On Titles and Translations

In preparing to rewrite Epictetus, Book II, Chapter 8, Section 4 as verse, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the meaning of the words and phrases. If I was going to be repeating this to myself daily, and use it as a measure of my performance against the standards which I has set for myself, I felt that each part of it should be able to trigger deeper reflection. I was also keenly conscious of my past failed attempts, so I was going to be careful to not go TOO deep into the meaning of the Mneme.

A Challenge

The first thing I wanted to tackle was the title of the Mneme. Now some may argue that the title of the mneme is probably the least important part of the exercises. After all, why not just call it ‘The Stoic Mneme,’ or some variation thereof. For me, titles are important. They are the ‘First Impression’ of any written composition. Titles set the context, the frame of reference in which the following content will be played out. A good title acts as a highly condensed précis of the work, sometimes mysterious, sometimes clarifying.

Because I had first come across the passage in Elizabeth Carter’s 1758 translation of the complete works of Epictetus, the title of the Mneme suggested itself to me from the text itself. In the midst of a discussion on what it means to be a Stoic, Epictetus throws up a challenge to the questioner (who seems to have taken on a sarcastic tone.)

“Shall I show you the Nerves of a Philosopher?”

When I first read this, I could imagine the ‘tone’ of the reply. He was essentially cutting off further quibbling and hairsplitting on the part of an obviously hostile interlocutor. In my mind, I could hear Epictetus challenging him (in modern English, of course,) “Do you WANT me to show you what a Philosopher is REALLY like?!?”

“Shall I show you the Nerves of a Philosopher?” would be the basis for my title. It summarized the whole sense of the passage. What was to follow would be a quick, down and dirty, everything you need to know about being a philosopher, summarized and coined by the Teacher himself. There was a small issue though. 

What's in a Name?

While I don’t mind paraphrasing the Stoics for my own purposes, I am usually pretty careful to retain the meaning of the passage. The word ‘Nerves’ that Carter selected felt a little awkward to me. It has several meanings in English today; actual physical nerves, the “nerve” of someone who stands against a foe, the bravery of the foolhardy or the uncaring, not to mention archaic uses of the word, since this was written several centuries ago. Before paraphrasing, I wanted to know which sense she meant when she selected that word.

In addition to Carter’s I had a few other translations handy. George Long’s (1877), T. W. Higginson’s (1865), and the Loeb edition translated by W.A. Oldfather (1925). A quick look through them brought me the following results:

Carter - “Shall I show you the Nerves of a Philosopher?”
Long – “I will show the nerves (strength) of a philosopher.”
Higginson – “Shall I show you the muscular training of a philosopher?”
Oldfather – I will show you the sinews of a philosopher.”

I seemed to have hit upon a rich vein of medical metaphors, all pointing to something. Were they literally translating the words from the Greek or were they interpreting? Each had come up slightly different terms to indicate the meaning they were aiming at. Long provided a bit of clarity with his parenthetical ‘strength,’ but now I was curious. What had other translators chosen to use for this phrase? This question led me to an interesting discovery.

There Aren’t As Many As You Think.

A little research turned up what, to me, was an interesting and surprising fact. Elizabeth Carter’s 1758 translation of Epictetus was actually the first known translation of his complete works into English. Portions, mostly the Encheiridion, had been translated before, however the Discourses had been largely ignored. This seemed remarkably late to me. However, the ability to read both Latin and Greek was taught as part of a rounded education at that time (and for centuries before and since, of course), and so most who might have had an interest in Epictetus’ less ‘accessible’ works would just read it in the original Greek.

The next fact surprised me even more. Since Carter’s translation, there have only been six other ‘translations’ of the Discourses into English in the intervening 250 odd years. In the end, there are only seven English translations of the Discourses of Epictetus, and in studying my Mneme, I had determined to use all of them. I looked into the other six translations, three of which I already had. I found it interesting that Carter’s translation cast a very long shadow.

In its day, Carter’s edition became a hit. If there had been a Best Seller list at the time, Carter’s ‘Discourses’ would have sat near the top of it for years. The immense popularity of the Carter’s ‘Discourses’ led to three more printings of her translation, two of them in her lifetime. 

The translations of Higginson (1865) and George Long (1877) were actually based on Carter’s, although Long challenged some of her choices in translation. It took another 50 years before a new translation was produced by P.E. Matheson (1916), published by Oxford Press. As part of its massive effort to translate classic Greek and Latin works into English, Harvard Press added the Loeb edition of the complete works of Epictetus in two volumes to its library in 1925, translated by W.A. Oldfather. A full 70 years would pass before a new translation would find its way to market. However, Robin Hard and Christopher Gill based their 1995 Everyman Library edition on an update of Carter's initial work. Was this really a new translation, or just an updating from archaic English into something more sensible and pleasing to modern audiences? Finally, in 2008, Penguin Classics released Robert Dobbin’s translation of some of Epictetus’ Discourses and Selected Writings. Fortunately, the passage I was concerned with was ‘selected,’ so I could use it in my exercise.

A Mystery Deepens

Through research, purchase and borrow, I managed to procure the text for the final three editions of the passage of my Mneme, brigning the entire list to the following:

Carter - “Shall I show you the Nerves of a Philosopher?”
Long – “I will show the nerves (strength) of a philosopher."
Higginson – “Shall I show you the muscular training of a philosopher?”
Matheson, Oldfather & Hard – I will show you the sinews of a philosopher.”
Dobbin – In short, I will show you that I have the strength – of a philosopher!”

Unfortunately, the translations of this particular line did not help much with interpretation. Dobbin added strength to ‘strength’ as the meaning of the phrase (with an honourable mention to Higgingson), however the strangely anatomical ‘sinews’ seemed to prevail. Fortunately, Oldfather’s edition included the Greek text on the facing page, and with my trusty Lidell-Scott-Jones Lexicon handy, I was ready to dig deeper.

It’s All Greek to Me

In the interest of full disclosure, my Greek is rudimentary at best. However, I can read it phonetically, and I have a basic understanding of the grammar and a handful of terms. In other words, I know enough to be really dangerous (hence my first choice to go with the translations). Nevertheless, dauntless in the face of what was sure to be a hatchet job performed on a beautiful language by yours truly, I turned to the Greek text to puzzle out the underlying meaning of the Title of my Mneme.

The Greek phrase that was translated with medical efficiency by our battery of interpreters actually reads:

δείξω ὑμῖν νευρα φιλοσόφου.
(deíxo̱ ymín nev̱ra filosófou.)

The key word here is ‘νευρα’ (nevra). Flipping several hundred pages through the lexicon, I came the entry for νευρα. My LSJ proved its worth. The word means, literally: sinew, tendon, nerve. Not surprisingly, the majority of the translations had stuck very closely to the literal meaning of the word. In only two cases was the term interpreted. However, the LSJ provided another clue. The word νευρα can also refer to “the tendons at the feet,” that is, those used for walking. Additionally, the Middle Liddell lexicon added vigour to its definition of the word. I now had enough to build my title.

The Title is Revealed

The initial phrase “the Nerves of a Philosopher” was now ready for the Title treatment. As a title, it was intended to capture the sense of the entire passage. It had to put me in the right frame of mind to receive the instruction that was to follow. Based on my previous pitiful attempts at depth, I chose to take a step back from the literal translation, and look at the intention. Clearly, based on the preceding text, Epictetus was intending to demonstrate to his listening students what it was to be a Philosopher, what he or she did and did not do. In modern terms, we might say that this is how a Philosopher 'walked the talk.' Epictetus was about to counter the weakness and frailty imputed to him by the speaker with a clear statement of the Philosopher’s strength. Stepping out confidently, with strength in each stride, the true Philosopher supported his or her claim with virtuous action.

Thus, based on the research I had done, I was confident with my Mneme’s new title:

The Strength of the Stoic Philosopher.

I added the description ‘Stoic’ to reaffirm my personal stake in the study of the philosophy. Reading it now, and reciting the title daily, I am reminded that the strength must go deeply, into the nerves and tendons of my being. This Mneme would not mere describe what I should do, but more deeply, what I should be, and from whence I would draw my strength daily. It was intended to remind and affirm that my Stoicism was not a Philosophy of the mind only, but of the arm, the hand and the feet. I was comfortable that the Title reflected that intention.

On top of that, I now had access to all seven translations to help me peel back the layers of the rest of the Mneme, word by word. Let the fun begin!

Next month: Four Little Words.


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