Translating Montaigne


MontaigneWith two printed versions of Montaigne’s essays (translations by Donald Frame and M. A. Screech) and a couple of online editions available to me, I thought I might offer some examples of how individual translations have captured Montaigne’s writing and let you judge which you think is clearer and crisper for reading today.

I chose, somewhat at random, some lines from Book 1, Essay 50: Of Democritus and Heraclitus. It’s a reasonably short piece. I will give it in its entirety once, then offer selected sentences as marked in bold, below, from other translations for comparison. (You can read some commentary on this essay here).

First up: William Hazlitt’s 1877 updating of Charles Cotton’s 1685 translation (public domain, available on Here is the entire essay:

The judgment is an utensil proper for all subjects, and will have an oar in everything: which is the reason, that in these Essays I take hold of all occasions where, though it happen to be a subject I do not very well understand, I try, however, sounding it at a distance, and finding it too deep for my stature, I keep me on the shore; and this knowledge that a man can proceed no further, is one effect of its virtue, yes, one of those of which it is most proud. One while in an idle and frivolous subject, I try to find out matter whereof to compose a body, and then to prop and support it; another while, I employ it in a noble subject, one that has been tossed and tumbled by a thousand hands, wherein a man can scarce possibly introduce anything of his own, the way being so beaten on every side that he must of necessity walk in the steps of another: in such a case, ’tis the work of the judgment to take the way that seems best, and of a thousand paths, to determine that this or that is the best. I leave the choice of my arguments to fortune, and take that she first presents to me; they are all alike to me, I never design to go through any of them; for I never see all of anything: neither do they who so largely promise to show it others. Of a hundred members and faces that everything has, I take one, onewhile to look it over only, another while to ripple up the skin, and sometimes to pinch it to the bones: I give a stab, not so wide but as deep as I can, and am for the most part tempted to take it in hand by some new light I discover in it. Did I know myself less, I might perhaps venture to handle something or other to the bottom, and to be deceived in my own inability; but sprinkling here one word and there another, patterns cut from several pieces and scattered without design and without engaging myself too far, I am not responsible for them, or obliged to keep close to my subject, without varying at my own liberty and pleasure, and giving up myself to doubt and uncertainty, and to my own governing method, ignorance.
All motion discovers us: the very same soul of Caesar, that made itself so conspicuous in marshalling and commanding the battle of Pharsalia, was also seen as solicitous and busy in the softer affairs of love and leisure. A man makes a judgment of a horse, not only by seeing him when he is showing off his paces, but by his very walk, nay, and by seeing him stand in the stable.
Amongst the functions of the soul, there are some of a lower and meaner form; he who does not see her in those inferior offices as well as in those of nobler note, never fully discovers her; and, peradventure, she is best shown where she moves her simpler pace. The winds of passions take most hold of her in her highest flights; and the rather by reason that she wholly applies herself to, and exercises her whole virtue upon, every particular subject, and never handles more than one thing at a time, and that not according to it, but according to herself. Things in respect to themselves have, peradventure, their weight, measures, and conditions; but when we once take them into us, the soul forms them as she pleases. Death is terrible to Cicero, coveted by Cato, indifferent to Socrates. Health, conscience, authority, knowledge, riches, beauty, and their contraries, all strip themselves at their entering into us, and receive a new robe, and of another fashion, from the soul; and of what colour, brown, bright, green, dark, and of what quality, sharp, sweet, deep, or superficial, as best pleases each of them, for they are not agreed upon any common standard of forms, rules, or proceedings; every one is a queen in her own dominions. Let us, therefore, no more excuse ourselves upon the external qualities of things; it belongs to us to give ourselves an account of them. Our good or ill has no other dependence but on ourselves. ‘Tis there that our offerings and our vows are due, and not to fortune she has no power over our manners; on the contrary, they draw and make her follow in their train, and cast her in their own mould. Why should not I judge of Alexander at table, ranting and drinking at the prodigious rate he sometimes used to do?
Or, if he played at chess? what string of his soul was not touched by this idle and childish game? I hate and avoid it, because it is not play enough, that it is too grave and serious a diversion, and I am ashamed to lay out as much thought and study upon it as would serve to much better uses. He did not more pump his brains about his glorious expedition into the Indies, nor than another in unravelling a passage upon which depends the safety of mankind. To what a degree does this ridiculous diversion molest the soul, when all her faculties are summoned together upon this trivial account! and how fair an opportunity she herein gives every one to know and to make a right judgment of himself? I do not more thoroughly sift myself in any other posture than this: what passion are we exempted from in it? Anger, spite, malice, impatience, and a vehement desire of getting the better in a concern wherein it were more excusable to be ambitious of being overcome; for to be eminent, to excel above the common rate in frivolous things, nowise befits a man of honour. What I say in this example may be said in all others. Every particle, every employment of man manifests him equally with any other.
Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of whom the first, finding human condition ridiculous and vain, never appeared abroad but with a jeering and laughing countenance; whereas Heraclitus commiserating that same condition of ours, appeared always with a sorrowful look, and tears in his eyes:

“Alter ridebat, quoties a limine moverat unum Protuleratque pedem; flebat contrarius alter.”
[“The one always, as often as he had stepped one pace from his threshold, laughed, the other always wept.”—Juvenal, Sat., x. 28.]
[Or, as Voltaire: “Life is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel.” D.W.]

I am clearly for the first humour; not because it is more pleasant to laugh than to weep, but because it expresses more contempt and condemnation than the other, and I think we can never be despised according to our full desert. Compassion and bewailing seem to imply some esteem of and value for the thing bemoaned; whereas the things we laugh at are by that expressed to be of no moment. I do not think that we are so unhappy as we are vain, or have in us so much malice as folly; we are not so full of mischief as inanity; nor so miserable as we are vile and mean. And therefore Diogenes, who passed away his time in rolling himself in his tub, and made nothing of the great Alexander, esteeming us no better than flies or bladders puffed up with wind, was a sharper and more penetrating, and, consequently in my opinion, a juster judge than Timon, surnamed the Man-hater; for what a man hates he lays to heart. This last was an enemy to all mankind, who passionately desired our ruin, and avoided our conversation as dangerous, proceeding from wicked and depraved natures: the other valued us so little that we could neither trouble nor infect him by our example; and left us to herd one with another, not out of fear, but from contempt of our society: concluding us as incapable of doing good as evil.
Of the same strain was Statilius’ answer, when Brutus courted him into the conspiracy against Caesar; he was satisfied that the enterprise was just, but he did not think mankind worthy of a wise man’s concern’; according to the doctrine of Hegesias, who said, that a wise man ought to do nothing but for himself, forasmuch as he only was worthy of it: and to the saying of Theodorus, that it was not reasonable a wise man should hazard himself for his country, and endanger wisdom for a company of fools. Our condition is as ridiculous as risible.

Cotton’s translation seems to have been the main effort in English until the late 19th century, when Hazlitt edited and revised it, and thus re-introduced Montaigne to a new generation.

Brilliant as he was, Hazlitt’s version often reads today like a slog through a wetland. It’s dense with run-on sentences and inverted forms that seem stuffy and overly formal: it feels very Victorian. If Montaigne is a writer for all ages, he needs to be freed from Hazlitt’s stylistic straitjacket. (Blanchard Bates edited Hazlitt’s work for the 1949 publication of selected Essays).

When Ralph Waldo Emerson praised Montaigne he was also praising Hazlitt’s efforts to modernize it:

“The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences,” Emerson writes of Montaigne. “I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.”

But take a step back.

The first translation into English was one Shakespeare knew: John Florio’s edition of 1603 (you can read it on In it, the three sections noted above from Essay 50 read in a way familiar to anyone who has read the KJV of the Bible, or, of course, any of Shakespeare or his contemporaries:

Judgment is an instrument for all subjects, and medleth every where, And therefore in the Essayes I make of it, there is no maner of occasion, I seeke not to employ therein. If it be a subject I understand not my selfe, therein I make triall of it, sounding afarre off the depth of the ford, and finding the same over deepe for my reach, I keepe my selfe on the shoare.

We judge of a horse, not only by seeing him ridden, and cunningly managed, but also by seeing him trot, or pace; yea, if we but looke upon him as he stands in the stable.

Therefore let us take no more excuses from externall qualities of things. To us it belongeth to give our selves accoumpt of it. Our good, and our evill hath no dependancy, but from our selves. Let us offer our vowes and offerings unto it; and not to fortune. She hath no power over our manners.

Even with modernized spelling and punctuation, it feels very dated. But one cannot help admire Florio; it was, in its day, a brilliant work and one surviving copy is believed to have belonged to the Bard himself. Against this version, all subsequent translations would be measured.

Bartleby described the Florio edition (and Cotton’s) like this:

He made no attempt to suppress himself as we are told a good translator should. The reader never forgets that “resolute John Florio” is looking out from the page as well as Montaigne. He is often inaccurate, and not seldom he misses the point. But compare his version with Cotton’s, and you will not hesitate to give the palm to Florio. Cotton’s translation is a sound and scholarly piece of work; Florio’s is a living book

Cotton’s later translation, available in part online for comparison, is somewhat easier to read than Florio’s, but still not an easy go for anyone outside of academia these days. He was more accurate, and thus more literal, but it’s still dated stuff. Hence Hazlitt’s efforts to bring Montaigne up to date – which now seem as far removed from us as Cotton’s did to Hazlitt.

New translations appeared in the 20th century: George Burnham Ives, 1925; Emil Trechmann in 1927;  Jacob Zeitlein in 1934. None of these seem to have survived in print. A more recent translation of selected essays by J.M. Cohen was published by Penguin books in the early 1990s, and may still be found online.

Donald Frame originally translated Montaigne in 1943, and published his complete works in 1957 (including numerous letters). This is still in print today (my edition is in the Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf publishers, 2005). It was considered the foremost scholarly edition for many years and certainly the most accessible translation to date. Frame was also a biographer of Montaigne with four books published on him.

Here’s Donald Frame’s version of those lines:

Judgment is a tool to use on all subjects, and comes in everywhere. Therefore in all the tests I make of it here, I use every sort of occasion. If it is a subject I do not understand at all, even on that I essay my judgment, sounding the ford from a good distance; and then, finding it too deep for my height, I stick to the bank.

We judge a horse not only by seeing him handled on a racecourse, but also by seeing him walk, and even by seeing him resting in the stable.

Wherefore, let us no longer make the external qualities of things our excuse; it is up to us to reckon them as we will. Our good and our ill depend on ourselves alone. let us offer our offerings and vows to ourselves, not to Fortune; she has no power over our character; on the contrary, it drags her in its train and mold her in its own form.

John Weightman, in the New York Review of Books, calls Frame’s version as somewhat “fustian.” Others have called it “stately and uniform.” Frame modernized Montaigne considerably, but not thoroughly and he sometimes slips into a formal, archaic style not all that distant from Hazlitt.

Reviewer Richard Chadbourne called frame Montaigne’s “finest translator.” Chadbourne adds,

Montaigne is the creator of the essay, of whom his numerous followers might say, as Haydn, speaking for the composers of his day, said of Handel, “He is the master of us all.” He also, quite extraordinarily for the inventor of a literary form, remains its greatest exponent, which may explain why he is both imitable and inimitable. His successors learned from him: the inexhaustible potentiality of the self as subject, testing itself against an infinite variety of subjects; the role of chance in the selection of subjects; the use of the essay as “a literary device for saying almost everything about anything” (Aldous Huxley, 1958); the essay as vehicle for the process, rather than the end results, of thought: “For we are born to quest after truth; to possess it belongs to a greater power” (“De l’art de conférer” [“Of the Art of Discussion”]); and the replacement of logical thought by “free association artistically controlled” (Huxley).

In the version by Prof. Michael Screech (1991; Penguin Classics version, 2003), the latest translation of the complete essays (but not the letters, as Frame has done), the three selections read:

Our power of judgment is a tool to be used on all subjects; it can be applied anywhere. That is why I seize on any sort of occasion for employing it in the assays I am making of it here. If it concerns a subject which I do not understand at all, that is the very reason I assay my judgment on it; I sound out the ford from a safe distance: if I find I would be out of my depth, then I stick to the bank.

You judge a horse not only by seeing its paces on a race-track but by seeing it walk – indeed, by seeing it in its stable.

So let us no longer seek excuses from the external qualities of anything: the responsibility lies within ourselves. Our good or bad depends on us alone. So let us make our offertories and our vows to ourselves not to Fortune: she has no power over our behaviour; on the contrary our souls drag Fortune in their train and mould her to their own idea.

Writing in the Prairie Schooner (University of Nebraska Press, Vol. 68, No. 3, Fall 1994), Willis Regier first compares previous translations (after unnecessarily debunking some popular impressions of Montaigne), and is cautiously laudatory about Screech (albeit pointing out some mistakes in the first edition that, one hopes, were corrected in subsequent editions). He calls Screech’s translation a “feast for friends” while grumpily pointing out the “petty” errata he feels compelled to raise.

In a review of Screech in Translation and Literature (University of Edinburgh Press, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1996, available on JSTOR), Michael Payne compares Frame and Screech, pointing out again the differences – and difficulties in any translation. He calls Frame’s version the more “successful” translation because of those differences and says in Screech’s version “much of Montaigne’s imagery is lost.” He also says the best rendering of Montaigne’s “poetics” is the 1603 Florio edition.

I personally prefer Screech – I like his modern pacing and style better – even though not everyone in academia seems so taken by it. Whether it lives up to standards in poetics or translation, I cannot say, just that it makes me enjoy reading Montaigne. Screech makes me feel Montaigne’s words are still “vascular and alive.”

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    I’ve also been told that Frame’s translation is the most accurate translation available. But IMHO Screech’s translation is so much more idiomatic and more engaging to the reader. Curiously are there any published lists of Screech’s errors? The copyright page in my version of Screech’s essays states it was reprinted in 2003 with corrections.

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