Saturday, March 24, 2012


Joe Sachs (trans.), Plato. Republic. Focus Philosophical Library. Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2006. Pp. 358. ISBN 9781585102617. $14.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Joe McCoy, University of Nevada, Reno (

Version at BMCR home site

The variability of human language and its cultural context precludes na├»ve views as to what constitutes a best or even optimal translation of a classical work. Even in purely technical contexts, word meaning is determined by a host of forces from historical patterns of usage, etymological derivation, associations with other terms that have accrued through time and chance, considerations of social range—what is elevated or stylized speech, formal expression, colloquial but grammatically standard, colloquial but grammatically lax, vulgarity, or slang. Philosophical treatises introduce an additional dimension of complexity since philosophical authors often have found it necessary to proceed beyond the normal boundaries of natural language and to coin a vocabulary more systematic and appropriate to their subject-matter, or, more subtly, to invest terms drawn from natural language with a sense related to, but deviating from, "ordinary" usage. Indeed, this latter fact might be taken to indicate difficulties inherent in the intelligibility of philosophical writing on this model, but at the very least present substantive philosophical problems to the translator who must ipso facto act as interpreter.

Joe Sachs's translation of Plato's Republic conceives of itself as part of what must be an ongoing effort to recover and present the meaning of classical texts in light of the vicissitudes of English and modern sensibilities. For the reasons presented above, no apology need be given for being one in a field of such attempts, though Sachs's translation has explicit affinities to Allan Bloom's 1968 translation. Both Bloom and Sachs aim for a middle region between what to our ears would be stilted Victorian prose and the vernacular of twenty-first century popular speech. (See Sachs's own comments on his approach at 13-4.) Sachs describes what is distinctive about his effort as follows: "I depart a bit farther than Bloom does from the 19th century diction enshrined forever in such reference works as the lexicons of Liddell and Scott and the commentary of James Adams, without moving all the way into current colloquial speech" (13-4). A comparison of Sachs's translation with other well-known renderings illustrates this. Consider the third definition of justice given by Thrasymachus at Republic 338c as given in Benjamin Jowett's famous 1894 translation: "Listen, then, he said; I proclaim that justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger. And now why do you not praise me? But of course you won't." Now Sachs' rendering: "'Then listen,' he said. 'I assert that what's just is nothing other than what's advantageous to the stronger. So why don't you show appreciation? But you won't be willing to?'" Jowett gives Thrasymachus's words an epideictic character as the emphases on "listen" and "proclaim" highlighting the Sophist's role as orator. Sachs's rendering, "Then listen," diffuses the more flamboyant "Listen, then!" (my exclamation point), where the position of "then" allows it to function more as a connective to the preceding words than as a reinforcement of the command. That is, Sachs achieves something more like "So listen to what I'm going to say next" as opposed to a "Harken, therefore, to me!" The didactic flavor of Jowett's translation is accentuated by the use of the substantives "justice" and "interest" that impart the impression, clearly intended by Thrasymachus, that his view of justice is obvious to anyone with eyes to see and tersely expressible in a kind of formula. Sachs's use of the adjectival phrases "what is just" and "what is advantageous" diminish the sense of Thrasymachus' definition being formulaic and (possibly) prepares the way for a less "Platonist" reading of the definition—"what is just" in the sense of what's regarded as or said to be just, i.e. the sorts of things talked about in legal and political contexts in all cities, and not "Justice itself" in some transcendental sense. After all, doesn't Thrasymachus propose a kind of legal realism (though not relativism, which he explicitly rejects in the wake of Cleitophon's interjection at 340a-c), and his implicit epistemology a kind of hard-nosed empiricism?

Sachs's translation also has the benefit of rendering more elegant certain passages which, at least for this reviewer, have been stumbling-blocks over the years. Take, for example, the 'noble lie' passage at the end of Book III: after outlining the content of the lie at 414d-415b, Socrates then explains its purpose. As Bloom translates: "Hence the god commands the rulers first and foremost to be of nothing such good guardians and to keep over nothing so careful a watch as the children, seeing which of these metals is mixed in their souls." Bloom evidently made the decision to mirror the Greek syntax; so, "to be of nothing such good guardians" and "to keep over nothing so careful a watch." It is a bit of a jumble in English—a minor one, admittedly—but one that may be legitimately regarded as a needless impediment to the learner. Sachs's translation gives a more natural and smoother version: "So the god exhorts the rulers first and foremost to be good guardians of their children, of nothing more diligently than that, and to keep watch for nothing so diligently as for what they have intermixed in their souls." Sachs, then, renders the passage so that the structure of the Greek is still apparent, but by placing the first comparison in an appositive clause, the sentence is not as compacted. One could move further in this direction. Compare the 1992 translation of Grube/Reeve: "So the first and most important command from the god to the rulers is that there is nothing they must guard better or watch more carefully than the mixture of metals in the souls of the next generation," which is probably a more elegant reading, but at the price of deviating much more substantially from the Greek (i.e. in combining the two comparisons in one, and eliminating the poia, thus shifting the emphasis from the character of the guardians to the manner in which they are to behave as guardians). Note also Sachs's use of the phrase "what they have mixed in their souls" rather than "which of these metals in mixed in their souls." There is no question here that Socrates is not talking about the myth of metals, the second component of the noble lie. But Sachs's rendering, while fully faithful to the text, aids in our understanding of what is at stake in the myth, namely, the upbringing of youth and the formative matter in their education. Contrast this perhaps vaguer, but more fruitful reading by Sachs with that of Jowett: "God proclaims as first principle to the rulers, and above all else, that there is nothing which they should so anxiously guard, or of which they are to be such good guardians, as the purity of the race. They should observe what elements mingle in their offspring …" Even apart from the charges of mistranslation (or over-translation) to which this rendering is liable, one can well imagine the time and energy an instructor would need to spend in an effort to undo the impression it would leave to a group of undergraduates reading the Republic for the first time.

As a third illustration of Sachs's translation, we look to one of the metaphysical passages in the Republic, where we cannot rely on ordinary Greek usage, or even usage in other Platonic texts, to clarify the sense in a decisive way. With regard to the idea of the good, Socrates famously comments:

"Then say that what endows the things known with truth, and gives that which knows them its power, is the look of the good. Since it's the cause of knowledge and truth, think of it as something known, but though both of these, knowledge and truth, are so beautiful, by regarding it as something else, still more beautiful than they are, you'll regard it rightly … Then claim as well that the things that are known not only get their being-known furnished by the good, but they're also endowed by that source with their very being and their being what they are, even though the good is not being, but something over and above being, beyond it in seniority and surpassing it in power" (508e- 509b).

Again, Sachs provides a natural and unaffected rendering of this difficult and mysterious passage and shows an admirable restraint and desire to avoid a tendentious reading that imputes more of a technical meaning to these phrases than may be warranted. Compare this to Jowett's translation:

"Now, that which imparts truth to the known and the power of knowing to the knower is what I would have you term the idea of good, and this you will deem to be the cause of science, and of truth in so far as the latter becomes the subject of knowledge; beautiful too, as are both truth and knowledge, you will be right in esteeming this other nature as more beautiful than either … In like manner, the good may be said to be not only the author of knowledge to all things known, but of their being and essence, and yet the good is not essence, but far exceeds essence in dignity and power."

Jowett's willingness to render this passage in terms of a more traditional philosophical vocabulary, while a perfectly legitimate means for conveying his view of the meaning of the passage, is certainly not necessitated by elements internal to the Republic itself. If we were to find fault with Sachs's translation it might be excessive restraint in this regard: for example, "look" for the Greek idea, which is consistent with the sense of the word in the preceding parts of the dialogue, but does seem to take on weightier connotation in the middle sections. Nevertheless, such restraint is consistent with Sachs's seeming view that the Republic is to be investigated, for the reader to converse with it and interrogate its meaning in light of the whole, rather than its meaning dictated in advance. In this respect, note also Sachs's care to preserve Socrates' protreptic and evocative formulations "Then say that what endows …" and "Then claim as well …," which are phrased more as commands in the Jowett translation.

Sachs's translation, then, attains a kind of colloquial elegance, eschewing the attempt to make the Greek structure evident through the English, but rather proceeding with the assumption that the vernacular tongue is an adequate vehicle for philosophical expression in its own right. Consequently, this translation should be less forbidding to those encountering Plato's thought and style for the first time. In this respect, a word about the formatting of the translation is in order as Sachs's translation comes not only with the traditional Stephanus pagination and division into books, but also with footnotes (albeit sparse and not obtrusive) throughout the main body of the text and a short introductory note at the beginning of each book to help the reader orient himself with respect to what has passed and what is to come. These features along with a glossary of key terms and an index appear especially useful and fitting for use in a college courses including, but not limited to, those at the introductory level.

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