Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the best version

SImon & Brown left, Hays on the right
Simon & Brown left, Hays on the right

I can’t remember who initially led me towards Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, but ever since that first reference, I have stumble upon many, who recommended it. As with most books, I find being recommended, by several different people, I ended up buying it. I’m not new to stoicism in any way, and if my memory treats me well, this was probably the third book, that in some way or form revolved around stoicism. Therefore the kind of heavy-to-read old english was semi-expected.

I started reading it with fairly high expectations, but very motivated and certain that this little book – and it really is; physically small – should be over with, in no time. But man was I in for a shock!

The expected heavy-to-read old english, was more like immoveable-heavy. Reading it really took a strain on me everytime. There were some really, really good parts – absolutely no doubt about it! But overall, even with my enthusiasm and motivation, I finally had to give up. I had read about half of the book, which (laughable as it is) only equates to about 40 pages. I’m by no means a speed-reader, but I read a lot, and that would in “normal” books, probably be one or maximum two sittings, with the book. With this one is was more like 10-15 sittings.

Finally I put it back on the shelf and went on to read some other book, not really knowing when or if I would return to it.

Maybe half a year later, I read something about Meditations again, and someone commented, what was close to my experience about the book; that it was almost unreadable – to which some other guy replied; that the only version worth reading was the Hays translation. Hmm – grabbed my book and looked – not the Hays version. Maybe there was hope. I went straight to amazon, found the Hays translation and ordered it.

Even though I was in the midst of two other books when it arrived, I started reading it right away. I had to find out, if this translation really was that superior – and low an behold – it really was. This was readable english. The short chapters(books as he calls them) was perfect for reading through on a sitting. And as expected, I started making lots of marks in the book – the content was really good.

What recently struck me, being two thirds through the book was; that maybe this is even too readable english. Are some of the original messages, getting somewhat washed away, by a perhaps too readable translation? I went back through the “old” translation and compared notes with the new Hays translation – were there parts that rang more true in the old translation than in the new?

As it turns out there actually were. Here is an example, first from the Hays translation – where I had not marked it:

If an action or utterance is appropriate, then it’s appropriate for you. Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do it, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say. The others obey their own lead, follow their own impulses. Don’t be distracted. Keep walking. Follow your own nature, and follow Nature – along the road they share.

Then the same passage from the “old” Simon & Brown edition – where I actually marked it:

Think thyself fit and worthy to speak, or to do anything that is according to nature, and let not the reproach, or report of some that may ensue upon it, ever deter thee. If it be right and honest to be spoken or done, undervalue not thyself so much, as to be discouraged from it. As for them, they have their own rational over-ruling part, and their own proper inclination: which thou must not stand and look about to take notice of, but go on straight, whither both thine own particular, and the common nature do lead thee; and the way of both these is but one.

This actually makes me question whether I at some point should pick up the “old” and heavy translation and fight my way through it.

First I complain about the text being too difficult to read, then I find the more readable translation and finally I find something to complain about, in that one as well. You just can’t seem to satisfy some people…

But where does this lead you, looking for the right translation to read? Strangely this is very easy for me to answer. Read the Hays translation: Meditations: A New Translation – at least at first. Read it because it’s actually readable. You may loose a little of the original content, but if it leaves you longing for more – buy the original(which there probably are a few of, mine is Simon and Brown edition) – after you read the hays version.

3 responses to “Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the best version”

  1. Try Maxwell Staniforth’s translation. 1960s Penguin Classic.

    1. Oh – that’s a version I have never heard of. Thanks for the tip.

  2. I just read Hicks’ “The Emperors handbook”

    By far the best adaptation yet.

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