15.11.19, Schütrumpf, The Earliest Translations of Aristotle's Politics and the Creation of Political Terminology

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Jonathan Robinson

The Medieval Review 15.11.19

Schütrumpf, Eckart. The Earliest Translations of Aristotle's Politics and the Creation of Political Terminology. Morphomata Lectures Cologne, 8. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2014. pp. 83. ISBN: 978-377-0556-854 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Jonathan Robinson
Osgoode Hall Law School

Eckart Schütrumpf's slim book is a welcome addition to a relatively overlooked field in the history of political thought. Schütrumpf takes the problem of translation seriously. He addresses two main questions. The first is alone reason enough to take an afternoon and read the book: what did ancient and medieval translators think about the process of translation? Although the bulk of the book's sixty-five pages is devoted to William of Moerbeke and Leonardo Bruni, it opens with a brief but helpful discussion of other well-known translators of antiquity: notably, Cicero, Jerome, and Boethius. Other translators from antiquity to early modernity make briefer appearances. Some of the material may not be new to students of Latin. Who, after all, has not heard of Cicero's goal to translate the force of the words rather than word-for-word (11)? But others did not wholly agree. Jerome's view was particularly telling: although he favoured the ad sensum approach generally, he insisted the ad verbum method was more appropriate for sacred scripture. With scripture, he argued, the very word order was important. William seems to have shared a similar view of his role as a fidus interpres when it came to the Politics. [1] Sadly, unlike Bruni, William did not explicitly indicate his views about translation. Some later translators seem to have thought that translation should be rigorously separated from exposition (66-7). Perhaps William thought along similar lines; it is clear, however, that Bruni did not. Schütrumpf shows how Bruni believed he could provide a stylistically elegant and nevertheless accurate translation of the Politics (and Nicomachean Ethics) that rendered the need for a separate expositio redundant.

William's text, on the other hand, practically demanded commentary. His version, replete as it is with semi-Greek transliterations (21), certainly suggests William purposely aimed for a literal translation, but William was not always consistent. For example, the Greek polis might be left untouched or it might become civitas; politikos shared a similar fate. At first glance, one may well be surprised to learn from William's translation (at Pol. 1.2) that homo natura civile animal [est]. [2] In contrast, Bruni was more inclined to reach for a suitable technical Latin term, which may come at the cost of anachronistically "Romanizing" Aristotle (44-46).

Judged by their works, it is clear that William and Bruni approached the task of translating differently. Schütrumpf ultimately attempts to answer the question of who translated the Politics better. In fact, Schütrumpf, who is not only a long-time student of Aristotle, but also a translator of and commentator on the Politics, devotes a few pages to the question of whether Aristotle's own reputation as a prose stylist deserves reconsideration. [3] For anyone who has worked with William's translations, just posing the question foreshadows that Bruni will "win" this contest. Today, of course, it is common for modern reviews of translations to compare the merits of competing translations. [4] And it is certainly a fair thing to do for earlier translations as well--to a point. For many scholars today, however, who translated Aristotle into Latin "better" is unlikely to be among the most pressing questions. Today, the reason one chooses to read William's or Bruni's translation depends on the purpose of the research. Few people, I suspect, will wish to read any Latin translation if the goal is to get to grips with Aristotle. (Although, it is perhaps noteworthy that modern editors of Aristotle have relied on William's translation to aid them in their work. [5])

For reasons that do not need to be discussed here, it turns out that Bruni provides us with a more pleasurable translation to read. Maybe, then, it is the passages that are the same in the two translations that deserve our attention. For example, in a moment fit for a footnote in Jorge Luis Borges's "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote," [6] when we read that Bruni translated the above passage similarly--homo natura ciuile est animal[7]--perhaps we should be asking whether these two "political by nature" animals were the same across the centuries. It doesn't take a Borges to suggest that they might not be. The second half of Schütrumpf's title suggests to the reader that this sort of discussion is included in these pages, but of course so short a book can do little more than scratch the surface of what is a massive topic. The brief section on Nicholas Oresme, who published a French translation of the Politics (based on William's) in the fourteenth century, mentions his contribution of perhaps as many as one thousand words to the French language. [8] Another brief example comes later, in the discussion of Bruni's use of res publica for politeia. Here, Schütrumpf engages with arguments of James Hankins, and concludes that Bruni helped develop an understanding of respublica as a regime that is opposed to monarchy.

The fate of these two translations is also touched upon. William's apparent desire to make as little Latinitas as possible stand between his readers and the Politics may have suited scholastic authors. But this view became outdated. Schütrumpf points to the adoption of Bruni's translation to replace William's in fifteenth-century editions of Aquinas's commentary on the Politics as evidence of Bruni's popularity. One must surely agree, but, again, isn't what is most interesting about the switch what it suggests about how expectations of Latin translations of Greek texts had changed? If the commentary of Aquinas can be appended to Bruni's in place of William's, does that not raise interesting questions about what Aquinas's commentary was thought to be doing? Indeed, Schütrumpf writes as though the book being sold was the commentary of Aquinas, but the title dispels that notion: Aristotelis Stagiritae Politicorum siue de Republica libri octo Leonardo Aretino interprete cum D. Thomae Aquinatis explanatione... [9]

Perhaps even more significant is the (as it were) subtitle, which states, in part, that the old (and vanishing) translation that Aquinas once used is also included. Why? Schütrumpf refers briefly to the editor's preface and suggests it was an antiquarian impulse to save the old translation--no matter its quality (qualiscumque)--from destruction. [10] The editor, however, maintained there are two tangible merits. The first relates to the commentary: there are times when one will need to see the text on which Aquinas commented in order to understand the commentary. The other, interestingly, suggests that he recognized that William's ad verbum approach to translation would allow keen readers to emend the books--tam graecos, quam latinos--which we now have. Casual readers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries might have preferred to read Bruni and Aquinas, in other words, but real scholars would want the scholastic touch! [11]

Schütrumpf's little book originated in a series of lectures, and certain idiosyncrasies of these earlier talks seem to remain: William is sometimes Wilhelm, Bruni is occasionally L. Bruni, Nicholas is Nicole, etc. Some bibliographical omissions are unfortunate, as is the odd mix of author-date and author-title references in the footnotes. But errata are minor and infrequent: aside from the possible difficulty of tracking down one or two references, nothing hinders an easy understanding of Schütrumpf's narrative.

None of the foregoing is meant to discourage potential readers. The brevity of the book indicates that it was never meant to answer all questions. It encouraged this reviewer to think anew about translations and their almost invisible role in the stories we tell about the history of philosophy and political thought. As medievalists (and classicists), we are trained to dispense with translations in our own work, but that does not mean we should ignore them altogether.



1. Cf. Susan M. Babbitt, Oresme's "Livre de Politiques" and the France of Charles V, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, NS 75.1 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1985), 8.

2. The verb is omitted in William's "revised" version (still awaiting a modern edition) from about 1265.

3. Eckart Schütrumpf, trans., Aristoteles Politik, 4 vols., Aristoteles Werke in Deutscher Übersetzung 9 (Berlin-Darmstadt: Akademie Verlag, 1991-2005).

4. For example, the review of Lord's revised edition in BMCR 2013.12.34 ().

5. In fact, in his own edition, Franciscus Susemihl, Aristotelis politcorum libri octo cum vetusta translatione Guilelmi de Moerbeka (Leipzig, 1872), wrote of William's efforts that he "tam fideliter et accurate verbum pro verbo reddens, ut raro quid in illo codice suo legerit dubitare queas" (vi). Susemihl then proceeded to provide William's translation at the foot of the pages of his edition of Aristotle.

6. I am partial to the translation found in Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, trans. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1962), 36-44.

7. Leonardo Bruni, trans., Aristotelis Ethica ad Nicomachum [et] Politica (Strassbourg, [ante] 1469), 90v, (persistent) URL: .

8. Others have suggested a more conservative number; see, e.g., Robert A. Taylor, "Les Néologismes chez Nichole Oresme, traducteur du XIVe siècle," Actes du Xe Congrès international de linguistique et philologie romanes, 4.2 (Paris, 1965): 727-736, cited by Babbit, "Oresme's Livre de Politiques," 10 n. 79.

9. This edition was printed in Venice in 1568. Google has a scan of this edition available at the following unwieldy URL: [last accessed 23 Sept. 2015].

10. Ibid., p. 133v.

11. Ibid.

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