Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Translations of Marcus Aurelius

This week I made an effort to borrow as many different versions of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius as the local library had available. I want to find out which ones I prefer, and compare them to the very old and almost free translation by George Long I got online.
I got hold of these (putting initials at the end to id later):

Ok, so let's have a lookee-look at book 1, "chapter" 16, which starts off:
(GL): In my father ...
(AF/RR): From my father (by adoption) ...
(JN/JP): From my adoptive father ...

and somewhere in the middle of the section:
(GL): He was most ready to give way without envy to those who possessed any particular faculty, such as that of eloquence ...
(AF/RR): A very strong point, to give way without jealousy to those who had some particular gift like literary expression...
(JN/JP): Importantly, to acknowledge without envy those who those who have special ability, be it in matter of public speaking...
(GH): This, in particular: his willingness to yield the floor to experts - in oratory ...

GH has the most modern, succinct translation, followed by JN/JP, AF/RR is more formal and GL is distinctly Victorian.

But let's return to near the beginning of 1/16, which actually has this *interesting* bit of information about the adoptive father:
(GL): And I observed that he had overcome all passion for boys ...
(AF/RR): Prohibition from unnatural practices ...
(GH): Putting a stop to the pursuit of boys

Nope, I didn't miss a quote - JN/JP omit that compeletely. In fact their 1.16 is a lot shorter than the others. I guess that "The Essential Marcus Aurelius" is an abridged version of Meditations. Of the remaining, AF/RR are very oblique, while GL is plain enough - in fact more direct than the modern GH. Never underestimate a Victorian!

Let's do one more look-see, at Book 2, "chapter" 4:
(GL): Remember how long thou has been putting off these things, and how often thou has received an opportunity from the gods, and yet dost not use it.
(AF/RR): Remember how long you have been putting off these things and how many times the gods have given you days of grace, and yet you do not use them.
(JN/JP): Remember how long you have been putting these things off, and how often you have received an opportunity from the gods and have not made use of it.
(GH): Remember how long you've been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn't use them.

GL with the thou and dost - you either like that or not. AF/RR is readable and I like the use of "days of grace" which clearly communicates the thought. In contrast JN/JP are less clear with "opportunity" and, moreover, uses the construction "putting these things off" which I find off-putting. GH is blunt, and sounds rather like a he's your boss upbraiding you on a missed deadline. And he uses the same construction plus he uses contractions. There's such a different tone to all each of them.

In summary, of the four translations I have in hand, just from a beginning look, I've managed to find fault in all of them.

I'm inclined to eliminate this JN/JP (Needleman) immediately because it's incomplete (abridged). If there's a complete translation it would be ok, I think.
GL (Long) is free from Gutenberg and you might as well have a copy, but aside from the ornate style, it is not numbered.
I actually do appreciate the brevity of GH (Hays) - it reads a lot like Marcus Aurelius jotting down his thoughts. It is readable. I'm not sure if it's too modern. I feel like I'd need to still have a less modern translation to compare it with though.
AF/RR (Farquharson) I think would be ok as that second copy - more effort to read but still clear.

(There's another translation I want to have a look at - one by Robin Hard. )

Tell me your thoughts!

CAVEAT EMPTOR: Be very careful when buying classics like these on Amazon - they have a terrible way of mashing all different versions and translations together. You'll be looking at one translation on hardcover, then you switch to the paperback or Kindle tab it's a completely different translation! Double check the ISBN and the "look inside" feature to make sure you are buying the one you want.


  1. This is very cool! And thank you! I picked up a free copy for my Kindle. I'll let you know my thoughts after spending some time with it. It's the Hays copy, ftr.

  2. Are you sure it's Hays? I forgot to mention in my post - Amazon is terrible at selling old books (ironically) - they will have one version on hardcover, then when you click on paperback or kindle it's a completely different version / translation.