What to do about old translations swamping the free e-book world?

Recently I’ve integrated both a Linux based netbook and an iPod touch into my computing. This has prompted me to look for free e-books of classics in philosophy. There are many. Of course, many of these classics are old translations, such as Jowett’s Platonic Dialogues.

Which raises a question for researching philosophers: what should publishers of newer translations (e.g. the translations by Woodruff et al. in the Cooper Collected Dialogues of Plato) do in response?

Obviously, the short run economics of this points to *not* making their translations free. But if these works are being massively downloaded, read, and used, I think philosophers need to ask themselves if they really want the older translations (some of which are, by our lights, bad) swamping the newer ones? I mean, isn’t it more important to be read by thousands than to be paid (usually) in pennies? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be a meme in the culture than have $20 bucks in my pocket. Of course this question applies to all areas of scholarship, but I’m a philosopher.



P.D. Magnus said...

Any new translation could reach a wider audience by being made available less expensively, but prestigious translators have nonetheless opted to publish with prestigious presses. This is nothing new - it has always been the case that the inexpensive editions of classic texts by Penguin were older (often public domain) translations.

With electronic versions, there is a further option. For public domain translations that are fairly good, except for a few problem sections or infelicities, anyone might clean them up and offer a new hybrid translation under an open license.

Dhananjay said...

In response to this post, I've created a blog where I hope to lay out a rough translation of Plato's Protagoras over the next couple of months at the rate of a page a day. My hope is that people will contribute corrections and improvements and that the result will be a 'crowd-sourced' translation into English of not too artificial or literary or archaic a variety (except of course where Plato's own style demands such a rendering), which might be of some use to modern readers. I've put up the first page of the text now, which is part of the rather colloquial and bantering conversation that frames the dialogue.

cathal woods said...

David -

I agree with the line of thought you express here and so prepared translations of Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito for distribution on-line at the SSRN (ssrn.com/author=849922 or search for my name) under a Creative Commons license.

I am currently working on Meno and Rep I&II.

If any others would like to work in a consortium, please get in touch (cathalwoods at gmail dot com)


wringe said...

'it has always been the case that the inexpensive editions of classic texts by Penguin were older (often public domain) translations.'

That's not, in fact, correct. To take one example I know of - because he taught som school friends of mine - Martin Hammond's relatively recent translation of the Iliad is a Penguin Classic


And if I remember rightly, Martin Ferguson Smith's translation of Lucretius De Rerum Natura is available in a fairly inexpensive Hackett edition

Blinn said...

Um...encourage people to read them?

I'm not sure I see the problem. The newer translations--e.g. the Hackett volumes--are already available in dirt-cheap paperback editions. If you want your students to read a particular translation, put it on the required texts list. But how could this become anything approaching a problem with, say, intro students, who form the vast majority of the readership? (And why would we want to distract them at that level with more than a passing gestures toward the technicalities of translation?) At the intro level, one should just be happy about those few students who actually do the reading. About the worst problem they'd suffer from exposure to Jowett would be possibly developing an ear for literary English. Perish the thought.

hilde said...

@Blinn. The problem may not be with intro students (though I have had plenty of students avoid buying a newer translations in favor of an older one which I was not using in class); rather, the problem is with everyone who is taking the easy route to easy and free but outdated translations.

Perhaps "problem" isn't a word to use. My point is that (a) if significant effort has been put by scholars into creating a better translation of a philosophical work and (b) scholars wish to be read by more than just their classes or the scholarly community, then there is a legitimate worry that their efforts will be swamped by free, digital content that people are collecting via computers, iPods, iPads, etc.

Blinn said...

I appreciate the force of your remarks, though I'm inclined to think that the real problem is a basic mismatch between the scope of (a) and the historical realities confronted by (b). No doubt, academics struggle mightily to produce "better" translations of historical works. The problems are (1) that the very factors which function as indices of improvement among members of the scholarly community find little or no recognition or appreciation outside its confines; and (2) that the impact of new translations is negligible outside that community. My (admittedly unverified) hunch is that the vast majority of even paperback editions of philosophy text purchases are parasitic upon the college textbook--and mostly intro level--market. Given that environment, I'd say the most rational response is to urge people to read the free stuff, and then if they find it interesting, to invite them into the scholarly community--even if only for brief visits--for more.

hilde said...

By "better" all I need to mean to make my argument is that new translations are more readable.

Woodruff's Plato is more accessible and readable by the average reader. So, instead of banging their head against an old, 19th c. translation, they "get into Plato."

There are other virtues (accuracy of translation, etc.) that make recent translations better, but I'm most concerned about the average person not getting turned off to antiquated or cumbersome prose.

EEK said...

For students, some newer translations could easily be made available as free e-books accessible through their college library system just as Oxford Univ. Press and others now do with selected monographs and reference works. Students, having a specific and free access point would end up using these assigned translations rather than older ones which would require additional searching. Even if translators could negotiate with publishers in order to post their own more readable translations online for the general public, the older translations would still be so widely available that people would gravitate towards them just as the general public often buy older translations in bookstores even when newer ones cost about the same.

Amod said...

The question is simple: what is the purpose of your translation?

If it is to expand knowledge and benefit humanity, you publish it online for free, where the majority of the world's population can find it.

If it is to get you an academic job and tenure, you go through a print publisher, who will pay money to hide it away from the world, but who will nevertheless look good on your CV. If you have decided to stake your future on the possibility of an academic job, then this is probably the correct approach. Just don't be surprised when people ignore it in favour of the works they can get for free.

hilde said...

@Amod. Good point, but perhaps there are people who already have academic jobs with job security but still want to be read by a public larger than the ones that advanced them professionally. Indeed, many of the best academic translators are quite secure, professionally, but still want to be read by more than just other academics. This is why your answer does not fully address the issue, though it does address it partially.

Joe said...

Another interesting angle on this issue is the move among university libraries to purchase electronic access for their newer acquisitions. So for example, my institution has done this with some of the new Brill translations which are outrageously expensive ($100-200 and only available in hardback). Taking this route means that - at least for students and faculty - these new translations are available online to everyone.

Of course, the software that makes these texts readable always seems to hang on my computer after I read only a few pages, so there are some frustrating kinks to work out....

Amod said...

Hilde: the people you're speaking of are exactly the ones I think should publish their translations online. Then a wider, non-academic audience can read them for free without having access to an academic library.