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Hobbes’ Thucydides

March 13, 2013

I am re-reading Thucydides, this time working my way through Thomas Hobbes’ translation.  My edition has a few notes by David Grene that point out examples where Hobbes mistranslated, condensed the Greek, or where Hobbes’ 1628 English might be misunderstood by the modern reading, but by and large, lets “the Hobbesian Thucydides speak for himself.”  I am supplementing my reading with Simon Hornblower’s annotations, the maps from the Landmark edition, and using the Loeb Library as a handy source for the Greek.  (I should also mention here Hornblower’s overview of Thucydides, although I read that some time ago.)

What impresses me so much is how lucid and subtle the Hobbes translation is – for a translation that is nearly 400 years old.  It is, clearly, far superior to the previous translations I have read, and I am not at all surprised that it remains in print.  As far as I can tell, the errors are relatively few (fewer than most modern translations have) and Hobbes seems sensitive to the finespun distinctions made by Thucydides.

I must confess to a fascination to celebrated translations that have a literary life all of their own – I think of Tobias Smollet’s Don Quixote, Thomas North’s Plutarch’s Lives, Chaucer’s [Boethius] Consolation of Philosophy, George Chapman’s Homer – but arguably, all of these have been surpassed by superior translations in the last century (although, in the case of Plutarch, the best recent translations have only been of parts of his work).  I’m unconvinced, though, that anyone has improved on Hobbes’ Thucydides.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2013 10:01 am

    Thanks for this post! I really do like your point: “how lucid and subtle the Hobbes translation is – for a translation that is nearly 400 years old. ”

    Do you think it’s possible to improve on Hobbes’ Thucydides? What might you advise a new translator?

    I’ve not read it, only Hobbes’s translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric compared with Hobbes’s own Rhetoric. I do think that others have improved on the Hobbes translation of Aristotle’s treatise.


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