Was Socrates actually a gadfly?

Today the Shimer faculty ended its spring faculty meetings with a discussion of pedagogy, centered on the idea of the Socratic method. One of our texts was the famous passage from the Apology where Socrates describes himself as a gadfly sent by the god to harrass the city (30e). The Loeb translation reads as follows: “For if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging. I think the god fastened me upon the city in some such capacity, and I got about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long.” I compared the Greek text and could not initially find the word for “gadfly,” which indeed does not appear where the Loeb translation (which is broadly correct though lazily imprecise, as Loeb translations tend to be) places it.

Here is the Greek, with the appropriate word highlighted (to get the full quote you need to go to the next page on Perseus):

ἐὰν γάρ με ἀποκτείνητε, οὐ ῥᾳδίως ἄλλον τοιοῦτον εὑρήσετε, ἀτεχνῶς—εἰ καὶ γελοιότερον εἰπεῖν—προσκείμενον τῇ πόλει ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ὥσπερ ἵππῳ μεγάλῳ μὲν καὶ γενναίῳ, ὑπὸ μεγέθους δὲ νωθεστέρῳ καὶ δεομένῳ ἐγείρεσθαι ὑπὸ μύωπός τινος, οἷον δή μοι δοκεῖ ὁ θεὸς ἐμὲ τῇ πόλει προστεθηκέναι τοιοῦτόν τινα, ὃς ὑμᾶς ἐγείρων καὶ πείθων καὶ ὀνειδίζων ἕνα ἕκαστον οὐδὲν παύομαι τὴν ἡμέραν ὅλην πανταχοῦ προσκαθίζων.

The Greek word translated as gadfly is μύωψ, myops, which is primarily an adjective meaning “with squinted eyes” or “nearsighted.” As a substantive, it could mean gadfly or it could mean simply spur (as befits a horse metaphor) — and if you poke around in the lexicon in Perseus, you’ll see that there’s a passage in Xenophon where the exact same phrasing indicates a spur.

What I wonder, though, is why it can’t be an adjective. Then “ὑπὸ μύωπός τινος” would mean “by someone squinting” — such as, for example, the person who returned to the cave would be, before his eyes adjusted properly. We know that Socrates and his interlocutors agree without any hesitation that such a squinting loser would be killed. Even if I’m pushing the grammar here, surely this double meaning isn’t accidental. The notion that the great and noble steed of Athens is weighed down by its great weight would then be a metaphor for its attachment to the merely material rather than the spiritual or intellectual realm. The idea of being weighed down also recalls the chains in the cave.

A second question: is Socrates actually claiming agency over the harrassment? Here’s the relevant sentence again, with highlights: “οἷον δή μοι δοκεῖ ὁ θεὸς ἐμὲ τῇ πόλει προστεθηκέναι τοιοῦτόν τινα, ὃς ὑμᾶς ἐγείρων καὶ πείθων καὶ ὀνειδίζων ἕνα ἕκαστον οὐδὲν παύομαι τὴν ἡμέραν ὅλην πανταχοῦ προσκαθίζων.” The first highlight is “god,” and the second highlight is basically the equivalent to “who.” In this sentence, Socrates is in the accusative, whereas both “god” and “who” are in the nominative. Hence the god, who harrasses you at all times and everywhere (Socrates has to sleep and can only be in one place at once), has sent Socrates for some such purpose. [UPDATE: Commenters have convinced me that I’m wrong about this part. I’ve updated the translation accordingly.]

And that brings us to Socrates’ attachment to the city. He is “προσκείμενον,” a way of speaking he expects his hearers to find ludicrous. And that may be because this word has religious overtones — it can mean “devoted to” in the religious sense, in addition to “attached” or “placed.” I don’t think Socrates’ listeners would find it at all ludicrous to compare Socrates to an annoying bug. They may laugh at the idea that he has a divine mission.

So here’s an attempted alternative translation:

For if you kill me, you will not easily find such another, [who is] simply–to say something risible–devoted to the city by the God just as if to a great and noble horse [that is] also sluggish and bound under [its] great weight, [were] to be awakened by someone squinting/some gadfly/some spur, so the god seems to have allied me to the city as such a one, who, waking and urging and reproaching each one of you, never stops landing everywhere the whole day.

It probably needs some work. In any case, am I on to something or making stuff up?

Totally called it

In my forthcoming book on Agamben co-authored with Colby Dickinson, I include an essay that indirectly discusses The Use of Bodies, arguing that rereading The Time That Remains in light of the entire extant Homo Sacer series could be a good substitute for the book itself while everyone waits for me to finish translating it.

At the time I wrote that essay, and at the time that I compiled the collection with Colby, the actual epilogue to The Use of Bodies had not been finalized. Now that I’m translating the last few pages of the final text, I feel compelled to declare: I totally called it. Mere pages from the end, Agamben recapitulates his arguments from The Time That Remains about inoperativity and the “as not.” In fact, at the risk of overdoing it, it is arguably the most extended discussion of any single thinker in the epilogue — even the segment on Benjamin is shorter.

Posted in Agamben, Saint Paul, translation. Comments Off on Totally called it

Bare life vs. naked life

The most famous term from Agamben is surely “bare life,” la vita nuda. As often happens, this term actually stems from Benjamin, specifically the “Critique of Violence,” where he briefly mentions blosses Leben. As Carlo Salzani pointed out in our ACLA seminar on Agamben last spring, Agamben’s la vita nuda is not his own translation of blosses Leben, but is instead drawn from the original Italian translation of Benjamin’s work. And as a translation of Benjamin, la vita nuda is imprecise — one would probably prefer something like “mere life” (or, less circumspectly, “pure life”).

Similarly, the standard translation “bare life” initially seems questionable. One might have opted for “naked life” — a translation that is more visceral and more immediately clarifies that this life is emphatically post-political, not (as one might dare to think) pre-. You cannot be “naked” outside the context of social norms, while you can in some sense be “bare.”

Yet there is something ingenious in the translation “bare life” that warrants preserving it beyond simple considerations of continuity and tradition. It somehow straddles the gap between the original Benjaminian term and Agamben’s translation — echoing the way that the term itself is in a weird space of indeterminacy where it is neither fully Benjamin’s nor fully Agamben’s own creation.

Agamben translation: Update and request

Work on my translation of The Use of Bodies continues apace. I now have full drafts of the prologue, first major part, first “intermezzo,” and second major part. I have nearly completed all bibliographical work for those segments (the publisher requires that I consult English translations of every work Agamben cites if they are available), and over the next week I will be reviewing my drafts and then passing them over to a generous Italian colleague to check. Then I will return to translating new material. The deadline for submission of the final manuscript is August 1, and I am confident I will get it in on time if not a bit early. After that, your guess is as good as mine as to when it comes out.

There is one lingering citation problem I have [used to have, before commenters helped!]. If you provide a full citation and direct quotation from the English translation of the relevant texts in comments, you will earn your way into my acknowledgment section. The problem is a quote from Gregory of Nazianzus that purports to be from Oration 31 (better known as the 5th Theological Oration), section 35. In no edition of the orations have I been able to find a section numbered 35 or a quote that even remotely approximates this: “We Greeks say religiously one ousia in three hypostases, the first word expressing the nature of divinity and the second the triplicity of the individuated properties. The Latins think the same, but due to the restrictions of their language and the poverty of their vocabulary, they cannot distinguish the hypostasis from the substance and instead make use of the term persona… It is believed to be a difference of faith, while it is to us only a diversity of words.” I have already run multiple text searches of the transcriptions of the ANF available online. I’m wondering if it’s been completely mislabelled. Somehow it feels more like something John of Damascus would say. Any thoughts?

Preorder mania!!!

Creepiness is now available for preorder on Amazon, as is my translation of Agamben’s Pilate and Jesus. Both will be released in February.

Adventures in Translation: Besetzung

The issues around Strachey’s Standard Edition of Freud’s works are much discussed–Besetzung being an exemplary case. It was rendered “cathexis.” This has several disadvantages, not least of which that most people have no idea what it means. However, finding a suitable alternative is not as simple as pulling out one’s Oxford-Duden. Our reading group is working through Formulierungen über die zwei Pinzipien des psychischen Geschehens and here is our best attempt to make sense of a particularly difficult passage. I’ve put Besetzung in bold:

“An Stelle der Verdrängung, welche einen Teil der auftauchenden Vorstellungen also unlusterzeugend von der Besetzung ausschloß, trat die unparteiische Urteilsfällung, welche entscheiden sollte, ob eine bestimmte Vorstellung wahr oder falsch, das heißt im Einklang mit der Realität sei oder nicht, und durch Vergleichung mit den Erinnerungsspuren der Realität darüber entschied.”

The standard edition has:
“The place of repression, which excluded from cathexis as productive of unpleasure some of the emerging ideas, was taken by an impartial passing of judgement, which had to decide whether a given idea was true or false – that is, whether it was in agreement with reality or not – the decision being determined by making a comparison with the memory-traces of reality.”

Our translation:
“Repression—which works by excluding certain emerging ideas from occupying [the mind], because they would result in unpleasure—was replaced by an impartial act of judgement, which works instead by deciding whether a particular idea is true or false—that is, whether or not it agrees with reality—a decision made by comparing the idea with the memory-traces of reality.”

I believe that the new Penguin translations use investment, but that doesn’t seem to capture the action that Freud is describing in this paper. The solution here was proposed by Simon. What do you think?

Orientalism and non-translation

One thing that has stood out to me as I have undertaken my recent crash course in Islam is the sheer number of Arabic terms that are left untranslated. At times, even a dedicated student like me became bogged down in technical terminology that was left in Arabic even though it seemed as though there were suitable translations for most terms. The one that sticks out to me the most is falsafa, which is a kind of adaptation of the word “philosophy” into Arabic pronunciation. One could certainly understand the point of emphasizing that Arab philosophers kept the Greek term — but, then, you know, so did we. That insight could be conveyed in one sentence, and the term could be straightforwardly translated as “philosophy” after that point.

There are other more ambiguous cases, and I don’t want to adjudicate every one. Taken together, however, the mass of untranslated terms gives the impression that Islamic thought is somehow radically incompatible with Western languages and thought-patterns. Again, falsafa is a great example, because it makes Arabic philosophy seem like this bizarre foreign pursuit — when in fact they are quite literally drawing on the exact same sources as Western philosophy. That’s an extreme case, but in general it’s not as though Islamic thought is radically and incomprehensibly different from Western thought. In addition to its use of Western philosophy, it draws on the same monotheistic and prophetic heritage as Christianity and Judaism. I’m inclined to agree with Norman O. Brown, who claims in The Challenge of Islam that Islam is a reinterpretation and reappropriation of “our” Western traditions — and hence the “least foreign” foreign tradition out there.

Perhaps that very proximity is what creates the pressure to exoticize and obsfuscate Islamic concepts by leaving them untranslated a disproportionate amount of the time. And while some might argue that keeping the Arabic words is an attempt to maintain the differing layers of meaning, etc., in practice it most often serves to simplify the concepts. Take the concept of jihad — to a Muslim, it has many meanings that are generally in the ballpark of the English word “struggle.” If we translated it as “struggle” instead of leaving it in Arabic, we might understand how the concept could in some cases include something like violent resistence, while conceding that most of the time it would refer to the believer’s spiritual struggles. But once we’ve decided that jihad just means “holy war” — and what’s more, a particularly nefarious, specifically Islamic form of “holy war”! — then to most Western observers, it sounds like misleading apologetics when a Muslim tries to tell us what the term actually means for the average Muslim’s spiritual life.

When I pointed out the jihad example on Twitter, Adam Roberts responded that perhaps we could translate the term as Mein Kampf — and I think that’s actually a great example of the use of foreign words to exoticize, in this case defensively. It’s as though Hitler’s “struggle” in life is a specifically German phenomenon that could never be duplicated among sound-minded Anglophone people! The retention of the German title of Marx’s Das Kapital (with obligatory mispronunciation of Kapital as though it were a French word for good measure) serves much the same purpose of defensive exoticization. Never mind that Hitler had many sympathizers in the US and UK, never mind that Marx wrote Capital with England in mind and drawing primarily on English-language sources — it’s all foreign gibberish that we can never understand!

It is also possible, of course, to fetishize foreign-language terms as an attempt to appreciate or respect a foreign tradition — or earlier stages of one’s own, as when educated Christians treasure isolated New Testament Greek terms as precious talismans of the unparalleled genius of Christianity. Even if the motivation is “positive” in these cases, though, the effect is still exoticizing and obsfuscating. And just as with the “negative” deployment of the strategy, the stakes are most often political rather than scholarly or intellectual.

But enough of my blathering — what do you think, dear readers?


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