Tim Parks, one of the most recent translators of Machiavelli’s The Prince (this is one of my personal favourites), has recently had an article published in the NY Times Review of Books. Parks’ piece is called “Reading it Wrong,” and it’s about the difficult nature of translating a foreign language in a way that both resonates with the reader and retains the sense of the original.
Parks is mostly discussing how Italian translations of English works have changed the way Italian readers see those works, in part because of small editorial decisions and the perceptions of the translators. But he also discusses what happens in the translations of Italian into English.
I quote his comment at length because it speaks to one of the chapters I wrote here about how translators have created an impression of Machiavelli based on how they handled certain key words and sentences.
Interestingly, exactly the opposite occurs with Machiavelli in English. Again expectation is everything and Machiavelli is celebrated of course for being Machiavellian. Received opinion must not shift. So when having considered the downfall of his hero and model, the ruthless Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli rather ruefully writes: “Raccolte io adunque tutte le azioni del duca, non saprei riprenderlo.” (Literally: “Having gathered then all the actions of the duke, I would not know how to reproach him.”) The translator George Bull gives, “So having summed up all that the duke did, I cannot possibly censure him.” Here the word “censure” has a strong moral connotation, made stronger still by the introduction of “cannot possibly,” which is not there in the Italian. In line with the author’s reputation for cynicism, Bull has Machiavelli insist that he has no moral objections to anything Cesare Borgia did. Actually, Machiavelli simply says Borgia didn’t make any big mistakes. The true scandal of Machiavelli is that he never considers moral criteria at all—he doesn’t feel they are applicable to a politician fighting for survival. But it is easier for us to think of an evil Machiavelli than a lucid thinker deciding that good and evil do not come into it.
In other words, the morality of the translators impresses itself on the translation and has coloured the way readers and audiences have perceived The Prince for generations. I suggest that more people are familiar with the moral “sense” of Machiavelli as portrayed by these translators than with his actual works.
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