expanded by the translator’s courage and inventiveness. The modern vernacular languages — English, French, Spanish, &c. — grew out of spoken dialects which had little or no written literatures, were geographically limited, and were used largely for practical and seldom for intellectual purposes. They were therefore simple, unimaginative, and poor in comparison with Latin and Greek. Soon after people began to write in them they set out to enrich them and make them more expressive. The safest and most obvious way to do so was to borrow from the literary language at their side and bring in Latin words. This enlargement of the western European languages by importations from Latin and Greek was one of the most important activities which prepared for the Renaissance; and it was largely carried on by translators.

Faded Elegances in Faded Latin

Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition (Chp. 12):

Du Bellay’s thesis was this. It is unpatriotic for a Frenchman to write in Latin. It is an admission of inferiority for a Frenchman to write in French without trying to equal the grandest achievements of Greek and Latin literature. Therefore French poetry should loot the Roman city and the Delphic temple’, raising the literature of France to a higher power by importing into it themes, myths, stylistic devices, all the beauty of Greece and Rome. Abandon the old medieval mystery-plays and morality-plays. But also abandon the idea of writing plays in Latin. Write tragedies and comedies as fine as those of the classical dramatists, but in French. Abandon the old-style French lyrics, leave them to provincial festivals and folk-gatherings: they are ‘vulgar’. But also abandon the idea of writing lyrics in Latin or Greek. Write ‘odes still unknown to the French muse’ containing all that makes Pindar great, but in French.

Du Bellay was right. Nationalism narrows culture; extreme classicism desiccates it. To enrich a national literature by bringing into it the strength of the continent-wide and centuries-ripe culture to which it belongs is the best way to make it eternally great. This can be proved both positively and negatively in the Renaissance. It was this synthesis of national and classical elements that produced, in England, Shakespeare’s tragedies and the epics of Spenser and Milton. It was the same synthesis in France that, after a period of experiment, produced the lyrics of Ronsard, the satires of Boileau, the dramas not only of Racine and Corneille but of Molière. It was the failure to complete such a synthesis that kept the Germans and certain other nations from producing any great works of literature during the sixteenth century, and made them spend their efforts either on imitating other nations, writing folk-songs and folk-tales, or composing faded elegances in faded Latin.

Catullus Not For Curates

Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle (Chp. 14):

Belinda laughed rather uncomfortably. ‘What are you reading?’ she asked, hoping to change the subject.

‘We were reading Catullus. I really don’t know how we got on to it,’ said Harriet merrily. ‘Mr. Donne’s so good at Latin, but of course it’s quite thirty years since I read a word of it.’

‘Oh, come,’ said the curate playfully. ‘I can’t believe that.’

Belinda took up her knitting. She remember Dr. Parnell saying that he thought Catullus rather too indelicate for a young girl to read. If this were so, for Belinda’s scanty knowledge of Latin would not enable her to find out for herself, how much more indelicate must the great Roman poet be for a young curate! ‘There is a pretty translation of one of his poems by Thomas Campton,’ she said vaguely, ‘but I suppose it’s not like reading the original.’


Sensible Greek Belief

Leonard Woolf, Sowing:

I can get no comfort from believing what I want to believe when I know that there is no possible reason for believing it to be true. In fact, however, the universe would for me be a more comfortless place if it owed its origin and laws to one of the Gods whom man has invented than if it was merely the inexplicable phenomenon that on the surface (which is all we see and know) it appears to be. If Jehovah or almost any of the other major deities is our creator and ruler, the lot of man is hopeless, for he is subject to a “person” who is not only irrational, but cruel, vindictive, and uncivilized. The only tolerable Gods were those of the Greeks because no sensible man had to take them seriously.

Surrealist Heraclitus

Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New (Chp. 5):

Apart from Trotsky, whom Breton visited in Mexico City before his murder, the Surrealists had no durable heroes among politicians, dead or alive. But they did accumulate a list of “saints” who, in their opinion, had lived out the surrealist ideal of liberty before its time. It was a mixed bag of Romantic heroes and heroines, given to strong feeling and unrestrained search; among others, Byron and Victor Hugo, Novalis and Lautréamont, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Huysmans, and Jarry. Surrealism preferred Heraclitus to Plato, and Raymond Lull’s mystico-alchemical fantasies to the ordered arguments of Thomas Aquinas.

“Please don’t let me be associated with any artistic movements in the future!”


Stoicism? That Sh*t’s Not What I’m About!

Bruce Duffy, The World as I Found It (pp. 116-117, NYRB edition):

Wittgenstein continued. I eat simply. Vegetables, mainly. Meat disagrees with my digestion.

A misstep, this; his mother carefully daubed her lips with her napkin, leaving it to his father to ask, There is something wrong with your digestion?

Wittgenstein waited three beats, then replied, Not if I eat as I should.

And the food here? asked his father pointedly. It is too rich for your digestion?

A pleasant change, replied the son agreeably, though he felt his smile curdle.

Resumed his father helpfully, A change before you go back to your bland fare, you mean – so you will know the difference. Barbishly, his father then quipped for the benefit of the table, Ever the philosopher – our latter-day Epictetus. Then, seeing his son’s withholding look, Karl Wittgenstein asked, You have not read the Stoics?

Wittgenstein froze, as if it were natural to expect that, as a student of philosophy, he must be conversant with every facet of the subject. Gathering his forces, Wittgenstein replied, I understand the basic outlines of the Stoic creed. That is enough.

His father stared at him. They don’t teach the Stoics at Cambridge? he asked, as if to say, The English are so debased?

They teach the Stoics, replied the son patiently. If one is reading philosophy in the Tripos or studying the classics. But that is not what I’m about.

Plutarch vs. The British Museum

T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent:

Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

I am alive to a usual objection to what is clearly part of my programme for the métier of poetry. The objection is that the doctrine requires a ridiculous amount of erudition (pedantry), a claim which can be rejected by appeal to the lives of poets in any pantheon. It will even be affirmed that much learning deadens or perverts poetic sensibility. While, however, we persist in believing that a poet ought to know as much as will not encroach upon his necessary receptivity and necessary laziness, it is not desirable to confine knowledge to whatever can be put into a useful shape for examinations, drawing-rooms, or the still more pretentious modes of publicity. Some can absorb knowledge, the more tardy must sweat for it. Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum. What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.

Aristotle in a Dusty Cocoon

Leonard Wool, Sowing:

Twenty-five years later, I amused myself by writing “characters” of some of my friends after the manner of La Bruyere. Here is one which was suggested to some extent by recollections of Saxon:

Aristotle* sits in a corner of a room spinning, spinning webs around himself. He has been spinning now for thirty years, so that it is rather difficult to see through the web exactly what he really is, sitting there curled up smoking his pipe in the centre of it. Originally before the webs began, if there was such a time— if indeed he did not begin spinning them in his mother’s womb he must have been charming. He might have been Shelley. He might have dreamed dreams of a queer unsubstantial beauty; the fine temper of his mind might have built a philosophy true and beautiful and unintelligible; he might have had bright and delicate affections; he might have been happy, he might have been in love.

Years ago, I suppose, all this showed more clearly than it does now. For I think that Heracleitus and Aristophanes must have seen it when they took Aristotle to their bosom. It wanted clear eyes to see through the web even then, it wants still clearer eyes now. You go into a large dirty room full of dead things and abominations and uglinesses. The most abominable thing in it are the books; even the Phaedrus becomes a degradation there. All the books are dead, and all the thoughts and words of them have become dust and ashes and desolation. You feel that the Rabelais which you had in your overcoat pocket when you came in has already turned into a skeleton of dry bones. There are books everywhere: on tables and chairs and floor and mantelpiece and bed, and scattered among the books are old bottles of medicine and horrible little boxes of tabloids and capsules and pills. You brighten up when you see a copy of the Lysistrata lying upon the table; you open it and find a bottle of laudanum between the leaves, thrust in to mark the place.

A thin layer of dust and soot lies upon everything. You sink sadly into a chair and look into the corner and there you see an immense accumulated mass of grey strands, dusty, dirty, tangled. They float about the room brushing softly against your face. You shudder? You try to rouse yourself? You talk loud, brutally, not knowing quite what you are saying? Your noise and excitement, my friend, are quite useless; you had much better sit down again and quietly watch him spinning quietly in the corner.

Do you see how the web is growing? There, that long dusty, whitish-grey strand is a list of all the writers on the Higher Mathematics whose names begin with P. A good wrap for the soul? And then there are 124 volumes of Diodorus Siculus and Duns Scotus and Hippocrates and Galen and the Montenegrin poets and the Hottentot philosophers. Fine wraps for the soul? But above all there is the past: to spin the past over the present until what was the present has become the past ready to be spun again over the present that was the future! Quick, let us cover our souls with the litter of memories and old sayings and the dead letters of the dead. And if the dead are ourselves, so much the better; let the rubbish of the past stifle our feelings, let the sap and vigour of our thoughts dry up and ooze away into the dusty accretions which we spin over ourselves.

Such is the philosophy of Aristotle. Is he happy? Is the mole or the barnacle or the spider happy? If they are, then Aristotle is too when he has not got the toothache, which is not often. In the very centre of the web, I think, there is still a gentle titillation of unsubstantial happiness whenever he finds another higher mathematician whose name begins with P. or when between 1 and 2 a.m. he explains to Aspasia that the great uncle of his mother’s cousin moved in 1882 from Brixton to Balham and that his name was Beeley Tupholme, or even when he sees in his old letters that he was young once with Heracleitus and Aristophanes. It may be that affection still moves him for Aristophanes and Heracleitus and Kyron and Lysistrata and Aspasia, but they move, I think, through the past.

The reason of all this? you ask. It may be that God made him— a eunuch; or it may be that the violence and brutality of life were too strong for the delicacy of him; he was terrified by it and by his feelings. He looks sometimes like a little schoolboy whom life has bullied into unconsciousness. Which is really true nobody will ever know, for now he will go on sitting there in his corner spinning his interminable cocoon until he dies. It will be some time before we find out that he really is dead and then we shall go to the large dirty room and push and tear our way through the enormous web which by that time will almost completely fill it, and at last when we stand choking in the centre of it we shall find just nothing at all. Then we shall bury the cocoon.

*”Aristotle” here is Woolf’s Cambridge friend, Saxon Sydney-Turner.

A List of Women Authors from Ancient Greece and Rome for #InternationalWomensDay

In our now annual tradition, we are re-posting this list with more names and updated links. Most of the evidence for these authors has been collected only in Wikipedia. I have added new translations and new names over the past few years (especially among the philosophers). Always happy to have new names and links suggested.

I originally received a link to the core list in an email from my undergraduate poetry teacher, the amazing poet and translator Olga Broumas. The post is on tumblr on a page by DiasporaChic, bit the original author is Terpsikeraunos.

** denotes names I have added

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon
Women in ancient Greece and Rome with surviving works or fragments



Here is a list of Women philosophers with testimonia and fragments (with French translations and commentary).

Aesara of Lucania: “Only a fragment survives of Aesara of Lucania’s Book on Human Nature, but it provides a key to understanding the philosophies of Phintys, Perictione, and Theano II as well. Aesara presents a familiar and intuitive natural law theory. She says that through the activity of introspection into our own nature – specifically the nature of a human soul – we can discover not only the natural philosophic foundation for all of human law, but we can also discern the technical structure of morality, positive law, and, it may be inferred, the laws of moral psychology and of physical medicine. Aesara’s natural law theory concerns laws governing three applications of moral law: individual or private morality, laws governing the moral basis of the institution of the family, and, laws governing the moral foundations of social institutions. By analyzing the nature of the soul, Aesara says, we will understand the nature of law and of justice at the individual, familial, and social levels.” – A History of Women Philosophers: Volume I: Ancient Women Philosophers, 600 B.C.-500 A.D., by M.E. Waith

*Wikipedia on Aesara

A translation of her work

**Aspasia of Miletus: wikipedia entry

**Axiothea of Phlius: wikipedia entry


**Damo: daughter of Pythagoras and Theano. wikipedia entry

**Deino of Croton: A student of Pythagoras.

A translation of Diogenes Laertius’ account.

**Diotima: wikipedia entry

**Eurydice: cf. Plutarch Conj. praec. 145a and e

**Hipparchia of Maronea: wikipedia entry

A translation of Diogenes Laertius’ account

**Klea: Cf.  Plut. Mul. virt. 242 ef

**Lasthenia of Mantinea: wikipedia entry

**Leontion: an Epicurean philosopher

Melissa: “Melissa (3rd century BC)[1][2] was a Pythagorean philosopher…Nothing is known about her life. She is known only from a letter written to another woman named Cleareta (or Clearete). The letter is written in a Doric Greek dialect dated to around the 3rd century BC.[2] The letter discusses the need for a wife to be modest and virtuous, and stresses that she should obey her husband.[2] The content has led to the suggestion that it was written pseudonymously by a man.[2] On the other hand, the author of the letter does not suggest that a woman is naturally inferior or weak, or that she needs a man’s rule to be virtuous.[1]” –Wikipedia

**Myia of Samos: wikipedia article

Perictione (I and II): “Two works attributed to Perictione have survived in fragments: On the Harmony of Women and On Wisdom. Differences in language suggest that they were written by two different people. Allen and Waithe identify them as Perictione I and Perictione II. Plato’s mother was named Perictione, and Waithe argues that she should be identified as the earlier Perictione, suggesting that similarities between Plato’s Republic and On the Harmony of Women may not be the result of Perictione reading Plato, but the opposite–the son learning philosophy from his mother. On the Harmony of Women, however, is written in Ionic prose with occasional Doric forms. This mixed dialect dates the work to the late fourth or third centuries BC. The reference in On the Harmony of Women to women ruling suggests the Hellenistic monarchies of the third century BC or later. On Wisdom is written in Doric and is partly identical with a work by Archytas of the same name. This work should be dated later, to the third or second centuries BC. Both the dates of the works and their dialects mean Perictione as the mother of Plato could not have written them. We then have two Pythagorean texts, attributed to otherwise unknown women named Perictione who should be dated perhaps one hundred years apart.” –Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology, by I.M. Plant

*N.B. This account leaves out the the basic narrative from Diogenes Laertius, that Plato’s father Ariston raped his mother Perictione.

A translation of a fragment attributed to Perictione here.

Phintys: “Phintys (or Phyntis, Greek: Φίντυς; 4th or 3rd century BC) was a Pythagorean philosopher. Nothing is known about her life, nor where she came from. She wrote a work on the correct behavior of women, two extracts of which are preserved by Stobaeus.” –Wikipedia

*Note, Stobaeus (4.32.61a) calls her the daughter of Kallikrates the Pythagorean (Φιντύος τᾶς Καλλικράτεος θυγατρὸς Πυθαγορείας). Here are some of her fragments on the prudence befitting women: part 1 and part 2.

Ptolemais of Cyrene: “Ptolemais is known to us through reference to her work by Porphyry in his Commentary on the Harmonics of Ptolemy. He tells us that she came from Cyrene and gives the title of her work, The Pythagorean Principles of Music, which he quotes. She is the only known female musical theorist from antiquity. Her dates cannot be known for sure. She clearly preceded Porphyry, who was born about AD 232; Didymus, who is also quoted by Porphyry, knew Ptolemais’ work and may even have been Porphyry’s source for it. This Didymus is probably the one who lived in the time of Nero, giving us a date for Ptolemais of the first century AD or earlier…One of the problems in dealing with this text is that it is in quotation. Porphyry does not clearly distinguish between the text he quotes from Ptolemais and his own discussion of the issues raised…A second issue is the problem of the accuracy of the quotation. Porphyry says in the introduction to fragment 4 that he has altered a few things in the quotation for the sake of brevity. We should not assume that this is the only quotation to have suffered from editing. On the other hand, where he quotes the same passage twice (fragment 3 is repeated almost verbatim in fragment 4) his consistency is encouraging. Ptolemais’ extant work is a catechism, written as a series of questions and answers. She discusses different schools of thought on harmonic theory, distinguishing between the degree to which they gave importance to theory and perception. Her text prefers the approach of Aristoxenus to that of the Pythagoreans, thus she should not be thought a Pythagorean, despite the title of her work.” –Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology, by I.M. Plant

A new translation of her fragment

**Theano the Pythagorean (I have collected her words here)

“When Theano the Pythagorean philosopher was asked what eros is, she said ‘the passion of a soul with spare time.’ ”

Θεανὼ ἡ πυθαγορικὴ φιλόσοφος ἐρωτηθεῖσα τί ἐστιν ἔρως ἔφη· ” πάθος ψυχῆς σχολαζούσης.”

“While Theano was walking she showed her forearm and some youth when he saw it said “Nice skin”. She responded, “it’s not communal”.

Θεανὼ πορευομένη ἔξω εἶχε τὸν βραχίονα· νεανίσκος δέ τις ἰδὼν εἶπε· ” καλὸν τὸ δέμας·” ἡ δὲ ἀπεκρίνατο· ” ἀλλ’ οὐ κοινόν.”

**Timycha of Sparta: wikipedia entry

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Rejected Responsibility: A Real Riot

Rachel Bespaloff, The Comedy of the Gods (trans. Mary McCarthy)

The Iliad has its share of the comic spirit. It even has humor: the Olympians supply it. Zeus’s court plays much the same role that worldly society and Alexander’s satellites play in War and Peace. The absolute futility of beings who are exempted by fortune from the common lot achieves, in the Immortals, a kind of showy, decorative stateliness. The gods of the Iliad and the worldlings of War and Peace have that want of seriousness (and by seriousness I do not mean heaviness) that for Homer, as for Tolstoy, is the distinguishing mark of the subhuman; this is what makes them such exquisite comic figures. Everything that happens has been caused by them, but they take no responsibility, whereas the epic heroes take total responsibility even for that which they have not caused. The gods’ irresponsibility begins at home; they are not responsible for themselves. Where the free individual is not asserting himself against Fate, responsibility has nothing to grasp. Anger spills out in a burst of laughter that sanctions the triumph of incoherence. Thus the gods elude mortal classifications; both innocence and sin are beyond them. Agents provocateurs, smart propagandists, heated partisans, these belligerents do not mind the smell of carnage or the clash of tragic passions. Condemned to a permanent security, they would die of boredom without intrigues and war.