Front Page Titles (by Subject) III.: METHOD OF THE PRESENT TRANSLATION - The Ethical Treatises, being the Treatises of the First Ennead
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III.: METHOD OF THE PRESENT TRANSLATION - Plotinus, The Ethical Treatises, being the Treatises of the First Ennead [253 AD]
The Ethical Treatises, being the Treatises of the First Ennead, with Porphry’s Life of Plotinus, and the Preller-Ritter Extracts forming a Conspectus of the Plotinian System, translated from Greek by Stephen Mackenna (Boston: Charles T. Branford, 1918).
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METHOD OF THE PRESENT TRANSLATION
Inevitably the present translator has sometimes differed from all his predecessors, as they have sometimes differed each from all the others: he hopes it will not be thought an insolence in him to remark that his rendering of any given passage is not to be tested finally by the authority of any of these scholars, still less by any preconceived idea of Plotinus’ meaning or by any hasty memory of controversy and decisions as to the peculiar uses of words in Plato or Aristotle. The text of the Enneads may be taken to be very fairly well-established, but it would be absurd to suppose that as yet Plotinus, so little cautious or consistent in verbal expression, yields his precise meaning, or full content, as Plato, for example, may be supposed now to do after the scholarly scrutiny of generations. It may, indeed, be said with a rough truth that Plotinus’ terms, shifting at best and depending upon context and again upon the context of the context, are never to be more carefully examined than when they seem to be most true to the Platonic or Aristotelian uses: the confusion is a constant pitfall: Plotinus was pouring a quite new wine into very old bottles. Plotinus is often to be understood rather by swift and broad rushes of the mind—the mind trained to his methods—than by laborious word-racking investigation: we must know him through and through before we can be quite sure of his minuter meanings anywhere: there must be many a scholar at work yet, many an order of mind, before we can hope to have a perfectly true translation of the Enneads in any language. The present worker must have made mistakes, some perhaps that to himself will one day appear inexcusable: his one consolation is that the thing he will that day welcome from other hands has almost certainly passed through his own, and been deliberately rejected. Where he appears most surely to have sinned against the light, it is most sure that he has passed through an agony of hesitation.
People seem always anxious to know whether a work of translation is what they call literal; the important question is rather whether it is faithful: the present work pretends to be faithful—and, if we must be precise, literary rather than literal. This is not to say that it is a paraphrase.
Probably every translator from the classic tongues sets out gaily in the firm purpose of achieving the impossible, of making a crib that shall also be a piece of sound and flowing idiomatic writing; and certainly many critics demand the miracle. Some years ago, on the publication of a preliminary specimen of this present venture, one very highly accomplished scholar wrote complaining with utter seriousness of an English past tense which had dared to translate a “frequentative aorist” of the Greek original; he had apparently never asked himself whether an English past may not be as frequentative as any Greek aorist: in any case, readers who desire their translations to serve as an unfailing treasury of illustrations to “X. on Greek Idioms” are not asked to like this version.
Again, various arbitrary principles, laid down by translators of a formally precise school, have been quite ignored here. For example, it has been decreed that “one word must translate one word” and this in a double application:—
1. That if, for example, the word Phusis is once translated Nature, Phusis must stand as Nature at every repetition, never Kind or Essence, or Being or any other word which happens, in a particular context, to be equally clear and precise or even imperative in English to the sense and connection of thought.
2. That Phusis, for example, may never be translated by such a double as “Nature or Hypostasis,” Doxa, for example, never by such a double as “Opinion or Seeming-Knowledge,” still less, as several times here, by “Ordinary Mentation,” with or without an alternative or an addition.
All such bans have been treated here as belonging to the childish pedantry of a game of skill, not to the serious task of conveying to the reader a grave body of foreign thought. Probably in every writer—certainly in Plotinus—such a word as Phusis, such a word as Theos, or again Theios, may carry in connotation not merely two but three or four or more notions, any one of which may at a given moment be the dominant, though not necessarily to the utter exclusion of the others. Plotinus has some score of words, technical terms, which he uses in very varying applications where no single fixed English word or even combination of words would always carry his meaning. The translator has in this whole matter adopted the principle of using such a variety of terms, single or double or upon occasion triple, as will exactly cover or carry the idea which appears in the original; he has arrogated to himself almost the entire freedom of a philosophic writer in English who uses his words with an absolute loyalty, of course, to his thought but with never a moment’s scruple as to the terms in which he happened to convey or indicate a given notion five pages back. In other words the present translator has not thought of his probable readers as glossary-bound pedants but as possessed of the living vision which can follow a stream of thought by the light of its own vivid movement.
Other theorists of translation desire that a version should represent the style of the original writer: this notion is tempting and may often be safely achieved but not, the present worker ventures to say, in the case of Plotinus, or perhaps in the case of any writer whose main preoccupation is less with artistic expression than with the enunciation of cardinal and very gravely important ideas. Longinus, as may be learned from Porphyry’s Life-sketch of Plotinus, so little grasped Plotinus’ manner of expression as to judge ruinously erroneous the most faithful transcripts that could be: a version which should reproduce such a style as disconcerted and misled the most widely read contemporary critic of Greek letters, would not be a translation in any useful sense of the word, or at least would not be English or would not be readable.
The present translation, therefore, has been executed on the basic ideal of carrying Plotinus’ thought—its strength and its weakness alike—to the mind of the reader of English: the first aim has been the utmost attainable clearness in the faithful, full and unalloyed expression of the meaning; the second aim, set a long way after the first, has been the reproduction of the splendid soaring passages with all their warmth and light. Nothing whatever has been, consciously, added or omitted with such absurd purpose as that of heightening either the force of the thought or the beauty of the expression—except in so far as force and beauty demand a clarity which sometimes must be, courageously, imposed upon the most negligent, probably, of the great authors of the world.