Pondering Cicero in Translation


With a pending birthday raising my age to an impressive number, I’ve been thinking about things to do “while I can,” before the constrictions of real old age. Not just a bucket list of places to go and things to do for myself, but projects that might assist or give pleasure to others later. I’m hoping I still have plenty of time.Books study

Last fall, I read a mystery novel that used sentences from Cicero as chapter headers. One line held a strong appeal for me. It read, “No one is so old that he does not expect to live a year longer.” I copied it into my journal because it expressed so well my usual optimistic feeling that there’s always at least a little more time for being energetic and effective and enjoying life.

I liked the line so much, in fact, that I bought a copy of Cicero’s treatise that was its source: On Old Age. But in my new purchase, the line was translated as “No one is so old as to think that he may not live a year.” Did that say exactly the same thing? I didn’t think so; it didn’t call forth the same cheerful response in me.

Cicero 1Translators have a difficult task. In this case, each translator started with a two-thousand-year-old document in Latin and tried to turn it into good English understandable by present-day readers. After reading each sentence several times, I decided the chief difference depended on two critical words in the first version: “expect” (more forward-looking than “think”) and “longer” (instead of just “a year”).

Though Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106 B.C., he was speaking to me, I thought. But what was he actually saying? I asked my friend Mike, a classical scholar, if he had a favorite translation of the treatise. He brought me two.

In Mike’s university press edition of On Old Age, the line read, “No man ever gets so old that he thinks he won’t live out the year.” This was yet another construction, one that prompted a question. Does “live out the year” mean “till next New Year’s Day” or “till Cicero 2the next birthday”? Those two dates could differ by months, depending on where one is in the calendar. I read all three versions again and saw that “to live a year longer” is the most elastic phrase, because it allows time to keep stretching out, the end point retreating day by lived-in day.

Last, I read the Penguin Classics edition’s version: “No one is too old to think he has another year to live.” This seemed close to the first rendition, though faintly confusing. It tempted me to delete the negative and clarify it (prosaically) as “People always think they have another year to live.”Cicero 3

So. Four versions, all different. Because my Latin education stopped after tenth grade, there’s no point in my trying to wrestle my own translation from the original. Since the chief desire of Cicero throughout the whole treatise was to champion his claim that old age is a pleasurable time of life, I think I’ll make my motto be the line with the most optimistic prospect of time remaining: “No one is so old that he does not expect to live a year longer.”

Of course I will!

2 comments on “Pondering Cicero in Translation

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