April 12, 2004

Bartlett offers new translation of Plato dialogues          

By Michael Terrazas

For more than 20 years, Robert Bartlett has read Plato through others’ translations. For almost as long (since he learned ancient Greek in college), Bartlett has read Plato from original texts. As the difficulty grew in reconciling the latter with the former, Bartlett finally decided to take the philosophical matter into his own hands.

As a result, Bartlett has published original translations of two of Plato’s famous dialogues (“Protagoras” and “Meno”) in a new volume from Cornell University Press. Now he’s a happier—and more fulfilled—man.

“One reason [for doing the translations] is entirely selfish,” said Bartlett, associate professor of political science. “I have a great interest in Plato and his role in philosophy, and I wanted to get to know these dialogues better. One way to do that is to translate them yourself.

“But second, I was somewhat dissatisfied with the available translations,” he continued. “It isn’t that I know Greek better than my predecessors, but there’s been a change in the understanding what a good translation is.”

The problem, Bartlett explained, is that many translators skew to one of two extremes: Either they transform an ancient text into elegant, modern language and end up significantly paraphrasing the original; or they cling to a severely literal translation that renders parts of the text unintelligible, since direct translations of many words and phrases from ancient Greek to modern English do not exist.

“I tried to navigate between those two poles,” Bartlett said, “to produce a translation that is quite literal and faithful to the words Plato wrote while at the same time intelligible to a contemporary audience.”

For example, the concept of “virtue” ties the two dialogues together. Sometimes the Greek word, arete, is translated as “excellence,” sometimes as “outstanding ability,” but in truth, arete matches none of these terms precisely. Still, Bartlett uses the single term “virtue” because he believes it best captures Plato’s intention and that Plato’s insistence on using the same word throughout was intentional.

For other terms, Bartlett sometimes uses different English words and phrases to substitute for the same Greek word in different contexts (anthropoi, for instance, is at times translated to “people,” other times “human beings” and others “fellow”). Readers are kept abreast of the subtleties through footnotes.

One audience he hopes takes notice is 21st century students, starting with his own. Bartlett, whose field is the history of political thought, said virtually none of today’s students are familiar with the teachings of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, and that is unfortunate.

“My guiding hypothesis is that there is such a thing as human nature, which Plato may have grasped and given us the help we need to understand it as well,” Bartlett said. “So it falls to me to try to connect these dialogues to students’ contemporary concerns. And I have found it to be, actually, easier than I thought.”

Take the story of Protagoras. The dialogue opens with Socrates asking the younger Hippocrates why he wants to study and learn from Protagoras, a traveling sophist. Because Protagoras is a “knower of wise things,” Hippocrates replies. But Socrates doesn’t let him escape so easily and presses Hippocrates to name exactly the “wise things” Protagoras knows and what applicability they could have to the younger man’s life.

The lesson (Socrates ends up exposing Protagoras as not all he claims to be) is one that resonates with today’s students, Bartlett said. They want to do great things, just as Hippocrates did, but they don’t know how to “get there” and can fall prey to the shortcuts, the quick and easy answers, of false teachers.

“The promise that there is an education out there that will enable you to become great and powerful and to fulfill your ambitions—that is the starting point of 98 percent of my students,” Bartlett said. “So when they hear a rumor that there may be such an education, they immediately have a greater interest, and in particular they get drawn into the drama. The arguments [between Socrates and Protagoras] cease to be just academic or logical exercises; the students see that something matters, and what matters is how they will lead their lives.”