Thursday, March 22, 2012

"I am human: nothing human is alien to me"

Homo sum : humani nihil a me alienum puto.
Vel me monere hoc vel percontari puta:
Rectum'st, ego ut faciam ; non est, te ut deterream.

-- Publius Terentius Afer, Heauton Timorumenos

I am a man: and think myself interested in everything that concerns mankind. Imagine that I wish either to advise you, or to be informed myself: If what you do, is right, I would follow your example; if wrong, I would dissuade you from persisting in it.

-- Terence, "The Self Tormentor", Anonymous (?) translation, 1777

I am a man, and feel for all mankind.
Think, I advise, or ask for information:
If right, that I may do the same; if wrong,
To turn you from it.

-- Trans. George Coleman

I'm human, so any human interest is my concern. Call it solicitude or curiosity on my part, whichever you like. If you're right I'll copy you, and if you're wrong I'll try to make you mend your ways.

-- Trans. Betty Radice, 1965
Anyone know of any particular good translations of this passage? There are several nineteenth century ones online, but I like all of them less than either of these versions. Most of the more recent ones don't have a preview function. I suppose I'll have to go into an actual library, with books on dead trees -- how quaint.

Incidentally, if Wikiquotes is to be believed, this same play is also the source of the familiar phrases "time heals all wounds" (line 421, "Diem adimere aegritudinem hominibus") and "where there's life there's hope" (line 981, "Modo liceat vivere, est spes").

I came across these lines in Kwame Anthony Appiah's article in the NY Times six years ago, "The Case for Contamination"; something recently recalled them to me, so I dug them up. Here's the passage from that article where Appiah discusses this passage:

Our guide to what is going on here might as well be a former African slave named Publius Terentius Afer, whom we know as Terence. Terence, born in Carthage, was taken to Rome in the early second century B.C., and his plays - witty, elegant works that are, with Plautus's earlier, less-cultivated works, essentially all we have of Roman comedy - were widely admired among the city's literary elite. Terence's own mode of writing - which involved freely incorporating any number of earlier Greek plays into a single Latin one - was known to Roman littérateurs as "contamination."

It's an evocative term. When people speak for an ideal of cultural purity, sustaining the authentic culture of the Asante or the American family farm, I find myself drawn to contamination as the name for a counterideal. Terence had a notably firm grasp on the range of human variety: "So many men, so many opinions" was a line of his. And it's in his comedy "The Self-Tormentor" that you'll find what may be the golden rule of cosmopolitanism - Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto; "I am human: nothing human is alien to me." The context is illuminating. A busybody farmer named Chremes is told by his neighbor to mind his own affairs; the homo sum credo is Chremes's breezy rejoinder. It isn't meant to be an ordinance from on high; it's just the case for gossip. Then again, gossip - the fascination people have for the small doings of other people - has been a powerful force for conversation among cultures.

...A tenable global ethics has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices. That's why cosmopolitans don't insist that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they don't have all the answers. They're humble enough to think that they might learn from strangers; not too humble to think that strangers can't learn from them. Few remember what Chremes says after his "I am human" line, but it is equally suggestive: "If you're right, I'll do what you do. If you're wrong, I'll set you straight."

I like the little fragments of translation that Appiah gives -- I don't know their source (all google results for that precise wording seem to be quotes of Appiah -- perhaps he's the translator?) -- better than any of the others above:
I am human: nothing human is alien to me.
If you're right, I'll do what you do. If you're wrong, I'll set you straight.

-- Translation by K. Anthony Appiah (?)
...except, of course, for that irritating missing middle line.

Anyone feel like translating "Vel me monere hoc vel percontari puta:" in the style of Appiah? Or, again, does, anyone know of a good translation of this passage? If you have any at hand, please leave the translations of these lines (77-79) in comments.

Later Update: I just recently had occasion to read Appiah's book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers -- a terrific book, incidentally, highly recommended -- from which the above-quoted article was adapted. And in the book Appiah actually gives the entire quote, including the missing line. So here is the passage, in the full Appiah version:
I am human: nothing human is alien to me. Either I want to find out for myself or I want to advise you: think what you like. If you're right, I'll do what you do. If you're wrong, I'll set you straight.

-- Translation by K. Anthony Appiah
...and yes, judging by the notes Appiah himself is indeed the translator here (he doesn't have a note on this specific passage, but he says generally that uncited translations are his own).

So there: a translation of the entire three-line passage, in the style of Appiah -- as done by Appiah himself. Glad I found it.

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