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.

This moralizing, of course, goes as far back as Bishop Stephen Gardiner and the early translators like D’Acres, who translates “censure” as blame-worthy:

Till wee come to this seaventh Chapter, I find not any thing much blame-worthy, unlesse it be on ground he layes in the second Chapter ; whereupon hee builds most of this Fabrick, viz. That Subjects must either be dallyed or flatterd withall, or quite crusht.

The quote Parks refers to comes from the end of Chapter VII: Concerning New Principalities Which Are Acquired Either By The Arms Of Others Or By Good Fortune. Marriott translates this as:

When all the actions of the duke are recalled, I do not know how to blame him, but rather it appears to me, as I have said, that I ought to offer him for imitation to all those who, by the fortune or the arms of others, are raised to government.

Detmold gives us:

Upon reviewing now all the actions of the Duke, I should not know where to blame him ; it seems to me that I should rather hold him up as an example (as I have said) to be imitated by all those who have risen to sovereignty, either by the good fortune or the arms of others.

And Ricci also uses the word “blame” as:

Reviewing thus all the actions of the duke, I find nothing to blame, on the contrary, I feel bound, as I have done, to hold him up as an example to be imitated by all who by fortune and with the arms of others have risen to power.

Parks himself says “criticize” instead of blame, and Constantine uses “reproach.” These words clearly have less emotional weight than “blame” and suggest objective analysis more than the morally-dense judgment of “blame.” Would Machiavelli have been so demonized over the centuries had translators chosen different words such as these?

It is impossible to tell how much later translators were affected by the efforts of their predecessors. A comment from Amy McNamara on Parks’ essay notes:

This is essentially an argument for applying the textual critic’s principle “lectio difficilior potior” to the translator’s task. Very wise! And the problem isn’t limited to the fine shades of meaning in literary works; I’ve seen errors in technical translation and technical editing that were introduced the same way.

Lectio difficilior potior, as Wikipedia tells us, is Latin for “the more difficult reading is the stronger.” This is,

…a main principle of textual criticism. Where different manuscripts conflict on a particular word, the principle suggests that the more unusual one is more likely the original. The presupposition is that scribes would more often replace odd words and hard sayings with more familiar and less controversial ones, than vice versa. It will readily be seen that lectio difficilior potior is an internal criterion, which is independent of criteria for evaluating the manuscript in which it is found, and that it is as applicable to manuscripts of a roman courtois or a classical poet as it is to a biblical text.

Wikipedia reminds us that lectio difficilior “is not to be taken as an absolute rule either, but as a general guideline… this principle must not be taken too mechanically, with the most difficult reading (lectio difficilima) adopted as original simply because of its degree of difficulty”. In the article, Martin L. West cautions:

“When we choose the ‘more difficult reading’ … we must be sure that it is in itself a plausible reading. The principle should not be used in support of dubious syntax, or phrasing that it would not have been natural for the author to use. There is an important difference between a more difficult reading and a more unlikely reading.”

The subtext here is, of course, is to wonder what our perception of other translated works – especially those which have shaped our society, such as the Bible – is the result of moral choices made by the translators, rather than by either the words or the sentiments of the authors.

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Ian Chadwick
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Author: Ian Chadwick

Semi-retired writer, editor, reviewer, media relations & communications consultant. Former municipal politician. Researcher. Ukulele and guitar player. Aficionado of Shakespeare, Horace, Chaucer, Cicero, and tequila. Curmudgeon and cynic. Lay historian. Godzilla and ERB fan. PC gamer. Avid reader. Skeptic. Website and WordPress tinkerer. Companion to one dog and three cats. Loving husband. Passionate about my small town. Perennially curious about everything. Blog:

One thought on “More thoughts on translating Machiavelli”

  1. Another comment by Tim Parks at the New York review blog

    But it is impossible to translate a work from the past and not be influenced by what has happened since. Or at least to feel that influence, if only to resist it. I translated Machiavelli’s The Prince during the Iraq war. States invading distant foreign countries with authoritarian governments, Machiavelli warned, should think twice about disbanding the army and bureaucracy that opposed them, since they may offer the best opportunity of maintaining law and order after the war is over. I remember wanting to translate this observation in such a way that even the obtuse Mr Bush simply could not miss the point. If I could have sneaked in the word “Iraq”—or perhaps more feasibly “shock” and “awe”—I would have.

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