The Difficulty of Translating From Greek to Latin

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 11.16.1-9

“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.”

“Therefore, beginning many affairs and working on all of them is called in Greek polypragmosunê” I said, “and the label communicates that this book is written about this matter.” Then, that unrefined man, misled by my incomplete and unclear words and thinking that polypragmonê is a virtue, said “Certainly, then, this man Plutarch, whoever he is, exhorts us to engage in business, and that very many endeavors should be pursued with dedication and speed, and he has written the name of this virtue, about which he plans to speak, on the book itself, just as you say, with propriety.” I answered “Not at all, in truth. For that is in no way a virtue, that subject which is anticipated by the Greek name on the book. And Plutarch does not do what you believe—and I did not mean to say that. Indeed, he dissuades us in this book as much as he is able from too varied and frequent and unnecessary planning or seeking of too many types of obligations. But” I added, “I do see that the root of your mistake is in my lack of eloquence, the way that I could not express in many words and with clarity what a single Greek word indicates completely and plainly.”

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.

“Ad multas igitur res adgressio earumque omnium rerum actio polypragmosyne” inquam “Graece dicitur, de qua hunc librum conpositum esse inscriptio ista indicat”. VII. Tum ille opicus verbis meis inchoatis et inconditis adductus virtutemque esse polypragmosynen ratus: “hortatur” inquit “nos profecto nescio quis hic Plutarchus ad negotia capessenda et ad res obeundas plurimas cum industria et celeritate nomenque ipsius virtutis, de qua locuturus esset, libro ipsi, sicuti dicis, non incommode praescripsit”. VIII. “Minime” inquam “vero; neque enim ista omnino virtus est, cuius Graeco nomine argumentum hoc libri demonstratur, neque id, quod tu opinare, aut ego me dicere sentio aut Plutarchus facit. Deterret enim nos hoc quidem in libro, quam potest maxime, a varia promiscaque et non necessaria rerum cuiuscemodi plurimarum et cogitatione et petitione. Sed huius” inquam “tui erroris culpam esse intellego in mea scilicet infacundia, qui ne pluribus quidem verbis potuerim non obscurissime dicere, quod a Graecis perfectissime verbo uno et planissime dicitur”.

Roman Mosaic

The Difficulty of Translating From Greek to Latin

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 11.16.1-6

“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.