I’m sure we’ve all heard of Marcus Aurelius’ ancient philosophical book Meditations, either on a podcast, or through a recommendation from a friend. The question you may be asking though is which translation of the text should you read. In this article, we will cover three different translations and the differences between them to help you choose.
We know how important (and difficult) it is to find a good translation of philosophical books, so doing a bit of research will save you both time and money! The quality of a philosophy book is highly dependent on the type of the translation it undergoes; this is even more relevant if the translation is from Latin or Ancient Greek into modern English. This is the case with many books from the ancient world, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is no exception. In this article, we will focus on translations of Meditations that are available to the wider public, specifically to those who are new to philosophy.
1. Meditations: A New Translation by Gregory Hays
Gregory Hays’ translation is often considered to be the best English translation, with nearly 19,000 reviews on Amazon, averaging 4.7/5. For general purposes, we certainly recommend this modern-day translation. We have one caveat though, which is to be sure that you read the newer version, because Hays revised his original translation. I personally find that the language resonates with me, and I find the endnotes extremely helpful.
Meditations is a series of personal thoughts and exercises from the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. His work is filled with insight into his philosophy, along with his observations on human behavior, and guidance on how readers can improve themselves. According to a review by Penguin Random House, this “remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written.”
The advice Marcus Aurelius offers makes Meditations a highly useful guide to those who want to improve themselves or gain insight into Stoic philosophy. Hays’ translation is eloquently written so that the text is highly accessible to philosophers and ordinary readers alike. However, even if Gregory Hays’ translation is beautiful, bear in mind that it may not always be an accurate representation of what Marcus Aurelius actually said.
2. Meditations: with selected correspondence (Oxford World’s Classics) – translation by Robin Hard
This translation by Robin Hard brings out the eloquence and universality of Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts. Whilst it’s a less common translation, it still boasts a high rating of 4.7/5 on Amazon and provides a unique introduction with notes by Christopher Gill. This all combined makes this version of Meditations a great choice for your journey into the mind of Marcus Aurelius. A selection of Marcus Aurelius’ correspondence with his tutor Fronto broadens our picture of the emperor as a person and thinker.
In my opinion, Robin Hard’s translation offers us a more intimate and direct approach to Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts, while Hays’ (whose translation is still great without question) is more sympathetic towards readers. I will compare their different translations of the same passage, and you can decide for yourself which one you prefer.
“MY FIRST TEACHER: Not to support this side or that in chariot-racing, this fighter or that in the games. To put up with discomfort and not make demands. To do my own work, mind my own business, and have no time for slanderers.”(transl. Hays)
“From my tutor, not to have sided with the Greens or the Blues at the races, or the fighters with the light shields or the heavy in the amphitheater; to endure hardship, and have few needs; to do things for myself and not meddle in the affairs of others; and to turn a deaf ear to slander.”(transl. Hard)
3. The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations – translated by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks
For ease of reading alone, The Emperor’s Handbook soars above both previous and recent editions of Meditations. The prose is rendered in modern American English – clearly delivered and designed to present Marcus Aurelius to a contemporary audience.
Short sidebar quotes are included every two or three pages, which allows readers to skim through the book while still capturing the enduring wisdom it contains. Even the most casual readers can become acquainted with Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts in a very short time simply by reading this translation.
However, what these skim readers would miss are the extensive notes that support much of the text and contribute to the book’s strength. For those interested in pursuing further study on either Meditations or the Stoic philosophy in general, Hicks and Hicks list plenty of additional reference material in their short introduction.
“Stop trying to make something of it, and you will rid yourself of the notion, ‘I’ve been wronged.’ Overcome your hurt feelings or injured pride in this way, and you will get rid of the wrong itself.”(transl. Hicks & Hicks)
4. Meditations (Penguin Classics) – translated by Martin Hammond
For everyone that’s unsure of the translations we’ve provided above, then we have one final recommendation. Simply put, you can’t go wrong with the trusty Penguin translation by Martin Hammond. Aurelius’ musings and thoughts are captured and depicted in a very cohesive and understandable way in the Penguin translation of Meditations.
For a price point of less than $1 on the Kindle version, or less than $10 for every paperback above, you’re gaining the knowledge of one of the world’s most successful emperors in the history of humanity for the price of a couple of coffees (or less). No matter which translation you purchase from the above, or if you’ve done your own research and found a translation that you may prefer, the knowledge gained from this text is the most important part. As we’re all avid readers of Stoic text here at The Wise Mind, it’s safe to say that you’ve made a great choice.