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Five versions of a well-known passage from the Summa Theologiae

November 15, 2011

220px-Saint_Thomas_AquinasI have wanted to long do a comparison of different English editions of the Summa Theologiae.  I will not do that in this post, but rather will use a short passage from the Summa to represent the Latin and four approaches to translation.

The Summa carries special difficulties for translation,

  • first because the repetition and formal structure of Thomistic Latin, which forms a style that can even be regarded as elegant in the original, sounds so poor when formally translated into English; and
  • second, since the Summa is a work of exposition, the top priority for a translation is arguably clarity, rather than literal precision, in the same way we might demand of a translation of mathematics book.  (Nonetheless, literal precision remains a priority, and this may be a real issue for some translations – the topic of this post is ask the importance of that priority.)

For me, one special characteristic of the the Summa is the seriousness with which Thomas sets up the various objections to the arguments.  A standard trick philosophers, dating back at least to Plato, is to set up straw man arguments which he can then easily shoot down.  But Thomas does something different in the Summa; he takes the objections seriously.  

I have great fondness for the Summa, and not merely out of philosophical interest, but because it so evokes the medieval spirit for me.  Thomas’s careful recording of both sides of the argument gives one the feel that one is in the halls of the University de Paris in the 13th century, listening to the back and forth of an argument.  The effect is powerful and compelling, and while Thomas is certainly no Cicero, his unique Latin style creates a powerful force – although it becomes quite strange when literally translated into English.

Now let us consider a well-known passage from the Summa, discussing the “first mover” argument:

(1)  Here is the passage in Latin from the Summa:

Omne ergo quod movetur, oportet ab alio moveri. Si ergo id a quo movetur, moveatur, oportet et ipsum ab alio moveri et illud ab alio. Hic autem non est procedere in infinitum, quia sic non esset aliquod primum movens; et per consequens nec aliquod aliud movens, quia moventia secunda non movent nisi per hoc quod sunt mota a primo movente, sicut baculus non movet nisi per hoc quod est motus a manu. Ergo necesse est devenire ad aliquod primum movens, quod a nullo movetur, et hoc omnes intelligunt Deum.

(2)  Now to get a sense of the literal meaning of these terms, here is the translation as rendered by Google Translate (note that the stylistic limitations of Thomistic Latin make Google Translate’s version relatively lucid compared to most computer translations):

Therefore, whatever is in motion must be moved by another. Therefore, if that which it is moved from the in motion, there must be also very moved by another and that by another. But here we do not proceed to infinity, because then it would not be a first mover, and consequently neither is any other mover, because the second movers do not move except by the fact that they are moved by the first mover, as a stick does not move except by the fact that he is moved by hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, moved by no other, and this everyone understands to be God.

(3) Here is the 1911 Laurence Sharpcote translation (sometimes called the “Benzinger Summa,” after its initial publisher.) Regrettably, Sharpcote is unacknowledged as the translator in the text, which is merely attributed to “the Fathers of the English Dominican Province.”  The version linked claims to be a “second and revised edition” of 1920:

Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another.  If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot  go on to infinity, because, then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore, it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

(4)  Now below is the same passage in my favorite complete edition of the Summa, the so-called “Blackfriar Summa,” edited by a team of scholars (not all of whom were Dominican despite the “Blackfriar” moniker), and edited by Thomas Gilby (Cambridge).  This1960s-1970s version is uneven, because it was translated in 60 volumes (with a further index volume), but it contains extensive additional material – annotations, appendices, introductions, glossaries, and the full Latin text (since there is no critical edition of Thomas, this was determined by the individual editors working on each of the volumes) displayed across from the English on each page spread.  The set weighs in at nearly 15 thousand pages.  Its value is really in these supplements (which vary in quality depending on the editor, at one end “Baltimore Catechism”-style perspectives that appear to pre-date Vatican II; at the other end acute philosophical contributions that would deserve publication separate from the translation.)  The Blackfriar Summa is much freer in representing Thomas’ style, but still closely tracks Aquinas:

Consequently, a thing in process of change cannot itself cause that same change;  it cannot change itself. Of necessity therefore anything in process of change is being  changed by something else. Moreover, this something else, if in process of change, is itself being changed by yet another thing; and this last by another. Now we must stop somewhere, otherwise there will be no first cause of the change, and, as a result, no subsequent causes. For it is only when acted upon by the first cause that the intermediate causes will produce the change: if the hand does not move the stick, the stick will not move anything else. Hence one is bound to arrive at some first cause of change not itself being changed by anything, and this is what everybody understands by God.

(5)  Brian Davies (Fordham) revised this translation for his marvelous 2006 Cambridge publication of most of questions 1-26. Note how clear Davies’ text is, and how naturally it reads in English, but also how much it deviates from Thomas’s style:

So, something in process of change cannot itself cause that same change.  It cannot change itself.  Necessarily, therefore, anything in process of change is changed by something else.  And this something else, if in process of change, is itself changed by yet another thing.  But there has to be an end to this regress of causes, otherwise there will be no first cause of change, and, as a result, no subsequent causes of change.  For it is only when acted upon by a first cause that intermediate causes produce change (if a hand does not move the stick, the stick will not move anything else).  So, we are bound to arrive at some first cause of change that is not itself changed by anything, which is what everybody takes God to be.

(As an aside, let me compare the prices of these versions:

  • the online Latin version and Sharpcote versions are free – a price point that is quite hard to beat.
  • The Davies version is just a fraction of the Summa, and is currently priced at $39 by Amazon
  • The Blackfriar Summa is frightfully expensive with a current $2,310 price by Amazon.  (I was able to purchase it when it was first reissued by Cambridge University Press for about a third of that price, but even with that discount, it is sufficiently costly to deter most would-be purchasers.  Nonetheless, for a serious student, I would recommend consulting a library to access this edition because of all the useful extras.)
  • If one wishes to experience the Latin and English on the same page and is willing to give up the voluminous [and useful] additions from the Blackfriar edition, then you may be interested in the ongoing translation being produced by NovAntiqua.  Currently five of a projected ten volumes are available.)

Which translation is best?  I would argue that in terms of meaning, all of these translations are reasonable renditions of Thomas.  But in terms of fidelity to Thomas’s style, the ordering is:

Google Translate > Sharpcote > Blackfriar > Davies

while in terms of ease-of-understanding, the order is exactly inverse:

Davies > Blackfriar > Sharpcote > Google Translate

So, does style matter to the typical reader of the Summa?  The Summa can hardly be said to be poetry; in Latin, Thomas seems most concerned with communicating his meaning as clearly and simply as possible.  Which translation is most true to Thomas; that which preserves his words or that which preserves his pedagogical intention?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2011 4:01 pm

    This may be one of my very favorite BLT posts yet, although I admit I haven’t yet read the next one posted after it.

    May I try a formatting of Thomas’ Latin, and then see how it moves me to translate?

    Omne ergo quod movetur, /
    oportet ab alio moveri. /

    Si ergo id a quo movetur, /
    moveatur, /
    oportet et ipsum ab alio moveri /
    et illud ab alio. /

    Hic autem non est procedere in infinitum, /
    quia sic non esset aliquod primum movens; /
    et per consequens nec aliquod aliud movens, /
    quia moventia /
    secunda non movent /
    nisi per hoc quod sunt mota a primo movente, /
    sicut baculus non movet /
    nisi per hoc quod est motus a manu. /

    Ergo necesse est devenire ad aliquod primum movens, /
    quod a nullo movetur, /

    et hoc omnes intelligunt Deum.//

    Everyone, then, and everything that is changing /
    Has another agent for its change. /

    If, then, that which is changing /
    Is changed /
    Having some other agent for its change, /
    Then there’s also yet another agent. /

    Here, nonetheless, we do not continue on and on and on, /
    Since, finally, there would be no other agent in the first place to start the changes, /
    And, consequently, no other change agent for any other agents of change, /
    Because a change /
    In the second place cannot be any change /
    Without the fact of its being moved in the first place by some other change, /
    Just as a stick is stuck in place until there’s a change /
    Such as its being moved by a hand. /

    Hence, we’ve got to get to that agent in the first place to start the changes, /
    Without whom there is no changing, /

    And this everyone thinks of as God.//

  2. November 15, 2011 6:03 pm

    Very nice. I like how you are able to find some nearly equivalent idioms for Thomas’s idioms, like “to get to” for “devenire ad aliquod.”

    I see you also find Thomas’s style in English as too repetitive (as do I). You could have translated that third “ergo” also as “then” (Then, we’ve got to get to that agent) and preserved sense, but the three “ergo”s/”therefore”s (“then”s) so close together sounds bad in English (even though it sounds good in Latin. (I’m not sure if that was completely deliberate in you translation, because you consistent in your translation of “movens” in its various forms and “alio” in its various forms.

    I also like your putting Thomas in verse format, not because I think Thomas is poetic, but because it makes it easier to “chunk” his argument.

  3. November 17, 2011 6:15 pm

    Thanks. I like how you notice so much! Clearly, I’m reading Thomas Aquinas as powerfully logical. The translation, then, had to get at what’s syllogistic. There were earlier assumptions that my first “then” had to presume, to bring forward. I wanted to add a “then” (and did) where Thomas had no “ergo.” And, yes, you are correct that the final “ergo” could not be a mere conclusion but signals (and so with “Hence” to the English reader) rather deliberately that this ambiguous little Latin word carried, in this short context, a final uniequivocal punch. My verse formatting was, as you saw, to expose the argument, its lexical moves and changes and (ironic) stabilities. Pardon the pun, but Thomas is taking the reader by the hand, is moving him/her, is changing her/him with the persuasive rhetoric of logic or the logic of rhetoric perhaps. Sounds much like Aristotle, of course. For Thomas, beyond Aristotle, the reader is like the once-passive stick, and Thomas and his logic as agents play the role of God, in guiding us and in changing our stuck minds. Could this be what he intends?

    “Davies > Blackfriar >” bring ease of English understanding, indeed. They are really on to something, especially, by using “change” to match what other English translators get stuck with in “move” (as if this cognate means what Thomas does in “move*”).

  4. November 18, 2011 1:05 pm

    I think you are right, Kurk. I just found it interesting that you translated two of the ergos as then and not the third.

    A clever observation, that, pointing out that in a way Thomas was a first mover for his stuck readers!

    Of course, you are right, Thomas admired Aristotle (as did Maimonides and Averroes) first among the heathen philosophers. And, in a post-modern way, so do I.

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