Tim Parks translates The Prince

The PrinceIs Machiavelli still relevant in the post-truth era? Can he help us understand the rise of modern demagogues like Donald Trump? I believe so, but in great part it depends on the translation.

Many readers were introduced to Machiavelli’s masterwork, Il Principe, through the translations of late 19th and early 20th century editors like William Kenaz Marriott. Thanks to the lapse of copyright, the 1908 Marriott translation is easily the most commonly version reprinted today and most discount editions are simply reprints of his work. Some are a bit rough because they’ve been ported from paper to digital format and back to paper without careful proofreading.

Some are the result of OCR (optical character recognition) scanning of an old text. When OCR works well, it’s a great, time-saving tool. But in my own experience, a murky or aged text can baffle the software: is it an “o” with a broken or faint right side? A “c”? An “e”? A “d” missing the stem? Scanned text requires a keen editorial eye to find these errors, and that’s not always provided in public domain editions.

Not that Marriott’s version is per se wrong: merely outdated and somewhat florid by today’s literary standards. The same is true of the Dacres version – translated in 1640 – and the Neville version – translated 1675 – both of which can also be found among the public domain editions. Purple prose from any era can distract the modern reader from the message. Like the King James Bible versus, say, a modern translation, it can feel archaic, stuffy, formal. That can dilute the relevance of Machiavelli – and his punchy practicality – to modern politics.

Some subsequent editors appear to have used Marriott as the base for their own later translations. Most of the editions I’ve read have been crafted by academics rather than politicians or historians who might have a better grasp on the implementation, not just Machiavelli’s theory.

Some translators focus on the individual words or grammar, rather than the overall sense and the message within them. The results may be technically or linguistically correct, even paralleling Machiavelli’s own style, but often come across as stilted and fusty as Marriott.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to make a 16th century work (and an early 16th century one, at that) read like a modern book. It’s not simply the language that has changed, but the cultures, technologies, religions, social interactions and attitudes, foods, clothing… pretty much everything. To make the ideas and the words relevant to modern readers, a translator must present them in ways that not only make sense to us today, but provide a comfortable read that doesn’t have us always hunting end- or footnotes to clarify a phrase or word.

And no translation is ever perfect: each one will be spiced by the translator’s own views, background, understanding, opinions and education. A translation is always an interpretation. You need to choose one that speaks to you in a meaningful way.
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More thoughts on translating Machiavelli

NY Times Review of BooksTim 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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