Translating Machiavelli

I admit up front that my ability to read and speak Italian is limited to ordering some restaurant food. However, I have studied English and its etymology, some French, Spanish, and Hebrew, small Latin and less Greek (to paraphrase Johnson), so I can fumble my way through some Italian phrases and understand much of the intent and recognize word roots, if not speak it. I have just enough understanding to recognize that the translation from any other language into English is fraught with challenges and how a single word is translated can frame the emotional impact of a paragraph, even the whole chapter. This is abundantly evident in the many translations of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

In a 2002 lecture, Ian Johnston, a now-retired research assistant at Vancouver Island University, declared The Prince to be a work of satire, based, apparently, on his appreciation of the translation by Quentin Skinner (and Russell Price). In his lecture, he said:

“One feature of Machiavelli’s style which exerts a certain ironic pressure on the reader is the yawning gap he creates between a conventional moral language and the immoral activities he is proposing, a common satiric technique.”
Lecture on Machiavelli’s The Prince, Johnston, 2002

While I cannot translate The Prince myself, I can intellectually appreciate the difficulties it represents, and would hesitate to make any sweeping statements about intent or context based on a single translation. Too much of the translator’s personality is injected into any translation for anyone to see past the veil to the author’s intent. This is one reason I referred to more than a dozen translations when assembling this book.

Allan Gilbert, in his introduction to Vol. I of The Chief Works and Others, wrote:

To expect from a translation the effect of the original is to demand an English Prince written by Machiavelli himself… Some of his effective devices, such as the verb at the beginning of the sentence, can seldom be carried into English; non-idiomatic English hardly renders into idiomatic Italian.

In my page “About the Prince“, I discussed some of the problematic words that have challenged translators. Here I will compare how various translators have approached a few lines. In one edition of The Prince, the authors write,

“Machiavelli had a predilection for words that have several senses and various overtones. Thus, respetto combines the senses of ‘respect’ and ‘fear’, sometimes with overtones of ‘hesitation’, ‘reluctance’ or ‘caution’: when one has respetto for another ruler’s power one will hesitate to oppose or attack him.”
The Prince, edited by Quentin Skinner & Russell Price, Translator’s Note

Similarly, Mansfield writes,

“…I would have liked to never vary the translation of such important words as impressa, modo and respetto, but I found it impossible to produce a readable version with such a rule.”
The Prince, translated by Harvey Mansfield, Jr.

Parks, one of the most recent translators, has a whole page on the difficulty of the title word, “prince”:

“It isn’t easy. The first problem, and one that sets up all the others, is already there in the title: The Prince. What is a prince for Machiavelli? Well, a duke is a prince. The pope is a prince. A Roman emperor is a prince. The King of France is a prince. The Lord of Imola is a prince. This won’t work in modern English.”
The Prince, translated by Tim Parks, Translator’s Note

Bondanella writes,

“Important terms such as virtu, stato, occasione, fortuna, prudenze, liberta, ordini, vivere, civile, gloria and dominio often have no single and systematic equivalent in the English language. The translator must rely on sensitivity to the context surrounding the word to determine its precise meaning.”
The Prince, Bondanella, Translator’s Note

Johnston, however, dismisses context as an argument, saying,

“…I don’t by nature place much value on contextual arguments (since they can so often go in any direction one wishes—hence the old saying: if you torture the contextual facts sufficiently, they’ll confess to anything)…”
Lecture on Machiavelli’s The Prince, Johnston, 2002

Yet if Italian words have no direct correspondence in English, how else do we translate except by examining and weighing context? Adams also notes that,

“For a couple of crucial words in Il Principe, modern English has no true equivalent… Further dilemmas arise in translating the words stato, dominio, paese, provincia, regno, citta and patria… which I have had to adjudicate with nothing more decisive than tact.”
The Prince, Adams, Translator’s Note

The Skinner/Price edition includes 14 pages of explanation of a mere 24 words Machiavelli used, provided so readers,

“…gain some understanding of most of the key terms used in The Prince, particularly those that have several senses, and those that (unlike gloria and reputazione) have no exact English equivalents, or else have equivalents that it is often or usually inappropriate to use.”
The Prince, Skinner/Price, Notes on the Vocabulary

Skinner/Price wrote more than two pages on the word fortuna, alone. To compound the problem of translation, Constantine tells us that,

“Wherever technical words did not exist, Machiavelli either used a Latin term, or created a new one from the Latin.”
The Prince, Constantine, Translator’s Note

So not only do translators need to wrestle with the complexities of Renaissance, Florentine Italian (his dialect was by no means universal throughout Italy), but also Latin  – and Machiavelli’s neologisms! A bit further on, Constantine tells us, “all translations have a unique voice.”

Looking at One Line in The Prince

In Chapter V (Concerning The Way To Govern Cities Or Principalities Which Lived Under Their Own Laws Before They Were Annexed), the original line Machiavelli wrote in Italian is:

 Perché, in verità, non ci è modo sicuro a possederle, altro che la ruina.

This has been translated into modern Italian as:

Perché, in verità, non c’è nessun modo sicuro di possederle, se non quello della loro distruzione.

It seems evident to me that the key difference between these versions is in the substitution of distruzione (destruction) in the later edition for ruina (ruin, or its synonym rovina) in the original. It may be a small, even moot, semantic point, but which one chooses for the English rendition can clearly create the emotional and political framework for the reader. There is a wide range of meaning between ruin and destruction.

Do we even know if either mean today what they meant 500 years ago? Clearly words like principe have changed in the intervening centuries. Have others?

Here are a few English versions of that line (or a portion of that line):

  • Adams: “And in fact there is no sure way to hold onto cities except to destroy them.”
  • Bondanella: “For in fact, there is no secure means of holding on to cities except by destroying them.”
  • Bull: “Indeed, there is no surer way of keeping possession than devastation.”
  • Byerley (1810): “Whoever becomes master of a city accustomed to enjoy its liberty, and does not destroy it, ought to expect to be destroyed by it.”
  • Codevilla: “…they were constrained to undo many cities of that province in order to keep them.”
  • Connell: “For in truth, there is no secure way to possess them other than their destruction.”
  • Constantine: “In fact, the only secure way of keeping such a city is to destroy it.”
  • de Alvarez: “The only sure way of holding republics is to destroy them…”
  • Edward Dacres (1640): “For in truth there is not a surer way to keep them under, than by demolishments…”
  • Christian E. Detmold (1882): “In truth there was no other safe way of keeping possession of that country but to ruin it.”
  • Donno: “For in truth there is no sure method of holding such cities except by destruction.”
  • Gilbert: “…because in truth there is no certain way for holding such states except destruction.”
  • Mansfield: “For in truth there is no secure mode to possess them other than to ruin them.”
  • Marriott: “So to hold it they were compelled to dismantle many cities in the country, for in truth there is no safe way to retain them otherwise than by ruining them.”
  • Morley (1883): “…for whoever conquers a free town and does not demolish it commits a great error, and may expect to be ruined himself…”
  • Neville (1720 edn): “For whoever conquers a free town and does not demolish it commits a great error, and may expect to be ruined himself.”
  • Parks: “The truth is that the only sure way to hold such places is to destroy them.”
  • Rebhorn: “For in truth, there is no sure method of holding them except by destroying them.”
  • Ricci (1950 Meyer edn): “…because in truth there is no sure method of holding them except by despoiling them.”
  • Ricci (1903 edn): “…because in truth there is no sure method of holding them except by ruining them.”
  • Skinner/Price: “In fact, destroying cities is the only certain way of holding them.”
  • Ninian Hill Thomson: “For, in truth, there is no sure way of holding other than by destroying, and whoever becomes master of a City accustomed to live in freedom and does not destroy it, may reckon on being destroyed by it.”
  • Wooton: “The simple truth is there is no reliable way of holding onto a city and the territory around it, short of demolishing the city itself.”

Several questions arise from this line. First of all is: which word is the most appropriate (today’s distruzione or Machiavelli’s ruina) to clarify the sentence and its meaning? Does our modern translation of either reflect Machiavelli’s original intent or meaning? Even in English the translators seem to be unsure, ranging from despoiling to ruin to destruction. Which did Machiavelli intend?

This is where context has to come into play. Just before this line, Machiavelli explains the historical problems the Romans had in subduing Greece when they attempted to be liberal in their conquest, and give the Greek cities a semblance of freedom. In the Thomson translation, this reads:

“We have examples of all these methods in the histories of the Spartans and the Romans. The Spartans held Athens and Thebes by creating oligarchies in these cities, yet lost them in the end. The Romans, to retain Capua, Carthage, and Numantia, destroyed them and never lost them. On the other hand, when they thought to hold Greece as the Spartans had held it, leaving it its freedom and allowing it to be governed by its own laws, they failed, and had to destroy many cities of that Province before they could secure it.”

In Marriott, the immediately following lines after the quoted sentence explain the problems the Romans faced with a subject people accustomed to liberty and the resultant “freedom fighters” who rose up to restore their former liberty:

“And he who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it has always the watch-word of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits will ever cause it to forget. And what ever you may do or provide against, they never forget that name or their privileges unless they are disunited or dispersed but at every chance they immediately rally to them, as Pisa after the hundred years she had been held in bondage by the Florentines.”

So it’s a matter of necessity and national security, he says, not want or desire. Machiavelli also puts in a subtle warning about his own contemporary situation – when Florence was trying unsuccessfully to subdue Pisa. Perhaps he was warning that, instead of conquest, the wiser move was not to pursue it at all, since it was necessary to continue through to destruction. And in doing so, nothing is ultimately won – both sides lose. So rather than a satirical comment, it is an admonishment against the contemplated action.

In The Discourses, Machiavelli notes that the security of the state should be everyone’s paramount concern:

“Now this incident deserves to be noted and pondered over by every citizen who is called on to advise his country; for when the entire safety of our country is at stake, no consideration of what is just or unjust, merciful or cruel, praiseworthy or shameful, must intervene. On the contrary, every other consideration being set aside, that course alone must be taken which preserves the existence of the country and maintains its liberty.”
The Discourses: III, 41

Machiavelli makes this point in several places: that morality must play a secondary role to your municipality’s security and wellbeing. The line above, from Chapter V of The Prince, then, can be read in this light.

Further, in The Prince, Chapter XVIII, Machiavelli notes that,

“…when a prince tries to conquer and preserve his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody, because the common people are always impressed by appearances and results…”

So actions that may appear immoral or unethical to the victims or outsiders, will be acceptable necessities to the common people under the leader. One only needs to read the histories of Germany and Italy between 1933 and 39 to see this in action. As long as the security of the state can me presented as the compelling reason, the people will accept the action as necessary, and the results as commendable.

It is clear to me that context is significant in determining which word to use in the translation. And it’s equally clear that taking a single line out of context is not sufficient to base a hypothesis on. One has to look at the entire chapter, the entire book, even his entire body of work, to appreciate Machiavelli’s thrust.

This isn’t meant to demolish Johnston’s hypothesis – I’m not the scholar he is – but rather to inject another perspective. I think Machiavelli had a sense of humour – he wrote some funny, bawdy material and some of his letters clearly express his wit, but I don’t believe The Prince is essentially satirical. I personally suspect he wrote it as an intellectual experiment, in contrast to his other republican-themed works: being his own devil’s advocate.

I do agree with Johnston that there are numerous contradictions in The Prince, and Machiavelli often seems to undo his advice with something quite the opposite in several places. But this has long been recognized. In 1971, Isaiah Berlin wrote in the New York Times:

“Machiavelli’s cardinal achievement is his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma, the planting of a permanent question mark in the path of posterity. It stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error—the clash of Antigone and Creon or in the story of Tristan—but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.”
Isaiah Berlin, New York Times, Nov. 4 1971

I am not sure, however, how much of this contradiction was deliberate (or was meant as a satire), or how much comes from the haste of his writing (it was, according to some, a rather quickly-produced job application to the restored Medici), the mechanics of his writing (it’s difficult to edit handwritten manuscripts – just try to cut-and-paste or spell-check!), or simple oversight (he was likely writing The Discourses at this time, and ideas seem to have seeped in from that work, cross-pollinating with it). Or perhaps it’s just that the inherent nature of politics and human nature makes many solutions seem contradictory; like the “be cruel to be kind” dilemma expressed in Chapter VIII.

But there is some irony in Machiavelli, but it strikes me as religious rather than political. I’m never sure whether Machiavelli is slyly poking fun at the frailty of human aspirations for chasing his oft-touted honour and glory, or he actually believes in some external force – fortuna, the implacable deus ex machina – that writes the last chapter in our lives regardless of our own goals.
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