There was a particular passage in Plato's Republic that I wanted to track down; Gutenberg's (Jowett) etext for part of it reads:

And therefore when any one of these pantomimic gentlemen, who are so clever that they can imitate anything, comes to us, and makes a proposal to exhibit himself and his poetry, we will fall down and worship him as a sweet and holy and wonderful being; but we must also inform him that in our State such as he are not permitted to exist; the law will not allow them. And so when we have anointed him with myrrh, and set a garland of wool upon his head, we shall send him away to another city.

This reads like a literal translation.

I wanted to compare it to what I thought was a good and newer literal translation, Bloom's, where I thought I had read front matter stating that a translator should be humble enough to anticipate a student brighter than the translator and not imprison the student in the translator's interpretation (e.g. by not translating Plato as talking about "values" in texts that are about ideas). Bloom's translation reads:

Now, as it seems, a man who is able by wisdom to become every sort of thing and to imitate all things should come into our city, wishing to make a display of himself and his poems, we would fall on our knees before him as a man sacred, wonderful, and pleasing; but we would say that there is no such man among us in the city, nor is it lawful for such a man to be there. We would send him to another city, with myrrh poured over his head and crowned with wool...

The original (398a) reads:

ἄνδρα δή, ὡς ἔοικε, δυνάμενον ὑπὸ σοφίας παντοδαπὸν γίγνεσθαι καὶ μιμεῖσθαι πάντα χρήματα, εἰ ἡμῖν ἀφίκοιτο εἰς τὴν πόλιν αὐτός τε καὶ τὰ ποιήματα βουλόμενος ἐπιδείξασθαι, προσκυνοῖμεν ἂν αὐτὸν ὡς ἱερὸν καὶ θαυμαστὸν καὶ ἡδύν, εἴποιμεν δ᾽ ἂν ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν τοιοῦτος ἀνὴρ ἐν τῇ πόλει παρ᾽ ἡμῖν οὔτε θέμις ἐγγενέσθαι, ἀποπέμποιμέν τε εἰς ἄλλην πόλιν μύρον κατὰ τῆς κεφαλῆς καταχέαντες καὶ ἐρίῳ στέψαντες,

My odd impression here is that the text that reads more like a more literal translation is the one that's freer (at least in details like rearranging phrases), and the text that reads more naturally in English ("wisdom" vs. "pantomimic") is the more strictly literal one.

How literal or free are Bloom and Jowett in translating The Republic?


  • FYI, "αὐτοὶ δ᾽ ἂν τῷ αὐστηροτέρῳ καὶ ἀηδεστέρῳ ποιητῇ" is not part of the English translations, nor is it indeed a complete thought... – brianpck Apr 27 '17 at 19:07
  • @brianpck Thank you; I failed to make the beginning and endings consistent. I've edited the note. – Christos Hayward Apr 27 '17 at 19:37

The second appears to be the more literal translation, but the contrast that you point out is not a comparison between the same word. The original text does have the word "wisdom" [σοφία] and the first text is translating "by wisdom" as "are so clever that," which kind of captures the same idea, but it's definitely looser.

The word "pantomimic" translated in the first quote is translated as "to imitate all" [μιμεῖσθαι πάντα] in the second text.

Here's a rough breakdown of the first part of the sentence:

ἄνδρα [a man] δή, ὡς ἔοικε, δυνάμενον [who is able] ὑπὸ σοφίας [by wisdom] παντοδαπὸν [of all sorts] γίγνεσθαι [to become] καὶ [and] μιμεῖσθαι [to imitate] πάντα [all] χρήματα [things]...


If a comparison would be helpful, I suggest the translation by Robin Waterfield. Republic (Oxford University Press 1974). The passage at 398a reads:

So it follows that were a man clever enough to be able to assume all kinds of forms and to represent everything in the world to come in person to our community and want to show off his compositions, we’d treat him as an object of reverence and awe, and as a source of pleasure, and we’d prostrate ourselves before him; but we’d tell him that not only is there no one like him in our community, it is also not permitted for anyone like him to live among us, and we’d send him elsewhere, once we had anointed his head with myrrh and given him a chaplet of wool. [explanatory note omitted]

  • That's a kind of translator I'd like to read more of. – Christos Hayward Apr 27 '17 at 23:31

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