Nasty Business

Paradoxically, what is lost in the translation of Leviathan from English to Latin, reveals the real meaning of Hobbes's most quoted passage

The English first edition of Leviathan was published in 1651. Sixteen or seventeen years later, Hobbes returned to this celebrated and notorious work of political philosophy, and translated it into Latin. This Latin text was first published in 1668 as part of Hobbes’s Opera Philosophica.

Translation always involves interpretation. In the case of Leviathan Hobbes took advantage of the opportunity afforded by translation in some measure to recast the book. Whole sections of the original English version were omitted. Others were, in Noel Malcolm’s words, “so thoroughly rewritten as to constitute new texts”.  

The most famous phrase in Leviathan is Hobbes’s summary account in chapter 13 of the unpleasantness of the state of war that obtains if there is no “common Power” to keep men in awe. In these circumstances, Hobbes says, man’s life is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”. When Hobbes looked again at this phrase for the Latin translation, he dropped an adjective. In 1668, “vitaque hominum” is only “solitaria, indiga, bruta & brevis“. Why might Hobbes have offered no Latin equivalent for the English word “nasty”? Possibly because there was no single Latin word which captured its full range. In the mid-17th century “nasty” meant, at its most simple and basic, “filthy” or “dirty”. But this core meaning was surrounded by various strands of more or less metaphorical meaning. Of persons, it suggested annoyingness or contemptibleness. Of situations, one branch of signification was pungently physical: to say that a state of affairs was “nasty” was to imply that it was repellent, disagreeable, or nauseating. Another branch of signification, however, was ethical: in 1651 a “nasty” situation might entail lewdness or moral corruption. All of these possibilities are active in the 1651 Leviathan.

Latin is rich in words that overlap to some extent with that complicated semantic field. Amarus or gravis would correspond to the connotations of disagreeableness in “nasty”. Foedus, spurcus, taeter or immundus would match the sense of foulness in the English. Sordidus perhaps comes closest to being a full match. But all these Latin words would in some way blur or maim Hobbes’s idea of the unpleasantness of the state of war.

There are two reasons for revising. Most obviously, writers revise when they have changed their minds. In these cases, a change in ideas dictates a change in language. At other times, however, writers will choose new words when, far from having changed their minds, they are more than ever convinced of the truth of what they originally thought. Here revision is a way of underscoring the original, not scoring it through. Despite their occasional radical appearance, the revisions Hobbes made to the English text of Leviathan when he translated it into Latin seem for the most part to have been of this latter kind. He preferred to abbreviate, rather than to blur, the memorable characterisation he had given in 1651 of that state of war whose inconveniences impel men into political society.

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