Book Review: “Thucydides: On Justice, Power, and Human Nature” by Paul Woodruff

One of my current work projects is this collection of selected passages from Thucydides, summarized and translated by Woodruff. It is not a scholarly work in the traditional sense, featuring a stated thesis, supported by analysis of evidence. The scholarship lies in the curation and translations, which present an argument about what Thucydides’ preoccupations and concerns are. Namely, what it means to pursue justice, how power is deployed, and the influence of human nature on actions and outcomes.

I’m finding it thought provoking in the extreme. The way Woodruff puts passages side-by-side has made me not only see things in Thucydides that I had not been consciously aware of before but also think about ancient Greek festivals, and culture at large, from a new perspective. It has made me even more convinced of the need for cross-disciplinary studies.

Here is one of the more famous (at least in the anglophone scholarship I’ve read) passages, rendered three ways:

Thucydides: «κτημα τε σε αιει μάλλον η αγώνισμα ες το παραχρημα ακουειν ξυγκειται.» *

Benjamin Jowett: “My history is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten.”

Rex Warner: “My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever.”

Woodruff: “this was composed to be a lasting possession and not to be heard for a prize at the moment of a contest.”

I would love to hear your thoughts on Thucydides and translations of him (and challenges therein) in the comments, as always.

* friendly reminder that my modern Greek keyboard does not allow me to reproduce the breathings and accents, so spellings are approximate.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Thucydides: On Justice, Power, and Human Nature” by Paul Woodruff

  1. I love comparing translations. I wish I could read Ancient Greek, alas! Which translation of the three do you think is most accurate? That aside, is there one that you prefer? To me, as someone who can’t read the origin language, I feel like the Rex Warner version is the most pleasant but I feel like it might be farthest from the original because something about the turn of phrase feels very modern.

    1. I love comparing them as well! It’s so fascinating and prompts me to think more deeply about the choices I and other translators make and what is happening in the original. I definitely prefer Jowett and Woodruff because they’re more precise. Though the grammar is hard to parse in Thucydides, there seems to be a definite reference to a contest, which makes me think he is contrasting his history, which he written to be read and reread and apply to any situation, with myth retellings that are shaped for the moment of performance. Long story short: You have awesome instincts! Warner, to me, feels like he is leaving the historical context (ironically?!) behind and making it more accessible for a non-specialist modern audience.

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