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Epistolary Reflections on Philosophical Translation

Sean McConnell

Despite a considerable amount of scholarly interest in Cicero’s direct translation of Greek philosophical terms into Latin (e.g., Liscu 1930, 1937; Jones 1959; Powell 1995; Glucker 1995; Dyck 1996: 484-8), relatively little attention has been given to how his translation choices affect his own philosophical argumentation. To some extent this is understandable: Cicero’s most scathing criticisms of the work of other contemporary prose writers who were translating Greek philosophy into Latin, such as that of the Epicureans Amafinius, Catius, and Rabirius, concern their literary shortcomings and poor translation choices more than a lack of philosophical erudition per se; and Cicero clearly seeks to position himself as the prime developer of a technical and sophisticated Latin philosophical vocabulary (e.g., Fam. 15.16.1-2; Acad. 1.4-10; Fin. 1.10, 2.12; Tusc. 1.6, 2.6-9, 4.6-7; Smith 1995). But in his role as translator and philosophical writer Cicero appears to have achieved something greater than that: recent scholarship is making clearer the novelty of Cicero’s thought and the ways in which his philosophical achievements surpass being mere Latin reproductions of earlier Greek material (e.g., Schofield 1995; Gildenhard 2007; Fox 2007; Baraz 2012; Atkins 2013; McConnell 2014). This prompts a significant question: to what extent and in what ways did Cicero see the Latin language and his translation choices as admitting of innovation and distinctive philosophical insights of his own?

In this paper I examine Cicero’s reflections on his own practice as a translator in certain letters to Cassius (Fam. 15.16.1-2) and Atticus (Att. 13.21.3, 16.11.4, 16.14.3). In these letters Cicero discusses what is and what is not good translation practice, focusing on three specific cases: the first pertains to the Epicurean εἴδωλα; the second to the skeptical attitude of ἐποχή; and the third to the Stoic καθῆκον. I argue that Cicero does not merely weigh with his correspondents the accuracy of various translations of the Greek into Latin, but rather he demonstrates to them how the choice of the Latin might enhance or detract from the philosophical argumentation of the Greek. This suggests that Cicero was showcasing opportunities for philosophical contributions of his own that the practice of translation itself makes possible. 

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Nec converti ut interpres: New Approaches to Cicero’s Translation of Greek Philosophy

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