Why Translate the Texts?

When students are introduced to the great philosophical works of the early modern period, it is usually in the hope that they will engage with the thoughts and arguments that the texts present. The teaching experience of many of us suggests that most students simply cannot understand these texts. The increasing rate of change in the English language ensures that fewer and fewer of today’s readers can cope with the writings of the 16th-18th centuries. There are difficulties of syntax, length and complexity of sentences, words that are no longer current, still-familiar words used in meanings that they now do not have, arcane references to other philosophers which today’s students will seldom understand or be required to follow up; these and other factors create forbidding obstacles to engaging with these early modern texts. I reduce the obstacles so that students can more easily come to grips with the philosophical thoughts the texts express. Once they do that, they still won’t have an easy time, because the material itself is hard; but their efforts will go into getting philosophical understanding, not decoding old prose.

My versions are faithful to the content of the originals, but are plainer and more straightforward in manner. I could have made them even plainer, but that would have taken them further than I wanted to go from the stylistic feel of the originals. I love the original texts, and am glad to have spent years wrestling with them in their pristine form. I do wish, though, that through the years I could also have read them sometimes with all my energy going into the philosophy.

An average student, when required to read a stylistically difficult text, will either (1) confess defeat, or (2) glide along the surface of the text, getting a vague sense of having understood it. The greater disaster is (2). When so much in our world and indeed in our educational practices seduces people away from close and precise attention to the written word, it would be a sorry thing if this seduction were furthered by philosophy, which ought to be its most implacable enemy.

For further discussion of these matters, see my “On Translating Locke, Berkeley and Hume into English’, Teaching Philosophy 17 (1994), pp. 261-9.

--- JFB