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Notes for
Two Translations of a Passage from Plutarch's "Dion"
A Study in Style
Ian Scott-Kilvert AK - WB_Style
A.H. Clough AK " "

     Celia (in Australia), who suggested these passages for the eighth or ninth grade literature sections, noted that these two translations of the same passage from Plutarch's "Dion" "might be interesting because of style." As usual, she was right. The selection from Plutarch describes Plato's meeting with the Tyrant of Syracuse. Arthur Hugh Clough revised Dryden's translation of Plutarch's Lives in 1859. (For more on Clough, see The Victorian Web.) Ian Scott-Kilvert's translation first appeared more than a century later (from what I can find, in 1973) under the title The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives
    Readers accustomed to the analysis keys for this site can probably infer the basic stylistic difference between these two translations simply by looking the keys. The differences between the two texts, however, is worth an even closer look because they probably reflect differences between nineteenth and twentieth century writing styles.
     Although both texts cover almost exactly the same material, Clough used 130 words compared to Scott-Kilvert's 153. The Clough translation consists of six main clauses that average 21.7 words per main clause. Scott-Kilvert's 153 words are divided among nine main clauses and thus average 17 words in length. As the KISS psycholinguistic model suggests, shorter main clauses present readers with fewer words to juggle in short-term memory, and thus they are easier to read. As for subordinate clauses, the Scott-Kilvert translation averages exactly one per main clause, whereas Clough used eight subordinate clauses within the six main clauses for an average of 1.33 per main clause. In this area also, in other words, the more modern translation is structurally simpler, structurally easier to read.
     Another way to attack this stylistic difference is to examine the finite verbs and finite verb phrases. There are fourteen in the Clough translation, one for each of the six main clauses, and one for each of the eight subordinate clauses. Scott-Kilvert, on the other hand, used eighteen clauses (nine main, and nine subordinate) but twenty finite verbs phrases. The difference here results from the fact that two of his clauses have compounded finite verbs ("they admired and were charmed," and "he lost ... and demanded....") Clough, in other words, presents the same material, the same ideas, using 30% fewer finite verbs.
     He is able to do so primarily because he uses six times as many gerundives. Scott-Kilvert used only one ("turning"). Clough used six. As a simple example of the difference, ScottKilvert wrote "he grew exasperated," whereas Clough's version is "exceedingly exasperated, he asked...." As modifiers, gerundives reduce the importance of words, thereby putting a sharper focus on the words in the finite verb phrases. But Clough not only used more gerundives. As the notes suggest, some of Clough's gerundives can confuse readers.
      But gerundives are not the only construction that complicates the structure of Clough's text. Scott-Kilvert uses one infinitive phrase, whereas Clough used two obvious infinitive phrases plus at least two ellipsed infinitives. There are no appositives in the Scott-Kilvert text, whereas there are two in Clough's, and one of them ("arguments") is not a typical appositive. Similarly, Clough uses a post-positioned adjective ("full"), but no such construction appears in the Scott-Kilvert text.
     Finally, there is the question of punctuation. Not only does Clough use two semicolons compared to Scott-Kilvert's none, but those semicolons do not, as they would in more modern styles, designate clear breaks between main clauses. As a result, they tend to cause readability problems for modern readers. (For more on this, see the notes for the Clough keys.) As a semi-serious note, in the Word version, my grammar checker is perfectly happy with Scott-Kilvert's version, but it has underlined as questionable everything but the last two lines of Clough's version.

     Having explored some of the major stylistic differences between the two translations, I would suggest that we need to look at these differences from two different perspectives. First, in terms of overall quality, we should not, I think, claim that one style is "better" than the other in any absolute sense. Although in general, modern prose tends to shorter main clauses with fewer gerundives and appositives, many modern writers (including, by the way, newspaper journalists) prefer the more complex structure. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of taste. Some people like meat and potatoes; others prefer quiche. Much also depends on the reader's familiarity with the subject matter. If the subject matter itself is unfamiliar, the primarily S/V/C patterns of Scott-Kilvert (which, remember, require more words) probably make the text easier to understand. However, for readers who are familiar with the subject matter, Clough's use of gerundives and appositives not only adds variety to the sentence structure, it is also able to convey the same information in fewer words.
      We also need to look at these differences from the perspective of natural syntactic development and how it should affect what we teach, when we teach it, and what we expect from students. My guess is that ninth graders would have no trouble explaining the clause structure of Scott-Kilvert's translation, especially if they have been working on clauses since seventh grade. The passage might well be used as an assessment quiz. But I would also bet that the clause structure of Clough's version would give most students serious problems. It is very complex, and I would not be at all surprised to learn that grammarians would disagree among themselves about what does, and what does not, constitute a clause in Clough's version. As teachers, we need to note these differences in complexity and gauge our expectations accordingly.
     This does not mean that we should not have students attempt to read or analyze passages such as Clough's. In fact, it may be imperative that we do so since an understanding of sentence structure affects students ability to read as well as their ability to write. The September 1984 issue of English Journal includes an article by Trevor J. Gambell titled "What High School Teachers Have to Say about Student Writing and Language across the Curriculum." Gambell states:

    Cause and effect relationships employ language that makes heavy use of subordinate clauses and conjunctions such as "if," "because," "whether," "although," "when," "whenever," "wherever," and so on. Discussion of these syntactic devices for expressing cause-effect relationships would assuage many students' fears and apprehensions. (43)
What he has in mind, however, is discussing the meanings of these words, i.e., vocabulary, not syntax, since he also states:
    Teachers also found problems with texts which employed multiple choice questions with subordinate clauses. Students had difficulty determining the main idea of the sentence and thus the question; the subordinate clause led to ambiguity and confusion. Obviously, if students have problems reading questions with subordinate clauses, they will be reluctant to use such constructions in their own writing. (43)
Does he suggest that we teach students to be able to identify and understand the relationships among subordinate clauses? No: "This problem also warns us that multiple choice questions need to be worded as simple sentences so that content is being tested rather than language." The implication clearly seems to be that we should not teach students how to understand complex sentences; rather, we should simplify the sentences so that we can test "content." But which is more important -- the content in a specific high school course, or the students' ability to decipher complex sentences such that they can extract the content from any text on their own? Gambell's position, and indeed the position of the writers of most grammar textbooks, seems to me to be unethical, if not immoral.
     The question, once again, is a matter of adjusting exercises and assessment quizzes such that students can begin with the relatively simple, be assessed on passages that should be within their range of competence, and then be introduced, in this case, to passages which involve more, and more complex clause structures. To me, this is simply a matter of common sense. I would not, by the way, use the Clough passage as an assessment quiz at any grade level, simply because of its complexity and ambiguity. But the opening paragraph of The Declaration of Independence might be an excellent assessment quiz for ninth graders who have been studying clauses since seventh grade. 

     For more on Plutarch, see "Plutarch of Chaeronea," by Jona Lendering at