Locke in modern English

by Chris Bertram on February 28, 2005

To understand political power correctly and derive it from its proper source, we must consider what state all men are naturally in. It is a state in which men are perfectly free to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and themselves, in any way they like, without asking anyone else’s permission – all this subject only to limits set by the law of nature. It is also a state of equality, in which no-one has more power and authority than anyone else; because it is simply obvious that creatures of the same species and status, all born to all the same advantages of nature and to the use of the same abilities, should also be equal ·in other ways·, with no-one being subjected to or subordinate to anyone else, unless ·God·, the lord and master of them all, were to declare clearly and explicitly his wish that some one person be raised above the others and given an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.

The latest of Jonathan Bennett’s renderings of the classics of early modern philosophy into modern English is now out on the web: the Second Treatise of Government . In my experience it is a work that students find especially opaque in the original, much as I love the archaic language. (Sceptics might be interested to read Bennett’s rationale for his project.)

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The Volokh Conspiracy
03.01.05 at 2:18 am

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1

Michael Otsuka 02.28.05 at 8:40 am

Thanks for this, Chris. It’s quite a service for Jonathan Bennett to have ‘translated’ these texts into contemporary English and made them freely available. I’m not sure, however, that the _Second Treatise_ is much easier to understand in this version than in the original. Among other things, I find the bullets scattered throughout pretty distracting. I think I’ll stick to those versions of the _Second Treatise_ which merely modernize the spelling and punctuation (i.e., most versions, apart from Peter Laslett’s edition for the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series). I’d be interested to hear what others think.

2

Michael Otsuka 02.28.05 at 9:35 am

What I should have said above is that I’m not sure that the _Second Treatise_ is much easier to understand in this version than in a version of the original which merely modernizes spelling (including Capitalization) and punctuation.

3

Des von Bladet 02.28.05 at 10:05 am

I actually found Locke’s English harder going than Descartes’ Frenchy-French, although such outcoppnings are sadly against my principles.

4

gordon 02.28.05 at 11:08 am

Jeez, what next? Maybe a rap version? Frankly, if modern students can’t read the original, maybe they should switch to IT.

5

Chris Bertram 02.28.05 at 1:24 pm

Jeez, what next? Maybe a rap version?

Sounds interesting. If any commenter would like to take on the task of rendering one of the classics of Western philosophy as rap lyrics then do feel free to use this thread. Limericks etc also welcome.

6

Matt 02.28.05 at 1:34 pm

Gordon,
I’m not sure if you’re kidding or not- forgive me if you are- but I think that’s a bit silly for several reasons. One is that most of the students who will read Locke (or whomever) are not philosophy majors anyway- they might very well be in IT. And, at least in the sense of modernizing the spelling and punctuation, surely the new versions are a huge help. (I understand that even Hobbes scholars thought Curley’s revised texts of Leviathan was a god-send.) Secondly, I don’t see why this is vastly different from the fact that, say, when we translate Kant into English, we don’t translate it into late 18th century english, same as we don’t translate medieval latin texts into 11th centruy English. So, why is this significantly different? If Bennet were introducing lots of modern terminology that would be objectionable, but from the small selection of the texts I’ve seen, this isn’t the case.

7

Matt 02.28.05 at 1:40 pm

Gordon,
I’m not sure if you’re kidding or not- forgive me if you are- but I think that’s a bit silly for several reasons. One is that most of the students who will read Locke (or whomever) are not philosophy majors anyway- they might very well be in IT. And, at least in the sense of modernizing the spelling and punctuation, surely the new versions are a huge help. (I understand that even Hobbes scholars thought Curley’s revised texts of Leviathan was a god-send.) Secondly, I don’t see why this is vastly different from the fact that, say, when we translate Kant into English, we don’t translate it into late 18th century english, same as we don’t translate medieval latin texts into 11th centruy English. So, why is this significantly different? If Bennet were introducing lots of modern terminology that would be objectionable, but from the small selection of the texts I’ve seen, this isn’t the case.

8

Kieran 02.28.05 at 1:42 pm

Jeez, what next? Maybe a rap version? Frankly, if modern students can’t read the original, maybe they should switch to IT.

I think it’s a great idea. Bennett is right that the goal should be to understand Locke’s arguments and ideas, and — at the beginning, for undergraduates — getting up to speed in the idioms of 17th century English is an impediment to this.

9

bza 02.28.05 at 10:11 pm

Matt, I think you’re arguing against a strawman there. Bennett isn’t merely modernizing the orthography or the like. Nor is he just substituting modern variants for vocabulary that’s fallen out of the modern lexicon. He’s substantially rewriting the texts: using only modern idioms, redividing sentences, moving around clauses, inserting explanations, etc. He is explicit that he wants the texts to read as if they were written by a contemporary of the reader’s who’s trying to express the “same” thoughts. That requires that the new versions of the text are about as far away from interpretive neutrality as one can get.

You might claim that this makes the project no different from any translation, but that strikes me as disingenous. There might not be any such thing as a translation that is perfectly neutral as to various construals of the text, but there are also degrees here, and Bennett’s versions are, on this scale, quite extreme. Indeed, if you look at some of the texts he’s produced, you can see that he introduces asides that purport to explain points just made, which asides don’t correspond to anything in the original, and that he introduces linking vocabulary such as “it follows from what has just been said” that, again, aren’t present in the original. Doing this sort of thing not only prejudges such central questions as what an author meant by a certain claim or what the argumentative structure of a passage is supposed to be; the additions put the reader at a greater distance from the original data for these questions than a typical translation does.

Then there’s also a part of me that regrets the loss of the flavor of the original. This isn’t just an aesthetic point. When the texts seem like they were produced yesterday you lose the sense–basic to the development of a feel for history–of simultaneous distance from and commonality with the present.

10

Matt 02.28.05 at 10:54 pm

Bza,
Yes, I’m familar w/ Bennett’s texts, though I’ve not made a serious study of them. But, from what you describe they don’t seem that different from many other translations, such as the Pluhar translations of Kant, or the translation of Rousseau’s Social contract that I first read. Many people like Pluhar’s translation. It’s certainly easier for an English speaker to read than some others. (the Rousseau translation is an old translation and I don’t have it with me, or I’d give the citation.) One can hate this stuff- Paul Guyer, for example, Hates Pluhar’s translations of Kant for much the reason you give here. And, of course, one can reasonably think this isn’t preferable. But then, don’t read them, or don’t assign them. To think the project has no merit or in some other way is bad seems a bit odd to me, though. Surely the texts can be valuable for a number of different reasons and purposes.

11

bza 02.28.05 at 11:09 pm

Sure, I can see the argument for their use in, say, an intro class at a university with a non-selective undergraduate body. The main point I wanted to make was that it is misleading simply to class this sort of thing as just like translation, when it really is not.

(Verring off-topic, a bit: Pluhar’s Kant translations are themselves widely regarded as eccentric endeavors. Even so, they’re quite different from Bennett, because (1) Pluhar’s insertions are clearly marked off as such, and (2) the insertions are themselves required because Pluhar tries to a Quixotic extent to preserve the original syntax, which, without his insertions, would make for nearly unintelligible English.)

12

Matt 02.28.05 at 11:24 pm

Bza,
Maybe I’m not recalling properly, or don’t know what syntax is properly, but I’d not think Pluhar was trying to preserve Kant’s syntax in a very systematic way, since he consistantly breaks up the sentences, changes around word order, etc. It was largely this that Guyer dislikes, for example. If you read the cambridge editions (esp. Guyer’s own translations) they are are as close to a literal translation of German as one can get w/o it being nonsense, while Pluhar breaks up the sentences and so on in ways that make for much more of an “english” text. I’ll have to look at the notes on translation when I get home, but at least that’s how I remember it.

13

gordon 02.28.05 at 11:41 pm

Well, to be serious for a moment, why not give IT students etc. who are doing a unit where Locke is studied a summary, (pick any one you like or make your own), plus some substantial extracts from the original, then discuss Locke’s ideas and logic with them? Further references to the original to be given on points which turn out to be misunderstood or contentious. A “translation” into modern idiom strikes me as either too much or too little – still too much for the casual (non-specialist) student (who is unlikely to read all of it), too little for the intending specialist who will have to become familiar with the original sooner or later.

The whole issue of how a modern student is to be introduced to his/her enormous written heritage is a very vexed one nowadays, when nobody knows what a “classic” is and high school curricula give beginning tertiary students no firm foundations. I don’t know what the answer is, but I strongly believe that we need one.

14

bza 02.28.05 at 11:56 pm

Actually, Guyer & Wood’s First Critique translation (I haven’t looked at Guyer’s Third Critique yet) seems to me to be based rather closely on Kemp Smith. They’ve corrected most of the errors in Kemp Smith, but kept the basic shape of his renderings. As such, it’s far from literal, with one exception: They hew to a rather odd policy of translating every occurence of a given German word with the same English word, regardless of context or German idiom. This leads to absurdities. For example: Having decided to translate Wirkung as “effect” (no problem, there), they translate “Gesetz der Wirkung und Gegenwirkung” as “law of effect and countereffect.” Unfortunately, “Gesetz der Wirkung und Gegenwirkung” refers to the law of action and reaction. They don’t even supply an explanation of that in the editorial apparatus, if I remember right. There are other examples, but I’m away from my notes right now. Anyway, literalness isn’t a basic feature of that translation.

Re the Pluhar: He might move clauses around and chope sentences up, but he does seem to try to leave the individual clauses themselves intact to a far greater degree than most translators. (I’m not saying that’s a good thing. It can make for very odd reading.)

15

Dennis Whitcomb 03.01.05 at 1:43 am

Gordon – Your suggestion to give students “substantial extracts from the original” along with summaries of the arguments for discussion is on the right track. I’ll see it and raise it: what we really ought to do is give students substantial extracts from the *Bennett translations* along with summaries of the arguments.

This actually seems to work well enough. Last semester I (or, more precisely, the lecturer for whom I was TA-ing) spent part of an intro course giving students a few dozen pages a week of Bennett’s versions of Descartes’ Meditations and Locke’s Essay. Then in lecture the students were given summaries of the arguments from their readings, and in recitation they were asked to discuss those arguments.

The discussion was decent, and there weren’t any complaints about the obscurity of the Bennett texts, as there were with other texts such as Anselm that we read not-in-Bennett-translation.

16

Matt 03.01.05 at 4:54 am

Bza,
You may be right on the Kant translations. My German is, at best, extremely modest, so I can’t really compare to the German. But, what you say doesn’t seem to my mind to fit w/ the descriptions the translators themselves give, which seems odd to my mind. Here’s what Pluhar says, “To enhance readability, I use various grammatical and terminological devices to clarify the original sentences and ther interconections…. One such device consists in dividing up most of Kant’s notoriously long sentences… another consists in interpolating individual words or short pharses that will assist readers in recognizing connections, transitions, or contrasts that are, in my view, plainly _intended_ (emphasis Pluhar’s) in the original but are left rather less explicit and clear there.” That, to my mind, is _a lot_ like what Bennett does. Now, Pluhar _sometimes_ notes this, but sometimes doesn’t, but then, he’s also explicite about the whole project. Contrast this w/ the introduction of the Guyer/Wood translation: “This entirely new translation of the _Critique of Pure Reason_ is the most accurate and informative English Translation ever produced…. careful attention to the precise translation of Kant’s terminology, as well as the faithful rendering of the structure and syntax of Kant’s prose, this translation recreates as far as possible a text with the same interpritive nuances and richness as the original” “(we) try to avoid sacrificing literalness to readabiliy” (Some serious back-patting there, but the contrast in style w/ Pluhar seems clear. Also, if this, hype aside, is to be believed, there is a significant contracts between Guyer/Wood and Kemp-Smith, since Pluhar notes that Kemp-Smith’s translation “tends to ‘sanitize’ Kant’s _style_, in places where enhancement of readability is not an issue. Where Kant expresses himself in a dramatic way, or witty, deliberetly casual manner, Kemp Smith usually expunges all such signs of flair, by substituting standard philosophical langauge…” Note also that the “oddity” you note about terminology translated always the same seems to be in Pluhar as well, since he says, “I rely heavily…on terminological consistancy. Thus thechnical terms in teh original are, as far as possible, translated always by the same english terms.” So, while we may be talking past each other, and while my command of the German isn’t good enough for me to really check the original text (even if I had one at home, which I don’t)the various translator’s own descriptions of their works don’t seem to fit your account that well to me. If I misunderstand, please correct.

17

Anna in Cairo 03.01.05 at 7:35 am

I guess I am lucky enough to be very verbal and to have loved, for example, Chaucer’s Middle English that I had to read in high school, so I am not getting why anyone would want to do this or even why Locke would be so hard to understand. I read it as an undergraduate and I don’t remember thinking it was so hard to grasp. I still have the book, I think this project makes me want to go re-read it to see if it is really all that difficult. However, I don’t think that classic political theory should be stripped of philosophy. The classic political theorists were philosophers. That was their primary identification. Without understanding their philosophical ideology you cannot understand their political theory anyhow. So I don’t really get what the benefit would be in this modernization of the text – and also, I believe college students, and other people who are learning through the written word, should be regularly challenged by stuff that is slightly beyond their current capacity – that is how you improve your reading comprehension skills. But I may be misinterpreting the point of the exercise.

18

gordon 03.01.05 at 7:47 am

Well, Dennis Whitcomb, I dunno. I mean, man, if ya wanna, sort of, read the guy, ya know, ya gotta, sorta, READ him, ya know?

19

Matt 03.01.05 at 1:10 pm

Anna in Cairo,
What makes you think that Bennett’s versions are “stripped of philosophy”? He’s a well respected professional philosopher after all. I don’t see why updating the texts, whatever other problems it might have, would stip them of philosophy. As for the need for the texts- I also didn’t find the language in Locke too hard (back-patting all around for us smarties!) but apparently some do- Bennett taught the texts for several decades at not-so-bad universities, and Chris Bertman does the same now, so I suspect they have a better idea of the usefulness of the texts than we do.

20

bza 03.01.05 at 10:44 pm

Matt,

I wouldn’t in general put much stock in what the translators themselves say about their projects. That said, Pluhar’s remark is entirely consistent with my description: He’s chops the text into nuggets and inserts bracketed phrases between those nuggets, but the nuggets themselves are extremely literal renderings. Guyer & Wood’s self-description is just advertising copy. Anyone who’s spent a lot of time with the texts can sense that it’s based on Kemp Smith. (Which isn’t to say that that’s bad. I think Kemp Smith, for all its flaws, is a beautiful piece of work.)

Let me put it this way: I don’t usually work with the translations, and I haven’t exhaustively compared any of the three to the original German. But when I look at Pluhar’s translation of a passage I know well, I find myself automatically mapping his phrases onto the German. When I read Guyer & Wood, I find that I have to consciously think about what it is in the original that the various elements of the translation correspond to. This, for me, is a clear if somewhat analytically unenlightening benchmark for literalness of translation. A related datum, also (in my mind) telling, but admittedly not any more useful in arriving at an explicit characterization of how Pluhar is more literal: When I was first reading the Critique in German and I had problems parsing a given sentence, I found that I could immediately figure out the syntax of the German after looking at Pluhar’s rendering. Not so with the other translations.

None of this is to express a judgment as to which is a better translation, especially when the question is which translation would better serve someone with limited or no German. I don’t have a settled opinion on that.

21

Michael Otsuka 03.02.05 at 1:39 pm

I’ve just noticed that Bennett is now working on a modernization of Mill’s _On Liberty_. I grant that the florid Victorian prose is a bit much for the average undergraduate. But has the English language really changed so much in the last 150 years that it’s necessary to modernize the text? And what next? A translation of Isaiah Berlin’s mid-twentieth century ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ into the idiom of the early twenty-first century?

22

The Navigator 03.02.05 at 10:46 pm

I don’t think rap is the genre you’re looking for:
“Moving forward using all my breath
Making love to you was never second best
I saw the world thrashing all around your face
Never really knowing it was always mesh and lace

I’ll stop the world and melt with you
You’ve seen the difference and it’s getting better all the time
There’s nothing you and I won’t do
I’ll stop the world and melt with you”

….wait a minute, you did say Modern English, didn’t you?
Oh, man, I’m outta my league here.

23

hick 03.03.05 at 8:24 pm

Locke, as with most “classic philosophy” could be edited into about 10 pages of fairly interesting though unsubstantiated propositions.

Locke is the hypocritical liberal tory of philosophical belle-lettrists; all for hypothetical social contracts, rights, tabula rasa, and empiricism abstracted from any authentic history or psychology. His name does looks appropriate on a text bound in leather sitting on an ivy league shelf. He did have a part to play and his rips of the roundheads were good (people should still read his stuff on Enthusiasm) , but Hume if not Voltaire puts him to rest.

24

Jeremy Pierce 03.06.05 at 1:48 pm

Bennett’s insertions are clearly marked off as well.

This was intended for introductory courses. You can’t honestly expect undergrads reading Locke for the first time to be qualified to judge between interpetations that specialists agree are consistent with the text and merely argue over which is more likely. Bennett decides this for the sake of doing good philosophy rather than good Locke exegesis, which is more appropriate for a graduate course than a 100-level or even 300-level philosophy class.

I used excerpts from Descartes’ Meditations, Locke’s Essay, and a couple of Hume’s works for a 100-level course at the university Bennett had originally designed them to be used at, and they were tremendously helpful.

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