The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus: an English translation
by Adolph Friedrich Bonhoeffer
Peter Lang, New York: 1996.
Department of Classics,
University of Toronto,
Great works of classical scholarship have been translated from German into English for some decades now. Burkert's Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism and Fraenkel's Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy are but two instances of outstandingly important works made more readily accessible to a wider audience.
The pioneering work on Stoicism and on Epictetus undertaken by Adolph Bonhoeffer a century ago is still of considerable importance. Indeed, his two most important books, Epiktet und die Stoa and Die Ethik des Stoikers Epictet, published in 1890 and 1894, are still cited regularly by scholars working in the field; they appear consistently in current bibliographies. (His third major work, Epictet und das Neue Testament has been of less enduring significance.) Before the recent revival of serious philosophical interest in ancient Stoicism Bonhoeffer's works were as accessible as they needed to be. Anyone working in the field read German quite well and probably had access to a serious research library which either possessed or could borrow Bonhoeffer's works. But that has changed quite dramatically. A large and growing number of philosophers and classicists has come to see the importance of Epictetus; many of the former do not read German well, and more and more active scholars are working in institutions which are (shall we say?) unsupportive of serious work in the history of philosophy.
Hence William O. Stephens' decision to publish his translation of one of Bonhoeffer's books is welcome. In the future, they will have easier access to Die Ethik des Stoikers Epictet. Many will be grateful. Even those who know Bonhoeffer's work well will be grateful for the inclusion of Constantine Ritter's brief biographical eulogy of Bonhoeffer (though I searched in vain for some indication of the source for the original German). Even after one allows for the conventions of the genre, Ritter's 'necrology', as Stephens calls it, brings to life a scholar who has been for many decades a mere name even to his greatest admirers.
It might well be thought churlish to complain about such a useful work; for translation is a time-consuming task which occupies a good deal of one's own scholarly energy and offers much benefit to others. Hence I am reluctant to wish that Stephens had translated the more important of Bonhoeffer's books, Epiktet und die Stoa, even though it is in that work that Bonhoeffer laid down his basic demonstration of Epictetus' essential adherence to early Stoic doctrine. And I am also reluctant to complain that no work was done to bring the referencing or annotations up-to-date: there is no scholarly added-value here, just the translation.
But it is not unreasonable to complain about the quality of that translation. For Stephens' rendering of Bonhoeffer's German is at many points so awkward and stilted that those who read German at all may well prefer the original. As far as I can tell the sense is never seriously misrepresented; but the style and flavour of the original certainly are misrepresented, and the crisp originality of Bonhoeffer's thought is hidden by the artificiality of the English.
The problem becomes apparent in the first paragraph of Ritter's biography, where sentences such as this give one pause: "He lived in his birthplace only a short time, since his father already changed his ministry in the following year with one in Leutkirch, and later, in 1867, in Ilshofen". Or this on the impact of his school companions: "The companionship of about forty fresh fellows of his own age, who candidly devoted themselves to and received each other, in need of contact with each other, striving for the same goals, in part also richly gifted and multi-talented, engendered a feeling of fellowship, the pleasure of which was shared by all". Now, some of this awkwardness is surely Ritter's fault: academic German of his day really was wooden and pretentious. But most of the fault is the translator's. Readers fluent in German can readily retrovert this English to German; those who know no German might well be puzzled (or embarrassed) at some points.
It is only fair to include a representative example of translation alongside the German original. Here, then, from Bonhoeffer's page 58, first in Stephens' translation:
There was detailed discussion about the psychological distinction between desire ( orexis) and decision or will in the narrow sense ( orme) in Volume I (p. 255 etc.). Here it concerns the distinction in an ethical respect. The distinction is described by Epictetus with desirable clarity as follows, the first topos (which deals with correct fear and desire) makes the human being free of passions ( apathes and atarachos), whereas the second teaches him to recognize his positive duties to the gods, his parents, his country, etc.
And now, Bonhoeffer's German:
Ueber den psychologischen Unterschied der Begierde ( orexis) und des Entschlusses oder Willens im engeren Sinn ( orme) war im I. Band (p. 255 etc.) ausfuehrlich die Rede. Hier handelt es sich um den Unterschied in ethischer Hinsicht. Derselbe wird von Epictet mit wuenschenswerter Deutlichkeit so bezeichnet, dass der erste Topos (der von dem richtigen Fuerchten und Begehren handelt) den Menschen frei von Affekten macht ( apathes und atarachos), waehrend der zweite ihn seine positiven Pflichten gegen die Goetter, Eltern, Vaterland, etc. erkennen lehrt.
There is nothing wrong with this translation; it is certainly literal in a mechanical sense. But in its very literalness it traduces the original. To read page after page of such stilted English quickly becomes tedious; no matter how enthusiastic one might be for the subject matter, fatigue soon sets in. The same is not true about the German original.
As a crib Stephens' translation performs a useful service. But it cannot stand beside Minar's translation of Burkert's Weisheit und Wissenschaft or that of Fraenkel's Dichtung und Philosophie by Hadas and Willis. And that is a shame, for Bonhoeffer's work is every bit as worthy of presentation to the growing world of English-only readers as is Burkert's and Fraenkel's.
COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 7 - May 1997 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington email@example.com ISSN 1320-3606