Patrick J. Burns

Postdoc at the Quantitative Criticism Lab | Formerly ISAW Library | Fordham PhD, Classics | CLTK contributor

Pessime Planudes: Scaliger’s Cato and the Polemics of Retranslation

Beyond Words: Translation and the Classical World. CUNY Graduate Center Classics Conference
March 8, 2013


In 1605 Joseph Scaliger published his Greek translation of the Catonis Disticha Moralia, a 4th-century collection of Latin maxims. What makes Scaliger’s Cato especially interesting is that he presents the work as a corrective to an earlier translation by the 13th-century monk-scholar Planudes. It is has been argued that Scaliger believed the earlier translation was “too defective to be the work of a scholar like Planudes” (Ciccolella 2008: 228) Scaliger, however, calls out Planudes by name often and criticizes him for having translated the work so negligently that “it took no less patience to read it than judgment to correct it.” I will argue in this paper that in the Cato Planudes becomes the strawman against which Scaliger pins his Greek erudition, specifically his command of the classical auctores. Scaliger’s position is clear from the commentary: a native speaker from the Byzantine world does not have the same command of the Greek language as the man who taught himself Greek in three weeks by reading Homer with a Latin translation (cf. Grafton 1983: 102). Scaliger’s Cato is a polemical retranslation meant to affirm the superiority of humanist learning in his time (and perhaps the superiority of Scaliger himself). This paper will offer preliminary research on the the Cato, specifically the antagonistic relationship he creates between himself and Planudes in the dedicatory poem and commentary. George Steiner writes that between Cicero and Hölderlin, translation theory stems “directly from the enterprise of the translator.” (Steiner 1998: 248) Scaliger’s working methods, including polemical retranslation, need to be extracted from his commentary. Research on these methods provide important background to the developments in translation in the 16th and 17th century, and specifically, the translation of classical texts in this period.

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