The History of Rome (Mommsen)/Translator's preface

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
The History of Rome by Theodor Mommsen
Preface by the translator
Translated by William Purdie Dickson


When the first portion of this translation appeared in 1861, it was accompanied by a Preface, for which I was indebted to the kindness of the late Dr. Schmitz, introducing to the English reader the work of an author whose name and merits, though already known to scholars, were far less widely familiar than they are now. After thirty-three years such an introduction is no longer needed, but none the less gratefully do I recall how much the book owed at the outset to Dr. Schmitz's friendly offices.

The following extracts from my own "Prefatory Note" dated "December 1861" state the circumstances under which I undertook the translation, and give some explanations as to its method and aims:-- "In requesting English scholars to receive with indulgence this first portion of a translation of Dr. Mommsen's 'Romische Geschichte,' I am somewhat in the position of Albinus; who, when appealing to his readers to pardon the imperfections of the Roman History which he had written in indifferent Greek, was met by Cato with the rejoinder that he was not compelled to write at all--that, if the Amphictyonic Council had laid their commands on him, the case would have been different--but that it was quite out of place to ask the indulgence of his readers when his task had been self-imposed. I may state, however, that I did not undertake this task, until I had sought to ascertain whether it was likely to be taken up by any one more qualified to do justice to it. When Dr. Mommsen's work accidentally came into my hands some years after its first appearance, and revived my interest in studies which I had long laid aside for others more strictly professional, I had little doubt that its merits would have already attracted sufficient attention amidst the learned leisure of Oxford to induce some of her great scholars to clothe it in an English dress. But it appeared on inquiry that, while there was a great desire to see it translated, and the purpose of translating it had been entertained in more quarters than one, the projects had from various causes miscarried. Mr. George Robertson published an excellent translation (to which, so far as it goes, I desire to acknowledge my obligations) of the introductory chapters on the early inhabitants of Italy; but other studies and engagements did not permit him to proceed with it. I accordingly requested and obtained Dr. Mommsen's permission to translate his work.

"The translation has been prepared from the third edition of the original, published in the spring of the present year at Berlin. The sheets have been transmitted to Dr. Mommsen, who has kindly communicated to me such suggestions as occurred to him. I have thus been enabled, more especially in the first volume, to correct those passages where I had misapprehended or failed to express the author's meaning, and to incorporate in the English work various additions and corrections which do not appear in the original.

"In executing the translation I have endeavoured to follow the original as closely as is consistent with a due regard to the difference of idiom. Many of our translations from the German are so literal as to reproduce the very order of the German sentence, so that they are, if not altogether unintelligible to the English reader, at least far from readable, while others deviate so entirely from the form of the original as to be no longer translations in the proper sense of the term. I have sought to pursue a middle course between a mere literal translation, which would be repulsive, and a loose paraphrase, which would be in the case of such a work peculiarly unsatisfactory. Those who are most conversant with the difficulties of such a task will probably be the most willing to show forbearance towards the shortcomings of my performance, and in particular towards the too numerous traces of the German idiom, which, on glancing over the sheets, I find it still to retain. "The reader may perhaps be startled by the occurrence now and then of modes of expression more familiar and colloquial than is usually the case in historical works. This, however, is a characteristic feature of the original, to which in fact it owes not a little of its charm. Dr. Mommsen often uses expressions that are not to be found in the dictionary, and he freely takes advantage of the unlimited facilities afforded by the German language for the coinage or the combination of words. I have not unfrequently, in deference to his wishes, used such combinations as 'Carthagino-Sicilian,' 'Romano-Hellenic,' although less congenial to our English idiom, for the sake of avoiding longer periphrases.

"In Dr. Mommsen's book, as in every other German work that has occasion to touch on abstract matters, there occur sentences couched in a peculiar terminology and not very susceptible of translation. There are one or two sentences of this sort, more especially in the chapter on Religion in the 1st volume, and in the critique of Euripides as to which I am not very confident that I have seized or succeeded in expressing the meaning. In these cases I have translated literally. "In the spelling of proper names I have generally adopted the Latin orthography as more familiar to scholars in this country, except in cases where the spelling adopted by Dr. Mommsen is marked by any special peculiarity. At the same time entire uniformity in this respect has not been aimed at. "I have ventured in various instances to break up the paragraphs of the original and to furnish them with additional marginal headings, and have carried out more fully the notation of the years B.C. on the margin.

"It is due to Dr. Schmitz, who has kindly encouraged me in this undertaking, that I should state that I alone am responsible for the execution of the translation. Whatever may be thought of it in other respects, I venture to hope that it may convey to the English reader a tolerably accurate impression of the contents and general spirit of the book."

In a new Library edition, which appeared in 1868, I incorporated all the additions and alterations which were introduced in the fourth edition of the German, some of which were of considerable importance; and I took the opportunity of revising the translation, so as to make the rendering more accurate and consistent.

Since that time no change has been made, except the issue in 1870 of an Index. But, as Dr. Mommsen was good enough some time ago to send to me a copy in which he had taken the trouble to mark the alterations introduced in the more recent editions of the original, I thought it due to him and to the favour with which the translation had been received that I should subject it to such a fresh revision as should bring it into conformity with the last form (eighth edition) of the German, on which, as I learn from him, he hardly contemplates further change. As compared with the first English edition, the more considerable alterations of addition, omission, or substitution amount, I should think, to well-nigh a hundred pages. I have corrected various errors in renderings, names, and dates (though not without some misgiving that others may have escaped notice or been incurred afresh); and I have still further broken up the text into paragraphs and added marginal headings.

The Index, which was not issued for the German book till nine years after the English translation was published, has now been greatly enlarged from its more recent German form, and has been, at the expenditure of no small labour, adapted to the altered paging of the English. I have also prepared, as an accompaniment to it, a collation of pagings, which will materially facilitate the finding of references made to the original or to the previous English editions.

I have had much reason to be gratified by the favour with which my translation has been received on the part alike of Dr. Mommsen himself and of the numerous English scholars who have made it the basis of their references to his work.[1] I trust that in the altered form and new dress, for which the book is indebted to the printers, it may still further meet the convenience of the reader.

September 1894.

Notes for Preface[edit]

  1. It has, I believe, been largely in use at Oxford for the last thirty years; but it has not apparently had the good fortune to have come to the knowledge of the writer of an article on "Roman History" published in the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1886, which at least makes no mention of its existence, or yet of Mr. Baring-Gould, who in his Tragedy of the Caesars (vol. 1. p. 104f.) has presented Dr. Mommsen's well-known "character" of Caesar in an independent version. His rendering is often more spirited than accurate. While in several cases important words, clauses, or even sentences, are omitted, in others the meaning is loosely or imperfectly conveyed--e.g. in "Hellenistic" for "Hellenic"; "success" for "plenitude of power"; "attempts" or "operations" for "achievements"; "prompt to recover" for "ready to strike"; "swashbuckler" for "brilliant"; "many" for "unyielding"; "accessible to all" for "complaisant towards every one"; "smallest fibre" for "Inmost core"; "ideas" for "ideals"; "unstained with blood" for "as bloodless as possible"; "described" for "apprehended"; "purity" for "clearness"; "smug" for "plain" (or homely); "avoid" for "avert"; "taking his dark course" for "stealing towards his aim by paths of darkness"; "rose" for "transformed himself"; "checked everything like a praetorian domination" for "allowed no hierarchy of marshals or government of praetorians to come into existence"; and in one case the meaning is exactly reversed, when "never sought to soothe, where he could not cure, intractable evils" stands for "never disdained at least to mitigate by palliatives evils that were incurable."