Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Plutarch, Comparing translations

I've been a bit curious to compare the available translations of Plutarch. I did make a snarky comment about the rendering of the verse in the 'Dryden' translation in my earlier post. So is the 'Dryden' better or worse? This is a subject that may not be all that interesting, but I've written this post and you've been warned...

I'm now about halfway through, and my already beat-up looking edition
 is looking even more beat-up than it was in this photo...

The whole of Plutarch's Lives has been translated into English several times, but I believe the most recent (1914-1926) complete one is by Bernadotte Perrin for the Loeb series. I've been reading Arthur Hugh Clough's revision of the 'Dryden' translation (1683-6, Clough's revision 1864) because that's the one I have. John Dryden, it seems, had not much to do with it. In addition to the 'Dryden', Project Gutenberg has the Stewart and Long (1880-1882). Parts of this had been done by the time Clough was organizing his version; he thinks highly of what he'd seen at that point; says he wouldn't have bothered revising the 'Dryden' if Long (who began it) had planned at that time on continuing.

The Langhorne brothers' translation of Plutarch (1770-1772) seems to be generally panned, including by Clough, but it's available at the Internet Archive; and then there's the famous English translation of Sir Thomas North, famous for being plundered by Shakespeare. It's translated not from the Greek, but from the French of Jacques Amyot. The final edition of North dates from 1603.

Here are several examples of a passage from The Life of Alcibiades. At this point Alcibiades has set off with the Athenian expedition to conquer Sicily; he was widely viewed as the instigator of the expedition, and also the only one who could pull it off. But as he leaves, there's a cloud hanging over him: in the days before the expedition set sail, some group of youths ran around town defacing (or de-penis-ing, really) the sacred statues of Hermes in Athens. It was suggested around Athens Alcibiades was involved. Already in Sicily, he's summoned back to Athens to face charges of sacrilege, conviction for which warrants the death sentence.

Here's the one I read (Dryden/Clough):
"When he arrived at Thurii, he went on shore, and concealing himself there, escaped those who searched after him. But to one who knew him, and asked him if he durst not trust his own native country, he made answer, 'In everything else, yes; but in a matter that touches my life, I would not even my own mother, lest she might by mistake throw in the black ball instead of the white.' When, afterwards, he was told that the assembly had pronounced judgment of death against him, all he said was, 'I will make them feel that I am alive.'"
The Stewart and Long:
"At Thurii he landed, and concealed himself so he could not be found. When one of his friends said to him, 'Alkibiades, do you not trust your native country?' He answered, 'Yes, in other matters; but when my life is at stake I would not trust my own mother, for fear she might mistake a black bean for a white one.' Afterwards hearing the Athenians had condemned him to death, he said, I will show them I am still alive.'"
The Loeb (translated by Bernadotte Perrin):
"Arrived at Thurii, he left his trireme and hid himself so as to escape all quest. When some one recognized him and asked, 'Can you not trust your country, Alcibiades?' 'In all else,' he said, 'but in the matter of life I wouldn't trust even my own mother not to mistake a black for a white ballot when she cast her vote.' And when he afterwards heard that the city condemned him to death, 'I'll show them,' he said, 'that I'm alive.'"
And lastly North:
"Afterwards when he came to the city of Thurii, so soon as he landed, he went and hid himself incontinently in such sort, that such as sought for him, could not find him. Yet there was one that knew him where he was, and said: Why, how now Alcibiades, darest thou not trust the justice of thy country? Yes very well (quoth he) and it were in another matter: but my life standing upon it, I would not trust mine own mother, fearing lest negligently she should put in the black bean, where she should cast in the white. For by the first condemnation of death was signified: and by the other, pardon of life. But afterwards, hearing that the Athenians for malice had condemned him to death: Well, quoth he, they shall know I am yet alive."

The North has a certain charm, but I think I'd actually prefer to read the Stewart and Long to the Dryden/Clough that I am reading. The Perrin is closest to the Greek: appropriate since the Greek is on the facing page in a Loeb. I also looked up the Langhornes' version, but it's a little worse and not enough different to warrant quoting. Which look best to you?

I picked this passage because I'm pretty sure I read somebody somewhere (and not me) who translated that final line as 'They will feel my life.' Which I quite liked. But now I can't find it.


  1. i like the North. it gives a larger picture and sounds more realistic; the others don't convince... i recall reading a poem about how "Clough" is pronounced but i can't remember who it was by... darn, age is the pits...

    1. The North is awfully nice. The one thing I don't like about it is how much longer it is. The line that begins, "For by the first..." is just not there in the Greek--in a more modern edition it might be a footnote.

      But if North was good enough for Shakespeare, it ought to be good enough for the rest of us!

  2. I'd go with the North. My preference.

    If you ever get the opportunity to translate it, use "They will feel my life," or some variation of that. That's a strong line.

  3. i found a nice copy on abebooks, only $750... gak

    1. Yikes! That's for the North version? I had thought it would be fun to get a copy, but not at that price.

    2. they did have some cheaper ones, but nothing in my range... North, yes

  4. I wondered how you've been doing with this one (it'd be taking me ages, if I were you). Are we waiting for all the lives, before we undertake Hopscotch? :)

    1. Slow but steady, says the Tortoise...

      I'm happy to start Hopscotch if you're up for it. Plutarch both allows & invites reading in discrete sessions with other things in between.