162 out of 410 days: Translation and ‘Modern’ Prejudices

as in many particulars the desire of the multitude and the whim of the people were at variance with the interests of the republic

That is Yonge’s 1891 translation of a clause of chapter 103 of Cicero’s Pro Sestio.  Here is the Latin:

cum multis in rebus multitudinis studium aut populi commodum ab utilitate rei publicae discrepabat

The problem is commodum.  Cicero was a cranky old fart who had no time for the scum of Romulus’ cesspit, BUT he does not here speak of their whims.  [He’ll get to that topic just a few lines later.]  The English connotations of whims include: trivial matters not well thought out of perhaps only fleeting relevance.  That just isn’t how commodum is connoted in Latin.  It means something good and advantageous perhaps arriving at just the right moment.   It is very closely related in meaning to the next noun in Cicero’s passage “utilitate”.  Cicero’s point isn’t that the people don’t know what’s good for them.  It’s that what is good for the people is not good for the state.  It separates the identity of the people from the state.  That’s a pretty important idea to get across in the translation.  Yonge brings his own assumptions about the poor and their relationship to the upper classes to his reading of Cicero and thus sees implications that just aren’t there in the original.  

Now thanks to the public domain.  Many (most?!) readers of Cicero in translation will take Yonge’s prejudices for Cicero’s.

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