Is 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Not that Marriott’s version is per se wrong: merely outdated and somewhat florid by today’s literary standards.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.
Those of you who have read my personal blog where I have commented on books and translators in greater depth, know of my fascination in the art of translation and the meaning of language. I wrote about it somewhat in an addendum here. I have of late been brought back to this topic by reading the Latin poet Horace. But that’s a digression for my other site.
In the process of working on my book and this site (The Municipal Machiavelli) and the subsequent revision (Machiavelli for Mayors, coming in 2017), I had the pleasure – and sometimes drudgery – of working through many translations, from the 1640 version by Dacres to the recent 2009 version by Tim Parks. I often had numerous editions open simultaneously to compare sentences or paragraphs in each one to best assess the message. My bibliography lists 18 different translators and I have read them all at least once. Which one to choose? Easy choice: Parks.
In an 2009 interview about his translation, Parks said of Machiavelli’s relevance to modern politics:
Machiavelli isolates the problem of collective psychology and individual psychology — the psychology of leadership, loyalty, the best way to arrive at situations where people will do what you want, be faithful, and how you can be their leader.
Since those are the issues he begins to isolate as crucial to success, any leader can learn from what he’s saying.
Any ordinary person who’s dealing with leaders can learn. It’s one of the great handbooks of all time, not necessarily for how to become a monomaniac, but what it means to negotiate relations of leaderships and serving leaders.
Each generation needs to have its own edition which speaks to the contemporary times and events. This is true of many great works, from Horace to Montaigne to Dumas to Proust. If they are to remain relevant, they need to speak to us now, not to the past. And more than ever we need to understand how – or if – Machiavelli’s ideas can help us make sense of recent events and political changes.
As Tim Parks wrote in his column in the New York Review of Books:
We live in a time of retranslation. New versions of the classics appear fairly regularly, and of course, as soon as the seventy years of copyright following an author’s death runs out, there is a spate of new translations. So Proust and Thomas Mann have recently been retranslated into English, while writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence are all reappearing in new versions in Europe.
The logic behind this phenomenon is clear enough. A translation inevitably reflects the language and style of its time. For later generations, a translation seems more reminiscent of our own past culture than the culture the work originated in.
I don’t read or speak Italian, so my appreciation of Machiavelli is dependent on both the translation and the analysis that surrounds it. I have read not only The Prince in various translations, but also numerous books, articles and essays that analyze, dissect and criticize it, plus his many other works. As a result, I think I’m modestly well educated in Machiavelli, albeit merely as an autodidact.
I’ve tended towards the recent editions by translators Bondarella, Gilbert, Parks and Wooton because they felt more modern: comfortable and accessible. That’s hardly a scientific description, but when reading them I felt like they had grasped Machiavelli’s overall concepts, and presented them clearly and concisely. I always felt less comfortable with the more precise translations like Mansfield’s that appear to hew to strict linguistic accuracy over what I feel are the broader concepts.
Parks, however, quickly became my favourite translator and the only one whom I have both in print and on my Kindle. I’m not sure why or how he does it better than the rest, but his edition feels punchier, crisper, more direct. It’s Machiavelli for today. Yes, I know that sounds vague and hyperbolic, but having gone through several editions simultaneously, it was clear to me when I was doing so.
A contemporary reviewer of his translation in The Guardian called it…
…a gripping work, and a gripping translation. Parks allows certain modern linguistic resonances: I am not sure how closely that “reduce the place to rubble” above reflects the Italian original, but it has the whiff of the air raid, of shock and awe, to it; and when Machiavelli talks about Pope Alexander VI, we are almost in the world of Arthur Daley, writ large: “Pope Alexander VI never did anything but con people. That was all he ever thought about. And he always found people he could con.” Remember this, even if you don’t get the book: “A leader doesn’t have to possess all the virtuous qualities I’ve mentioned, but it’s absolutely imperative that he seem to possess them.” Class dismissed.
Parks himself wrote in a later column in the New York Review of Books, explaining one of the basic concerns for readers like myself when trying to select a version:
…translators come to The Prince with prejudices; one is tempted to play to the reader’s expectations, laying on Machiavelli’s supposed cynicism at the expense of the text’s surprising subtlety.
Those prejudices may be cultural, social, religious, sexual or some personal moral perspective. It’s difficult if not impossible to avoid making moral or ethical decisions about the content when reading Machiavelli, so it must be doubly difficult when translating him.
Parks, in his column, provides some good examples to show how different translators approached the wording. Earlier in his piece, Parks gives a hint as to his own approach:
Machiavelli, in exile after a long political career and living in the most turbulent times, wanted to say something clear and comprehensible about how power is won and lost—in short, to turn politics into a science. One sentence in particular from his opening dedication to Lorenzo de’ Medici (not Il Magnifico, but a later Lorenzo), reads as both guidance and encouragement for all future translators:
I haven’t aimed for a fancy style or padded the book out with long sentences or pompous, pretentious words, or any of the irrelevant flourishes and attractions so many writers use; I didn’t want it to please for anything but the range and seriousness of its subject matter.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t all kinds of rhetorical strategies in The Prince, or that the text shouldn’t be entertaining. But the sense comes first; the language must not get in the way of the argument.
The argument, as he says, should be paramount in the translation, and I agree. The translator should not miss the metaphorical forest in their examination of the individual trees. But as we know, books have been written on the meaning of a single word and its translation alternatives (Machiavelli’s use of virtu comes to mind).
In another NYRB article, Parks comments:
The choice of translator is crucial when a text is of such a nature that a very special affinity and expertise is required. The problem is that it is hard for the wider public or even the critics really to know whether they have been given a good translation, and not easy even for the editors who have the duty of choosing the translator, fewer and fewer of whom have appropriate second-language skills.
But how many readers will take the time or the expense to compare each one? How many will read each line, side by side, and weigh the results? few, I suspect. Which is why I can help, having done just that.
My advice: if you want a good, modern and solid translation of The Prince to help approach today’s issues, get the Parks’ translation.
- Machiavelli and Sejanus - October 14, 2022
- A Meeting of the Minds? - July 3, 2021
- Machiavelli’s Prince as satire - June 8, 2017
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