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Translation Studies
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Living at the level of the word Cicero's

rejection of the interpreter as
Siobhn McElduff

Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies, University of

British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
Version of record first published: 11 Jun 2009.

To cite this article: Siobhn McElduff (2009): Living at the level of the word Cicero's rejection of
the interpreter as translator, Translation Studies, 2:2, 133-146
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14781700902937680


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Translation Studies,
Vol. 2, No. 2, 2009, 133!146

Living at the level of the word

Ciceros rejection of the interpreter as translator

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Siobhan McElduff
Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver,
This article argues that Ciceros rejection of the interpreter as a literal translator
was not just a rejection of a particular style of translation but an attempt to keep
translation of Greek literature in Rome an elite activity. I discuss the social status
and role of Roman interpreters and their repeated association with limited
education in our sources, finally concluding that the interpreter is despised as a
translator by Cicero not necessarily because he translates literally, but because he
is a potential rival translator from a lower social rank who may allow the spread
of inappropriate translations of Greek material to Rome.
Keywords: Cicero; interpreters; history of interpreting; history of translation;
Roman translation

The aim of this paper is to defamiliarize two famous statements by the Roman orator
Cicero on translation by examining them as products of a particular historical and
cultural moment, a moment in which debates over translation style were part of
larger debates over class and education and over who should be allowed to transfer
the valuable resource of Greek literature to Rome. Those two statements come from
two different types of texts; the first belongs to a preface for his planned (and
probably never completed or published) translation of two Greek orations, the
second to a preface to a philosophical dialogue:
For I translated the most famous orations of the two most eloquent orators from Attica,
Aeschines and Demosthenes, orations which were ranged on opposite sides; I did not
translate them as an interpreter, but as an orator, with the same ideas, forms and, as it
were, figures, with language fitted to our usage. In this I held it unnecessary to render
word for word, but instead I kept every category and the force of the words. For I did
not think that I should dole them out piece by piece to the reader, but rather, shall we
say, pay them out by weight. This work of mine will bring about this result: our people
will know what to demand from those who wish to be Atticists and to what pattern for
speaking they can refer them.1 (On the Best Type of Speaking/De optimo genere oratorum
Converti enim ex Atticis duorum eloquentissimorum nobilissimas orationes inter seque
contrarias, Aeschini et Demostheni; nec converti ut interpres, sed ut orator, sententiis isdem
et earum formis tamquam figuris, verbis ad nostram consuetudinem aptis. In quibus non
verbum pro verbo necesse habui reddere, sed genus omne verborum vimque servavi. Non
enim ea me adnumerare lectori putavi oportere, sed tamquam appendere. Hic labor meus
hoc adsequetur, ut nostri homines quid ab illis exigant, qui se Atticos volunt, et ad quam eos
quasi formulam dicendi revocent intellegant.
ISSN 1478-1700 print/ISSN 1751-2921 online
# 2009 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/14781700902937680


Siobhan McElduff

Nor is it necessary to render2 word from word, as ineloquent interpreters usually do,
when there is a more familiar word which signifies the same thing. Indeed, I usually use
many words to expose what is expressed by one word of Greek if I am unable to do
anything else. (On Ends/De finibus 3.15.10)

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nec tamen exprimi verbum e verbo necesse erit, ut interpretes indiserti solent, cum sit
verbum, quod idem declaret, magis usitatum. equidem soleo etiam quod uno Graeci, si
aliter non possum, idem pluribus verbis exponere.

Ciceros not inconsiderable vanity would surely have been flattered by the afterlife of
these statements, invoked both by translators and writers in a continuous stream
from Roman antiquity to the present age. Therein, however, lies part of the problem:
the endless repetition of this formula tends to have a soporific effect (Rener 1989, 2)
and gives a false sense of confidence in the clarity of what are two very complicated
texts. To give one example, a recent introduction to translation studies asserts that
the interpreter of the first line [of Ciceros passage] is the literal (word-for-word)
translator, while the orator tried to produce a speech that moved the listeners. In
Roman times, word-for-word translation was exactly what it said: the replacement of
each individual word of the ST (invariably Greek) with its closest grammatical
equivalent in Latin. This is because the Romans would read the TTs side by side with
the Greek STs. (Munday 2001, 19)

We actually know very little of this: literal translations of literary texts in Rome are
more talked about than actual; the Romans in at least one instance translated a nonGreek text (a Punic farming manual); Cicero never actually says that his translation is
intended to move his listeners;3 and the cumbersome nature of ancient scrolls would
preclude side-by-side reading. Cicero certainly produced translations without a
source text open in front of him, relying on his memory rather than the written word,
a process which produced errors ! such as the misattribution of a speech in a
translation of Homer at On Divination/De divinatione 2.63. More importantly, such a
reading of this passage elides what Cicero is doing, which is performing a process of
categorization of the correct types and methods of translations and translators, a
process which is as much proscriptive as it is descriptive. Cicero is firmly putting the
interpreter and his style of translation ! whatever it might be ! in his place. Or to
express it slightly differently, the interpreter of Ciceros text is symbolic of a set of
anxieties which have as much to do with class as they do with linguistics and the
potential encroachment of historic interpreters on the literary world.
One of translation studies difficulties in understanding Ciceros comments has
been that he is often seen as an originating figure, whose ideas are read back through
later studies of translation or comments by later translators and assimilated with
them. This has ensured that we frequently read him through the filter of Jerome and
Augustine (Robinson 1992, 22) or through later commentators. This happens even
amongst those who, like Frederick Rener, engage deeply with ancient texts. Thus,
Reners discussion of this passage places Ciceros comments within the context of
debates over the rendering of the style of the original, concerns which he sees as
identical to those expressed by Jerome (1989, 194). However, while Cicero and
Jerome are certainly linked, both through the continuation of ancient pedagogical
practices throughout antiquity and because Cicero himself became a massive force to
be reckoned with in all spheres of Roman literature and study (including translation),
we need to remember that Cicero and other early writers on translation speak to

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their own condition, out of their own time and historical circumstances (Tymoczko
2006, 14). One of the rare examples of locating Ciceros comments within his
particular historical circumstances is Rita Copelands Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and
Translation in the Middle Ages (1991), which traces the history of debates over
correct styles of translation as part of larger debates over the different roles of
grammar and rhetoric within Roman and medieval pedagogy. Much of my argument
here is indebted to her work and Douglas Robinsons. My focus, however, is slightly
different than theirs: I am as interested in the interpres/interpreter himself (both as
an actual, historical figure and as a potential rival translator within Ciceros
discussions) as I am in the orator. In short, I wish to open up both the ancient
interpreter and the ancient orator as a discursive space, as a means to understand
why Cicero seeks to put him in his place.
Putting the interpreter in his place: the status of the Roman interpreter
But what is that context? Why does the interpreter need to be put in his place? What
is it about an interpres that makes him not just the orators polar opposite, someone
perennially denoted by lack and by insufficient intellectual and linguistic capacity in
translation, but also someone who represents a possibly competing model of
translation? Are we to imagine Cicero seeing off the challenge of roving bands
of interpreters poised to translate Greek rhetoric, with all the horror that a professor
of French might reserve for the news that a translator of tractor manuals had been
hired by Penguin Classics to translate Proust? To try to answer this I will take two
tacks. The first is to discuss the historical world of the Roman interpres (as much as
we know about it, which is not always a great deal); the second is to look at the
representation of interpreters in Latin texts, where they are often presented as
individuals of limited understanding.
Any attempt to discuss ancient interpretation in detail is hindered by the paucity
of evidence. Romans, much like ourselves, tended not to mention interpreters4 or
interpretation at all until something went drastically wrong or they had a point to
make. Indeed, it is not uncommon for interpreters to briefly pop up at one point in
ancient texts, only to vanish from view moments later. In his Gallic War/Bellum
Gallicum Caesar refers to sending away his day-to-day interpreters (cotidianis
interpretibus, 1.19) so that he can have a confidential conversation with a Gallic
leader, but they are pretty much invisible in the rest of the narrative. Likewise,
Sallusts Jugurthine War/Bellum Jugurthum mentions the presence of interpreters at a
meeting between the Roman general Sulla and the Punic leader Bocchus (109.4), but
Sallust presents them as talking in an earlier meeting without mentioning
interpreters (102.12). As it is highly unlikely that Bocchus forgot a prior knowledge
of Latin in the space of a few chapters, it is obvious that interpreters must also have
been present at the first meeting. It seems probable that the only reason they are
mentioned at all in regard to the second meeting is that Sallust wanted to stress its
secrecy (we are told that only the most trustworthy interpreters are allowed to be
present), and also to make a neat comparison between Bocchuss more than Punic
treachery (108.3) and the ironic presence of faithful/fidi interpreters.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that the ideal interpreter is meant to be a
reliable and invisible tool, and as Roland (1999, 3) writes, our perception of the
interpreter is not entirely independent of the person to whom he lends his voice. In

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Siobha n McElduff

other words, attention tends to be focused on the person in whose company the
interpreter travels rather than on the interpreter himself; since this was true for the
Romans as well as for ourselves, it renders him somewhat hard to detect in ancient
sources. Although a member of the elite might take it upon himself to act as an
interpreter in special circumstances, it was not, on the whole, a high-status position
in Rome, if only for the reason that a growing multilingual empire needed far more
interpreters than the relatively tiny elite could ever provide, or would be willing to
provide, in the case of low-status languages such as Celtic or Punic. So while the
senator C. Acilius could interpret for an embassy of Greek philosophers in the senate
in 154 BCE (Aulus Gellius Attic Nights/Noctae Atticae 6.14.7!9), on the whole
interpreters in the senate were anonymous figures called upon by senators as they
were needed (On Ends/De finibus 5.89).
We are also not helped by the fact that the term could be used rather diffusely:
interpres is used of those who interpret laws, dreams and omens as well as languages,
though the notion of transferring information of one sort or another from person to
person or from god to person is always key to its usage. The same person can be
described both as an interpres of the divine and of human language without a clear
distinction being drawn between roles or methods; thus the fourth-century CE
grammarian Servius, writing on Aeneid 4.356, links the categories of divine
interpreter and word-for-word translation: Hermes is an interpreter of the gods:
he rendered word from word. But here interpreter is used for messenger (interpres
divum Herme s: expressit verbum de verbo. sed hic interpres pro nuntio posuit). In
this case Hermes/Mercury does deliver a message repeated almost word for word
from Jupiter to Aeneas, but there is no linguistic translation, so the emphasis is upon
the ability to replicate a message exactly rather than translate it literally.5
The interpres could represent a broad category of mediators in the ancient world !
and perhaps we should expect no less, given that translators and interpreters [ . . .]
have always been concerned with managing relationships with the world at large
(Cronin 2003, 48) as much as they are concerned with matters of language. In Rome
the word interpres could be used for any type of mediator. In the comic playwright
Plautuss The Braggart Soldier/Miles gloriosus (c. 255!185 BCE), a slave who arranges
illicit amorous encounters describes himself as an interpres (798, 910), while in the
Neronian author Petronius, an individual who is acting as a go-between between the
antiheroes and one of their irate opponents is described as an interpres ! and as a
result is dismissed as useless.6 Besides being a transferer of languages or a messenger
of the divine will, an interpres was anyone who stood inter pretium,7 residing between
whatever prize two parties wanted, whether that was meaning, information, or goods.
Interpreters as problematic figures of limited understanding
However, one constant in rhetorical and legal texts is that interpreters and
interpretation are frequently linked with limited and pedantic understanding. The
author of the rhetorical handbook The Rhetoric for Herennius/Rhetorica ad
Herennium (c. 80 BCE) sneers at those who misunderstand the training required
for bringing cases about ambiguous laws and who not only constantly interrupt
speakers but also are, as a result of their limited and misused education, hateful and
obscure interpreters (odiosi tum obscuri interpretes sunt, 2.16.11) of legal writers; we
should note that the adjective obscurus refers to both obscurity of thought and

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humble birth. Likewise, Cicero in his On the Laws/De legibus (1.14.9) complains
about those who spend their time interpreting (interpretari) laws for the people but
who, despite their grand claims, have wasted their time on trivial matters by
concentrating on minor details rather than the concept of universal law. Cicero
comments that were he to follow their example, instead of writing On the Laws he
would have produced a work which tells one how to draw up contracts or some other
similarly limited text. Cicero himself uses the verb interpretari to describe his own
translations only when he wants to call attention to a putatively close rendering of a
specific Greek passage (usually quite short), as at On the Laws 2.45; for larger
translation endeavours he uses other Roman translation terminology such as vertere,
convertere, exprimere, transferre.8
On the linguistic front, our only lengthy depiction of interpretation is suggestive
both for the ambiguity and the status of the interpreter it describes. Plautus comedy
The Small Carthaginian/Poenulus (194/3 BCE) describes an encounter between a
Carthaginian father looking for his kidnapped daughters and some Greek
(actually Latin, as this is a Roman version of a Greek play) speakers living in
Calydon. In this encounter, an exotically dressed, Carthaginian Hanno meets the
hero and his slave, Milphio; as both assume that Hanno has no Latin, the slave
suggests himself as an interpreter despite not understanding a single word of Punic.
All it takes to convince his (admittedly not terribly bright) master of his linguistic
proficiency is a confident statement that he knows the language so well as to be more
Carthaginian than a Carthaginian (991). As might be anticipated, things do not go
well and faced with a talkative Hanno, Milphio is forced into wilder and wilder and
totally incorrect assertions about what he is saying, with no one ! except Hanno !
any the wiser. Here the interpreter is both of low status and an out-and-out liar, who
interprets by substituting similar-sounding Latin words for the Punic ones,
performing a form of word-for-word transposition which is emphatically not
translation. On the other hand, the higher ranking Hanno uses not the verb
interpretari, which is the verb also employed for interpretation and literal translation,
but vertere of his ability to speak in Latin (982!4), employing not only Plautuss term
for his own work in translating Greek comedies, but the preferred term for Roman
literary translation.
In a comedy we expect an author to plumb the potential for humour in disastrous
linguistic encounters, but outside the comic setting we also hear of deceptive or
incompetent literal interpretation, with uncomical results. The historians Polybius
(Histories 20.9!10) and Livy (From the Founding of the City/Ab urbe condita 36.28)9
tell us of the disastrous consequences for the Aetolians in 191 BCE when they
mistranslated Latin fides as Greek pistis and surrendered into the fides of the Roman
people without actually understanding what that entailed, which was absolute and
unconditional surrender of all ones goods, people and lands. Not unnaturally, the
Aetolians complained bitterly about this mistranslation. As ignorance was no
defence, the Romans dismissed their complaints: the Aetolians had surrendered into
the fides of the Roman people and there was no point in acting Greek about the
whole matter. Out of context these words are potential synonyms, as they have the
same basic meaning (faith, trust), but in this situation fides clearly had a very specific
legal meaning which the Aetolians missed. Whether this was a spectacularly bad
piece of literal interpretation or a stunt pulled by the Romans,10 it lived on in the
background to discussions of literary translation. One thinks of Horaces famous

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comment in the Art of Poetry/Ars poetica that one should not translate word for
word like a faithful interpreter/fidus interpres,11 a comment I read as a joke referring
to this mistranslation; after all, an interpreter had been incapable of properly
translating even the word faith ! no point then in trusting him with real (literary)
One could spend a long and probably quite dreary time weighing and counterweighing ancient references to good12 and bad13 interpreters and discussing official14
interpreters versus the ones you picked up more casually as you went about your
business. But rather than do so I want to move on to look at one instance which is
interesting for what it tells us of the Ciceronian view of the social status of
interpreters. In his prosecution of Verres, the execrable governor of Sicily, Cicero
complains that Verress interpreter, Aulus Valentius, was suddenly promoted from
that role to tax gatherer,15 a position which seems to have been a considerable step up
in the administration. Here, Verres used an interpreter to get the pretium, the object
of value, not to communicate between partes (Rochette 1997, 94), and thus perverted
the role of interpreter both socially and linguistically. Valentius is, ironically, the ideal
interpreter for someone as untrustworthy and vile as Verres, who, uninterested in
issues of culture (beyond acquiring cultural artifacts to haul back to Rome), used his
interpres not in matters of language but in questionable thefts.
Roman education, interpreters and interpretation
I want to return now to the two passages with which I opened this paper. In the first,
Cicero charges that the interpreter returns (reddere) language word for word,
repaying16 the reader piecemeal, coin after coin, rather than in one properly judged
lump sum, perhaps a charge with some merit if one translated fides with pistis like the
Aetolians interpreter. In the second passage, from On Ends/De finibus, we are given
the further detail that the interpres is also ineloquent (indiserti) ! something we might
consider an oxymoronic concept, for what would be the point of an ineloquent
interpreter? However, when Cicero uses indisertus to describe the interpres he is doing
more than simply suggesting that the interpreter cannot speak fluidly. Indiserti means
ineloquent in a particular sense, ineloquent as uneducated in rhetoric, the final stage
in a Roman education.17 Thus, in the Ciceronian dialogue On the Nature of the Gods/
De natura deorum, one of the speakers says he would not be afraid to argue with a
pupil of the Academy who was indisertum (2.1) though he fears his current
interlocutors, who are masters of rhetoric. The positive form of the adjective
(disertus) can be used as a substantive for orator (orator) (as at Orator 13),
implying a wealth of education and training achieved over time in the study of both
Greek and Latin oratory. To be disertus was bound up in the very nature of the
orator, who was a fully educated adult male, capable of taking his place in the
battlegrounds of the courts or the senate.
It is the aspect of education (or, rather, the lack of it in the indisertus individual)
which is, as Copeland (1991, 16!30) has pointed out, pivotal for understanding many
of Ciceros issues with the interpreter as translator, as the interpreter and
interpretation are linked with limited education. Education of any sort was an
expensive undertaking in the Roman and Greek worlds, and certain types of
education were not just expensive but also out of reach for those unable to tap into a
social network that would enable them to become fully finished orators. It was

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divided (though the divisions are not absolute or fixed)18 into three stages: the ludus
litterarius, the schola grammatici, and the rhetoris schola,19 with the rhetorician/
orator embodying the final stage in an elite education. In Ciceros period, while the
aspiring orator would spend time studying with a Greek orator as part of this
finishing process (as Cicero himself did), he also needed to spend time in
apprenticeship to another Roman who had mastered the art of rhetoric, in the
apprenticeship for public life, the tirocinium fori (Richlin 1997, 92!3). This process
was meant to ensure that the upper ranks of orators (i.e., the elite) remained a closed
social and ethnic circle, one that had to be constantly policed against encroachers. It
ensured that successful orators had first to gain access to a small circle of older, elite
Roman men, who would take them on as informal pupils, before they could launch
their careers in court. It is, of course, ironic that Romes greatest orator, Cicero, as a
new man (novus homo) and the first in his family to hold the consulship, did not
himself come from this circle.
What I want to look at briefly is the second stage of education, the school of the
grammarian/schola grammatici, which is explicitly linked with interpretatio in
several of our sources. It should be noted that grammarians in antiquity were
concerned with more than matters of grammar (i.e., the technical study of
language), and the grammarians role was more complicated than simply that of
a pedantic guide through a poetic text,20 but this early stage of education did
involve a considerable degree of what we might call obsessively close reading. As
Kaster (1997, 12!3) points out, amongst the grammarians study of the ancient
poets involved line-by-line and word-by-word progress through the text,
concentrating on weighing individual words, phrases, and verses. As I mentioned
earlier, Copeland has shown how Ciceros and other Roman writing on translation
should be read as part of the ancient argument between rhetorician and
grammarian over disciplinary boundaries. As she describes it, translation was one
of the educative practices used in Roman schools as a method of improving style
and command over Latin, and might also be used by a fully formed orator as a way
to expand his vocabulary and spur him to originality, as at On the Orator/De
oratore 1.154!5.
In this work, a dialogue on the education of the ideal orator, Cicero described one
of the roles of the grammaticus as being the verborum interpretatio (interpretation of
words)21 and their proper pronunciation, while the orator, on the other hand,
taught invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery (excogitare, ornare,
disponere, meminisse, agere, 1.187). The inclusion of interpretatio as part of the
sphere of the grammarian rather than that of the orator is telling here. There are
other sources which suggest a perceived link between the grammatici and interpres/
interpretari (implying literal translation). The Roman biographer and historian
Cornelius Nepos (100!24 BCE) called the grammarians interpretes of poetry,22 and
the biographer Suetonius even rated the early translators of Greek literature into
Latin (Livius Andronicus and Ennius) lower than the grammarians whom they had
preceded as teachers in Rome. For these translators did nothing more than interpret
the Greeks or if they had composed Latin, read from it (nihil amplius quam Graecos
interpretabantur, aut si quid ipsi Latine composuissent praelegebant [On the
Grammarians/De grammaticis 1.1]).

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Education and literal translations

If we cast a wider eye over education in the Roman Empire, there is some evidence
that certain types of education might make a student a more literal translator,
especially if he or she overused lexicons, as did some students in Egyptian schools,
where glossaries seem to have been used to teach Latin (Morgan 1998, 167).23 These
students seem to have constantly employed lexicons without much regard for the
contextualized gradations of meaning of words (Rochette 1997, 190; Fisher 1982);
the same Latin word was used to translate the same Greek word, and vice versa, no
matter what the context. Glossaries as a source of translations occur elsewhere: in
Rome there may have been specialized dictionaries for various scientific and other
subjects which were employed for the purposes of translation (Horsfall 1979), but
generally elite Romans relied on memory or a handy Greek for lexical information. It
is possible that if a translator had enjoyed an education which involved close reading
and a deep interest in explicating words on an individual level, and never moved
beyond that, he might be inclined towards literal translation. In other words, a
system which privileged the individual word might ! even if it did not teach
translation directly ! produce someone with a tendency towards word-for-word
translation, especially if the student was never able to progress beyond the second
stage of education. Thus Cicero might be on to something and his criticism might be
aimed at a real issue with a particular class of translations.
There is one large problem with this, however: while we have evidence of wordfor-word translation in non-literary contexts, especially for official inscriptions,24
there is actually very little evidence for it in literary contexts. We have plenty of very
free translations of parts of Greek texts (many of them coming from emphatically
non-elite sources like Plautus), but beyond a line or two we have no extant literal
literary translation. We only have one line of an infamously literal (verbum e verbo)
translation of the Iliad by Attius Labeo (first century CE), not enough to judge
anything beyond the fact that this one line is in some ways a fairly close rendition
of the Greek, and also takes what would seem to a Greek or Roman audience to be
large liberties with the register of the language. Labeos one line does match the
Greek source text very closely, but it uses non-epic and non-elite language
(Courtney 2003, 350) to translate a text that was high literature, shifting this
translation into something that sounded like parody or comedy rather than epic. It
is possible that this is evidence for literal translation in Rome at a non-elite level
and of the existence of translations aimed at those who could not afford the time
and money to learn Greek, but it is also possible that Labeo was attempting a
radically different type of translation by shifting the linguistic register of the
original in his version. In any case, the only example we have of someone using a
Latin translation of Homers Iliad as a crutch to help them through the Greek is the
freed slave Trimalchio in Petroniuss Satyricon 59.3; whatever translation he read
certainly was not literal, given that he was under the impression that Agamemnon
ran off with Helen and the Trojan war took place between Troy and Parentium.25
Even more problematically, it is impossible to know whether the rest of Labeos
translation really stuck as closely to the Greek as this one line; Cicero himself can
stay close in one line of his translations, only to veer radically from his source text
in the next.

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Translating as an orator
But if one should not translate like an interpreter, how then should one translate? In
Ciceros case, clearly the preferred translator is an orator. But what does an orator
translate like? What does Cicero mean by converti ut orator? First, it is important to
realize that in the specific case of The Best Type of Speaking/De optimo genere
oratorum the orator is not translating to convince, as the original text did; Cicero is
not trying to convince his audience of the rightness of Demostheness or Aeschiness
cases (which had no application in the Roman courts anyway, as he himself
acknowledges) but rather that his own particular version of their Attic style is the
appropriate one in Latin, as opposed to that of rival orators like Calvus and Brutus.
Under attack from those who argued that his Latin was Asiatic (a term of
opprobrium in Rome), Cicero planned to produce a Latin version of these two
famous Greek speeches as a way of proving that his was the only truly Attic Latin.
Cicero most notably articulates what role translation should have for the orator
and what he should take from it in On the Orator/De oratore. Here Lucius Crassus,
one of the speakers, comments that while young he had attempted (like his rival
Gaius Carbo) to improve his style by reading poetry and speeches in Latin and then
trying to paraphrase them, but that this proved problematic for his oratory:
But I realized this fault in my method, that those words which were most appropriate for
each subject and which were the most ornate and the best, had been appropriated, either
by Ennius if I was practicing with his verses, or by Gracchus if I had by chance set
myself a speech of his. So, if I used the same words, I profited not at all; if I used
different ones, it was an obstacle, because I got into the custom of using the less
appropriate words. After this I decided ! and I did this when I was a youth ! that I
would translate the Greek orations of the very best orators; when I followed this method
I found that when I was reading these in Greek and rendering them into Latin, not only
would I use the best words (even though they were ones in use), but even that I was
rendering by imitation words (provided that they were appropriate) which would be new
to us. (1.154!5)
sed post animadverti, hoc esse in hoc viti, quod ea verba, quae maxime cuiusque rei propria
quaeque essent ornatissima atque optima, occupasset aut Ennius, si ad eius versus me
exercerem, aut Gracchus, si eius orationem mihi forte proposuissem: ita, si eisdem verbis
uterer, nihil prodesse; si aliis, etiam obesse, cum minus idoneis uti consuescerem. Postea
mihi placuit, eoque sum usus adulescens, ut summorum oratorum Graecas orationes
explicarem, quibus lectis hoc adsequebar, ut, cum ea, quae legeram Graece, Latine
redderem, non solum optimis verbis uterer et tamen usitatis, sed etiam exprimerem
quaedam verba imitando, quae nova nostris essent, dum modo essent idonea.

In translating the Greek orations of the very best orators (which would include
both Demosthenes and Aeschines), Crassus never mentions faithfulness to the
source text or an effort to ensure that the resultant translation is convincing; what he
focuses upon is the liberating power for the orator of translation from Greek. While
Latin paraphrase constricts and binds, and ensures that the orator ends up sounding
like a poor copy of another Roman author, translation from the Greek ensures
freedom (Robinson 1992, 28) and an expansion of the Latin language. To translate
like an orator (or like a budding one, in this case) is to translate in such a way as to
develop a unique but not outre Latin style. Translating, for an orator, is here all
about training; a textual end product is not as important as the activitys role in the

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production of the orator himself, who through the practice of translation becomes
different from other Roman orators, but not too different.
In this articulation Cicero is very careful to stay away from any description of
obligation to the source text, an attitude that is replicated elsewhere in his writing.
When Cicero describes his method of translation, he focuses upon his judgment and
his desire to stay in character as Cicero. Thus in On the Laws/De legibus, in response
to a comment by his brother Quintus that he only seems to wish to imitate Plato in
style (orationis genus), he replies that it is easy to literally translate phrases; that I
could do if I did not wish to be myself. For what effort is there in speaking the same
thoughts translated in almost the same words? (sententias interpretari perfacile est;
quod quidem ego facerem, nisi plane esse vellem meus. Quid enim negotii est eadem
prope verbis isdem conversa dicere?, 2.17). Here literal translation/interpretari is the
easy (facile) option for people who do not want to (or perhaps cannot) stay true to
themselves and have a style of their own. Cicero, however, always wants to speak as
Cicero even in his translations, something which we see replicated in On Duties/De
officiis 1.6. There he comments: I will follow mainly the Stoics at this time and in
this debate, not as an interpreter but, as I am accustomed, drawing from those
sources according to my own judgment and opinion in whatever manner suits me
(Sequemur igitur hoc quidem tempore et hac potissimum Stoicos non ut interpretes, sed,
ut solemus, e fontibus eorum iudicio arbitrioque nostro, quantam quoque modo
videbitur, hauriemus). The point of reading a Ciceronian translation is to read that
text as being clearly and overtly filtered through a Ciceronian lens; thus for Cicero, at
least, to translate well as an orator was to overtly translate as oneself. This, it should
be stressed, was the case no matter what the status of the original text was:
Demosthenes, Aeschines and Plato were all considered brilliant stylists and worthy
stylistic models, yet Ciceros oratorical translator still seeks to imprint himself on the
source text, using his judgment and style in translation so that the text becomes his
own. In the process of translating, then, it is properly turned from Greek into the
appropriate Latin, but this can only occur if the right sort of people (namely orators),
with the right sort of judgment, translate.
Just as not everyone is an appropriate translator, not every text is worthy of
translation: an orator should produce a good Latin version of a good Greek text. But
this is not is what is occurring, says Cicero. Already, bad Greek books in worse Latin
versions (On Ends/De finibus 1.8) have poisoned the well for his own philosophical
works and ruined peoples view of Latin literature; the translators of these works of
Epicurean philosophy are tellingly described as interpretes by both Cicero and his
correspondents (cf. Letters to his Friends/Ad familiares 15.19.2, where they are
described as mali/wicked interpreters to boot). As these texts ! I hesitate to call them
translations, as our extant Roman versions of Greek philosophy are very far from
what we would consider translations today ! do not survive we cannot say if they
were in fact relentlessly literal or not, but I would suggest that Ciceros problems with
them have as much to do with issues of laying down who should not translate as with
a fear that word-for-word translation was distorting the meaning of the original
texts. Indeed, one of the attacks on these interpreters is that they use common or
ordinary language (vulgari sermone [Academica 1.4!5]) in their works rather than the
sophisticated arguments necessary for proper philosophical writing, and that their
texts circulate amongst the unlearned. One is uncomfortably reminded of Attius

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Labeos translation of the Iliad, which also seems to have employed ordinary
If such a situation were to continue, Cicero argues, and to be unremarked upon
by orators such as himself, then there is a danger that the valuable resource of Greek
literature will be transported in an uncontrolled fashion to Rome, negating Ciceros
attempts to ensure that the right sort of people (i.e., people like himself) manage that
transition and ensure the circulation of the right sorts of texts at the right levels. In
fact, in the Tusculan Disputations Cicero claims that he is pushed into writing
because people who are insufficiently educated are producing Latin books (1.6),
though in this case he does acknowledge they are at least from the elite (ab optimis).
It is against this complicated background that we must set Ciceros comments about
how to translate and who should produce literary translations: proper translation
was something reserved for the rhetorical school or for keeping an orators skills
sharp throughout his life26 ! it was something you were supposed to do when you
were mature and well educated enough to know how to make the text your own, to
enter into a struggle with it and emerge triumphant.27 In the two extracts cited at the
opening of this article, and elsewhere in his work, Cicero attempts to slam the door
shut to stop those without a fully completed education claiming the ability to really
translate; he is not saying that only an orator can translate an orator, but that only
an orator should be allowed to translate literature at all.
When Cicero dismisses the interpres as translator he does so for many complicated
reasons ! including the oral and temporary nature and the physical setting of
interpreting, which could place distance28 between audience and the original
utterance. However, key to understanding Ciceros problems with the figure of the
interpreter is, I believe, his anxiety about the social level of those who should be
entrusted with translation. Someone who went through the grammarians school was
educated to a degree far beyond what the average Roman citizen could hope for;
however, that person was no orator and thus should not be trusted with the transfer
of the valuable resource of Greek literature and philosophy to Rome. The indiserti
interpres, supposedly living and working at the level of the word, is represented by
Cicero as automatically and inherently incapable of ever translating in any way that
really matters, and his translations, whether they were actually literal or not, are to
be rejected by those who know and can practice real translation.
Early versions of this paper were read to audiences at Columbia and the University of British
Columbia, who provided many helpful comments. I am also grateful to Aurelia Klimkiewicz
and to the anonymous readers for Translation Studies for their extremely helpful suggestions.
Any faults or errors which remain in the article are my own.

1. All translations from Latin are by the author.
2. Exprimi, the word I have translated as render, is problematic as, despite its use as a term
for translation, its connotations are entirely different from our term translate. As
Robinson (1992, 26) has pointed out, it also means to squeeze out ! by force if necessary,



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Siobhan McElduff
as in the case of oil pressed out from olives. In fact, the violent connotations of the verb (it
is used, for example, for extortion) are primary and its use as a verb for translation is
secondary. Thus, by utilizing this verb here Cicero, like Terence before him (McElduff
2004, 122), connects his act of translation with a set of other forceful actions, enacted
upon often unwilling objects.
In fact, the speeches were translated to win a debate over correct oratorical style; Cicero
himself also says that he translated them because the case was important and the way the
speeches presented the public service of each author was weighty (gravem, De optimo
genere 20) even though the case was irrelevant to Roman legal practice.
See Morgan (1998, 165). Most references to interpreters in Latin literature are collected in
Snellman (1914), while Kurz (1986) also provides an excellent overview of the literary
information available, along with some inscriptional evidence. Wiotte-Franz (2001) also
provides a good summary of the roles of interpreters in antiquity; the list of named
interpreters in her appendix is an invaluable resource for those seeking interpreters outside
the literary record.
Virgil calls Asilas an interpres of gods and men at Aeneid 10.175; for a similar definition of
the interpreter see Isidorus of Seville Etymologica 10.123. Despite Hermanns (1956, 35)
comment on the divine and inspired character of the interpres when transferring divine
will or words, Cicero does not use the word interpres for inspired diviners or prophets; this
usage of the word interpres seems to begin with Virgil (Linderski 1986, 2231).
What does it get you to seek truth through an interpreter? (Quamquam quid attinet
veritatem per interpretem quaerere [Satyricon 107.15]).
For this etymology see Rochette (1997, 94) and Ernout and Meillet (1959, 321).
While there is no space within this article for a discussion of Roman terms for translation,
it should be noted that the primary meaning of none of these words is translation; all
relate primarily to either physical movement or alteration of a material object. Vertere, for
example, means to turn or overturn (the latter is also the usual meaning of convertere,
its compound) and to change direction, amongst other things. Romans used terms for
translation that, unlike ours, were heavily imbued with other, often strongly physical,
Polybius: c. 203!120 BCE; Livy: 59 BCE!17 CE.
Gruen (1982) argues for trickery, see contra Dubuisson (1985, 100!5).
Public material will become private property if you do not delay on the common main
road, nor care to render word for word as a faithful interpreter (publica materies privati
iuris erit, si/ non circa vilem patulumque morarberis orbem,/Nec verbo verbum curabis
reddere fidus/interpres [Ars poetica 131!4]).
Good: Cicero, in a letter to Minicius Thermus, refers to one as his friend and as an almost
miraculously fidem/faithful individual to boot: I have known Marcilius the father in his
long term of service to be quite remarkably (almost incredibly) faithful, restrained, and
self-effacing (quod in longa apparitione singularum et prope incredibilem patris Marcili
fidem, abstinentiam modestiamque cognovi [Letters to his Friends/Ad familiares 13.55]).
Bad: Ovid claims that he had the bad luck to fall in with an evil interpreter (malus
interpres) amongst the Getae (Ep. ex Pont. 4.14.39!43).
Official interpreters: in military inscriptions see Kurz (1986, 217!8) and Hermann (1956,
42!3); in papyri from Egypt see Calderini (1953). Literary sources on interpreters in the
Senate include Cicero De divinatione 2.131.6 (of Punic and Iberian languages) and On
Ends/De finibus 5.89 and Valerius Maximus 2.2.2; in the late Notitia dignitatum
interpreter/interpres is listed as an established office in both the Eastern and Western
There is in Sicily an interpreter called Aulus Valentius, whom that man [Verres] was
accustomed to employ as an interpreter, not for help with Greek, but with his thefts and
outrages. This insignificant and needy interpreter suddenly became a tithe-gatherer (A.
Valentius est in Sicilia interpres, quo iste interprete non ad linguam Graecam, sed ad furta et
flagitia uti solebat. Fit hic interpres, homo levis atque egens, repente decumanus [Against
Verres/In Verrem 2.3.84]).

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16. As Robinson points out, in this verb the translational sense of rendering is overshadowed
by the pecuniary sense of repaying a debt, rendering back to the owner what one has
borrowed (1992, 25); however, who owns the translated text?
17. In ancient glossaries the adjective is glossed both as ineloquens (ineloquent) and as
indoctus (unlearned) (Thesaurus Linguae Latinae 1204 65).
18. One did not necessarily move from one to another: some schools may have been run as
dead ends which aimed at teaching a basic form of literacy (Booth 1978).
19. Approximate ages and levels were ludus litterarius: 7-11, basic education; schola
grammatici: 11!15; rhetoris schola: 15 and older. This last level provided rhetorical
training, though it was not necessarily a formal school in Ciceros day.
20. The grammarians concentrated on poetry rather than prose; on the grammarians duties
see Copeland (1991, 12!4).
21. The full description is the detailed study of the poets, the study of history, the
interpretation of words (grammaticis poetarum pertractatio, historiarum cognitio,
verborum interpretatio [On the Orator/De oratore 1.187]).
22. [T]he interpreters of the poets, who are called grammatici by the Greeks (poetarum
interpretes, qui a Graecis grammatici nominatur); the context for this comment is,
according to Suetonius (De grammaticis 4.1) an attempt to distinguish the lettered
(litteratus) man from the erudite (eruditus) one. According to Nepos, the grammarian
belonged more to the first than the second class (Fragment 61, Teubner edition).
23. There were also bilingual conversation manuals such as the Hermeneumata Dositheana
(see Marrou 1956, 355!6; Biville 2002, 84).
24. Official translations appear to have been tightly controlled, probably through the use of
lexicons and acceptable word lists (Sherk 1969, 13; Mason 1970, 150; Rochette 1997, 86).
Evidence of direct control from as high a level as the emperor occurs at Suetonius, Tiberius
71, where the emperor demands a word be deleted from an official document because it is
25. There were other translations of Homer circulating, including one by Polybius, the
emperor Claudiuss freedman, which was praised by Seneca the Younger for spreading the
knowledge of the original, but this was a prose version and is not described as literal
(Consolation to Polybius/De consolatione ad Polybium 8.2, 11.5).
26. For evidence of this in later periods see Pliny Epistle 7 and Suetonius On the Grammarians/
De grammaticis 25.4.
27. One orator and translator, Fuscus, commented that I do not strive to taint but to
conquer [the source text] (corrumpere conor sed vincere [Seneca the Elder, Controversiae
28. On the interpreter as a distancing mechanism see Pliny Panegyricus 18.19.4 (celebration of
Trajans ability to communicate with his soldiers without the interference of intermediaries
and interpreters/internuntios et interpretes); Valerius Maximus 2.2.2 (interpreters place
distance between the Senate and the power of Greek rhetoric); Polybius 15.6 and Livy
30.30 (employment of interpreters at the meeting between the Roman general Scipio and
the Carthaginian Hannibal before the battle of Zama in 202 BCE).

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