SOME REFLECTIONS ON TRANSLATING SCHOLASTIC PHILOSOPHY
Alfred J. Freddoso
(These remarks were presented at the celebration of the Seventh Centenary of the birth of William of Ockham at St. Bonaventure University in the Fall of 1985)
I would be scandalously remiss were I not to preface my remarks on translation with two expressions of gratitude to the Franciscan Institute. First of all, I am very pleased to have been invited to participate in this celebration of Ockham, not merely for professional reasons but also because I have thereby been afforded the opportunity to return to the Southerntier, as this part of New York State is known to those of us who trace our roots to the Buffalo area. In my all too distant youth I worked for several years as a camp counsel lor down the road in Allegany State Park, and yesterday's drive through the Allegany River valley rekindled my love for this enchanting region and occasioned many fond memories as well. Second, I feel obligated to acknowledge publicly my own deep personal debt to those who have labored so diligently to produce the critical edition of Ockham's works. It is remarkable, indeed well-nigh astonishing, that the critical edition of Ockham's Opera Omnia should have been completed in such a short time--without, it should be emphasized, any sacrifice of quality.
Be it by design or not, the completion of this critical edition takes place within a philosophical milieu which, at least in the United States, is much more open to the insights of medieval philosophers than was the case just three or four decades ago during the heyday of those twin behemoths, logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy. And even within the last ten years or so we are witnessing a further shift away from philosophical provincialism, with the result that it is no longer necessary, in order to get a hearing for some medieval philosopher, to demonstrate that he was saying something very similar to what one or another important contemporary philosopher is saying; nowadays it is even permissible, as long as one does not get too enthusiastic, to contend that what a given medieval philosopher said is not only distinct from what prominent contemporary philosophers are saying but is something that contemporary philosophers ignore only at their own peril. This is a specially crucial concession to tradition given the current revival in certain Anglo-American philosophical circles of self-consciously theistic and even Christian philosophy. For where can such philosophy be better nurtured than in the study of the late medieval scholastics? In short, these are propitious and intellectually exciting times for those of us who are in the business of making translations of medieval scholastic philosophy available to the general philosophical public and who find ourselves at home both with medieval philosophy and with current philosophical developments. And the availability of trustworthy critical editions is an absolute necessity if our efforts are to be intellectually sound.
Having said this, I will proceed by making a few general remarks about the translation of medieval scholastic philosophy and then by focussing briefly on Ockham's works in particular.
Even though I claim to be a philosopher, I do not pretend to have any strictly philosophical knowledge of the concept of a translation. My grasp of this concept is at the level of doxa (opinion) rather than of episteme (knowledge) in Plato's scheme, or at the level of empeiria (experience) with a hint of techne (art) rather than at the level of sophia (knowledge of first principles), to use Aristotle's more fine-grained epistemic gradations. Like many of you, I have learned much from such self-reflective pieces as Jasper Hopkins' essay "What is a Translation?," which appears in volume four of Anselm of Canterbury, as well as from such rules of thumb as those which Hippocrates Apostle prefixes to his translation of Aristotle's Metaphysics. But where does all this leave us? Yes, translating is an activity distinct from transcribing or even decoding; yes, a good translation must strike a delicate balance between readability and faithfulness to the original; yes, one should acquaint oneself in a reasonably thorough way with the historical and systematic context of the text in question; yes, technical terms should be used as consistently as possible; and, no, one should not import contemporary technical terms where these would clearly be anachronistic, but should instead use notes and introductions to draw parallels where they seem fitting.
But these general principles and rules of thumb are obviously not of themselves sufficient to generate good translations or prevent bad ones. Translation of philosophical texts is at its best an art and, presupposing a sound philosophical and linguistic grounding, those of us who are apprentices and journeymen can get good at translating only by constantly practicing and, just as importantly, by submitting the resulting work to the judgment of those who have in effect attained the status of master craftsmen. In the case at hand, we who translate the late medieval scholastics into English are fortunate enough to have several such masters, some of whom are present here this weekend, including Father Wolter and Professors Kretzmann and Adams.
Of course, the master craftsmen themselves will not be in exact agreement about what is desirable or even required for a good translation of scholastic philosophy in general or of particular tracts or even passages. But this at least is a disagreement which can prove fruitful, since it forces us to search for creative solutions, translations that go a long way toward meeting diverse standards which, though they strictly speaking conflict with one another, are nonetheless separately justifiable. It is just such a creative tension which, in my own case, has led me over the last ten years to drift at least to a certain degree in the direction of literalness and to become very reluctant to tamper with sentence structure--even when I am translating the work of someone like Luis de Molina, who, whether because of a Renaissance-inspired desire to emulate Cicero or simply because of the sort of paranoiac tendency toward careful qualification that naturally results when one's work is regularly being sent off by intellectual foes to the relevant ecclesiastical authorities, often resorts to sentences that are twelve or thirteen or even fourteen lines long. For instance, when a sentence of such length is of the form 'Since A, B, C and D, it follows that E,' it is not at all clear that nothing is lost if one alters it to read 'A. B. C. D. So E.'
Luckily, in Ockham's works we seldom confront sentences that are fourteen lines long. Indeed, it is in part Ockham's terseness which makes his work an inviting target for the beginning translator--especially when the subject matter is circumscribed in some clearly recognizable ways, as it is in Ockham's logical works and in his treatment of universals. But even his more serious and abstruse theological treatises--on topics like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist and the causal efficacy of the Sacraments--are often more amenable to translation than are the corresponding tracts in Aquinas or Scotus.
I have no special tactics for dealing with Ockham, but I will take this opportunity to say a few things about the translation of his work in particular. It is useful, indeed almost essential, for the translator of Ockham's works to be guided by excellent secondary sources, sources which serve to situate particular discussions within the broader context of Ockham's philosophical and theological system as a whole. Though the last several decades have witnessed the growth of an increasingly impressive secondary literature on isolated aspects of Ockham's philosophy and theology, starting of course with the pioneering work of Ernest Moody and, needless to say in the present surroundings, of Father Boehner himself, we still do not have generally available a philosophically sound comprehensive survey of Ockham's thought. Luckily, this deplorable situation will soon be corrected with the publication by Notre Dame Press of Marilyn Adams' monumental work William Ockham. In addition, similar systematic considerations also lead me to endorse the suggestion that a comprehensive index of Ockham's Opera Omnia be compiled. (I should add parenthetically that I have been very satisfied with the indices which appear in the volumes of the critical edition and so even a simple collation of all those indices would be sufficient as far as I am concerned.)
As for other secondary sources, I have found Heiko Obermann's The Harvest of Medieval Theology, though mainly a work on Gabriel Biel, to be a relatively reliable guide to Ockham's thought as well on the topics it deals with. And it goes without saying that anyone who is translating material that touches directly on theological issues should have at least a non-specialist's passing acquaintance with those Patristic writings and teaching documents of the Church which serve as the background for the theological discussions of the late 13th and early 14th century.
In addition, it is crucial for those of us who translate Ockham to be thoroughly familiar with the work of his most important intellectual forbears and successors. Aquinas and Scotus are the most obviously important predecessors, and the editors of the critical edition have done a splendid job of pointing us to relevant sources in these two great thinkers as well as to works by others among Ockham's contemporaries and near contemporaries. With regard to Ockham's successors, as I drift more and more in the direction of the 15th and 16th and even early 17th century scholastics, I find Gabriel Biel and, interestingly, Francisco Suarez to be extremely helpful in getting me to appreciate various tendencies in and possible developments of Ockham's thought. In fact, it now seems to me that future translators should give serious thought to devoting at least part of their efforts to topical anthologies which trace important philosophical and theological controversies from Aquinas right up through Suarez. However, it goes without saying at this stage in the history of Ockham scholarship that we should be careful not to attribute to Ockham himself even those later views which are justifiably thought to be "natural" developments of what he in fact said on one or another topic.
Finally, my fervent hope is that translators of Ockham's works will in the future follow the lead given at this conference by Professors Kretzmann and Adams and begin to make available in English a representative sample of the entire Ockhamistic corpus, including his discussions of such topical metaphysical and ethical issues as causation, time, the relation between reason and will, the unity of the virtues, and the nature of human flourishing, as well as more specialized tracts on both natural and revealed theology.