Two Translations of a Passage
from Plutarch's "Dion"
A Study in Style
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 http://www.livius.org/pi-pm/plutarch/plutarch.htm