peri poêtikês

The past couple of days, I read Seth Benardete & Michael Davis’s translation of Aristotle’s Poetics. Unsurprisingly, Benardete & Davis read the Poetics as a discourse on, not only drama, but the soul. I like Davis’s statement, in the introduction, of the guide to their method:

Naturally how one understands Aristotle’s manner of writing in On Poetics has consequences for how one will translate him. If the book is not properly speaking a writing at all, but a collection of lecture notes the intention of which, while generally quite clear, is occasionally dark owing to Aristotle’s infelicitous choice of words, then a translator will have as his task rendering the sense of what is obvious and striving to clarify what Aristotle has left obscure. If, on the other hand, On Poetics is an artful composition, a translator will seek to preserve interesting ambiguities, translate Greek terms consistently with a single word as much as is compatible with English so as to preserve allusion in the text that suggest otherwise odd but perhaps fruitful comparisons, and not to change sentence structures gratuitously. Now even if On Poetics were simply a collection of notes, as long as this sort of fastidiousness results in readable English, nothing would be sacrificed. And if On Poetics is something more than that, of course, a great deal would be gained from translating scrupulously.

—viii, emphasis mine

Benardete, as a student of Strauss, is unfairly associated with the dominant view of Strauss in the wake of the Straussian theory of neoconservative origins. Benardete held that, rather than philosophy being the guide to politics, its “esotericism” was to protect philosophy from politics. (For example Davis’s introduction holds that, for Aristotle, political courage is a “spurious” form of that virtue.) Even the “esoteric” word, while used, seems inappropriate in its connotations; Benardete in particular (and oftentimes Strauss himself) engage in readings of the text which, however eccentric they seem, are born of taking the writer and the text very seriously; the esotericism is no more esoteric than Biblical interpretation— it is not a secret tradition. Benardete’s reading is about how the philosophical works themselves lead the readers to examine the issues and towards an enlightening, not always cleaving to literalism, but nevertheless being readable in–themselves (or, at least, in the context of the author).

As a method of translation, I think this is fruitful. While there are translation of Aristotle which take him seriously and attempt to render him into a normal, expressive English, not all are particularly or consistently fruitful. Joe Sachs’s translation of the Metaphysics is at times unusually enlightening—such as his translation of ἐνέργεια as “being–at–work”*—but others of his quasi–Heideggerian translations are more obscuring than enlightening; ἐντελέχεια is rendered “being–at–work–staying–itself”, which preserves the relation to ἐνέργεια at the cost of easy comprehensibility and readability. (That said, Sachs’s introduction is excellent and the translation itself is a worthy read for someone trying to comprehend the Metaphysics.)

One thing I appreciate about the Benardete/Davis translation is its lack of leading vocabulary. As Davis points out, Greek tragedy is quite different from our drama, and they largely avoid terms associated with it (including the English adoption of catharsis). For example: “ἔστι δὲ πάσης τραγῳδίας τὸ μὲν δέσις τὸ δὲ λύσις” (1455b) is rendered by them, “Of every tragedy there is an entanglement and an unraveling”. Compare this to the common Bywater translation: “Every tragedy is in part Complication and in part Dénouement”. By the use of “dénouement”, the Bywater suggests a probably inappropriate association with our conception of dramatic closure.

In other places, Benardete and Davis are respectful of traditional readings, most of all in the title. Davis’s introduction remarks that “On the Art of Action” may be a more appropriate reading of “περὶ ποητικῆς”, preserving the connection between dramatic and normal human action, shoring up their reading of the treatise as being ultimately about the soul, the “center of human life”. (xiii) They also divide the text by the traditional divisions, whatever their actual utility in understanding it.

The translation is very readable by those not familiar with Greek. The footnotes are useful, though sometimes overlong (endnotes would have been a better format, probably) and explain most of the various decisions, including noting each incident where a word they consistently translate in one way is rendered differently. In a sense, this review is set as a contrast to my recent review of Fr Behr’s translation of On the Incarnation— an example of a better path.

* While this may sound overbold, I think a more proper understanding of the metaphysical role of ἐνέργεια is useful to correct the Neo–Palamite mistake of overstating the difference between the Eastern conception of God and the Western. A further explication of this would be inappropriate on this blog; I only offer it as a suggestive remark.


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