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I am reading the Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium by Seneca, both in the original Latin and in various translations for comparison/understanding (English, French, Italian, German). For the following sentence, I have an issue with most of the translations, except the German:

“(Et si volueris attendere), magna pars vitae elabitur male agentibus, maxima nihil agentibus, tota vita aliud agentibus.”

I include the different translations below and their sources. I note that EN, FR, and IT seem to translate “magna pars” as roughly “largest portion” and “maxima pars” as roughly “a considerable part”, even though it seems to me that it should be the reverse - which is exactly what I find in the German translation. Is German correct, or are the former, or both? Is there something about how “magna” and “maxima” are being used here that allows for the interpretation found in the former?

EN: “… the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.” (wikisource)

FR: “… la plus grande part de la vie se passe à mal faire, une grande à ne rien faire, le tout à faire autre chose que ce qu’on devrait” (wikisource)

IT: “… la maggior parte della vita se ne va mentre operiamo malamente, una porzione notevole mentre non facciamo nulla, tutta quanta la vita mentre siamo occupati in cose que non ci riguardano” (Lettere morali a Lucilio, 2013, Mondadori, ebook)

DE: “… ein großer Teil des Lebens entgleitet den Menschen, wenn sie Schlechtes tun, der größte, wenn sie nichts tun, das ganze Leben, wenn sie Nebensächliches tun” (Seneca Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Teil 1, Reclam)

Gratias!

EDIT

I am including here the preceding sentences for more context and clarity.

[1] Ita fac, mi Lucili: vindica te tibi, et tempus quod adhuc aut auferebatur aut subripiebatur aut excidebat collige et serva. Persuade tibi hoc sic esse ut scribo: quaedam tempora eripiuntur nobis, quaedam subducuntur, quaedam effluunt. Turpissima tamen est iactura quae per neglegentiam fit. Et si volueris attendere, magna pars vitae elabitur male agentibus, maxima nihil agentibus, tota vita aliud agentibus.

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    Welcome to the site! The sense of the German also seems quite different to me, beside the specific question you posed. The first three seem to be talking about everybody, and the German seems to be categorizing different types of people. I am not familiar with the full context and so cannot give an informed opinion as to which is right. Feb 19, 2022 at 14:32
  • @Vegawatcher thanks! Yes, I noticed that too; Seneca is giving Lucilius advice on how best to use one’s time, and here he is warning him to see how others waste their time in life. I’m a bit rusty on my Latin, so I don’t know which of the two different interpretations is more accurate.
    – polygokko
    Feb 20, 2022 at 3:41
  • @Vegawatcher: Hmm I would not read the German translation as referring to different groups/types of people any more than the other translations.
    – Cerberus
    Feb 20, 2022 at 5:04
  • @Cerberus: I am not sure what particular nuance "wenn" has in these sentences ("jedes mal, wenn" or "für den Fall, dass"), but it seems to focus on three different potential situations that can happen to someone. To me, the English and French seem to be talking about three things that always happen to everyone. Out of context and without a clear antecedent I can see, the Latin seems also to be talking about three different types of "agentibus," rather than three aspects of everyone's life. Feb 20, 2022 at 11:09
  • @Vegawatcher Neither the German nor the Latin is categorising - in the former "den Menschen" = "uns " and in the latter "nōbīs X agentibus" = "dum nōs hominēs X agimus". Feb 20, 2022 at 15:36

2 Answers 2

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You're generally correct - only the German translation corresponds to the Latin magna pars vitae elabitur [...], maxima... What underlies the other translations is a different manuscript reading where magna and maxima are switched around: maxima pars vitae elabitur male agentibus, magna nihil agentibus, tota vita aliud agentibus. An article elaborates (p. 42):

While 'maxima ... magna ... tota' is found in an overwhelming number of manuscripts, 'magna ... maxima ... tota' appears in a few. (Backed in the past by Erasmus and Lipsius because it constitutes a rhetorical gradatio or crescendo, this rarer reading has now received a seal of approval in L. D. Reynolds's critical edition for the same reason.)

Erasmus backs it as follows:

Quidam inverterant sermonis ordinem, 'maxima male agentibus, magna nihil agentibus', sed inepte. Debet enim oratio gradibus crescere: 'magna, maxima, tota'.


To me as well the gradation magna ... maxima ... tōta at first appeared clearly preferrable, both on stylistic grounds as well as in light of the rest of the translation, but after adding a couple of translation remarks below it became evident that all the translations presented here fundamentally misinterpret the passage, which actually makes sense in the maxima ... magna reading.

What I think the passage says is "If one takes a close look, [one will find that] most of our life slips away while/when doing things badly (or messing things up?), a large part while/when achieving nothing at all (neither good nor bad?), but the whole of it while/when doing something other than what we should be doing, something that's not fundamental." Whatever he's trying to say with the first two, the last one clearly refers to his jactūra per neglegentiam: the worst situation, the biggest waste of our life is when the very aim of our exertions is misguided.

The reading maxima pars nihil agentibus would mean that everyone abjectly failed most of the time, in which case the world would be going backwards, a pessimism hardly attributable to Seneca or his age, or to the Romans as a whole. And if, like the majority of the translators, we retain the predominant reading maxima ... magna and take nihil agentibus to literally mean "doing nothing at all", then the passage means that doing nothing wastes less life than doing something but badly, which makes no sense.


My translation remarks are:

  1. All the translations apart from the Italian one appear to be mistaken when they say 'doing ill, mal faire, Schlechtes tun' - apart from this conflicting with the meaning of agere, this whole letter is not about doing good or bad deeds, but about wasting time by not putting enough thought into our actions. "To do ill, inflict something bad" uses a different verb - facere, and will be either male facere or malum facere. Seneca's meaning is "to go about doing things badly and so achieve bad results", perhaps more precisely "to make things worse".

  2. The same concerns nihil agere - this is not a literal "to do nothing at all, to be at leisure", but an idiom meaning "to do as good as nothing, to accomplish nothing, to waste one's time", a meaning which is made even more evident by the preceeding "doing things badly" and the following "doing the wrong things".

  3. To address what Vegawatcher says, the tricolon doubtless describes the same common lifetime, and the "three different types of people" interpretation must be due to being unfamiliar with Latin's use of present participles which prototypically stand for dum/cum temporal clauses as opposed to being adjectival (let alone substantivised). Their subject is introduced one sentence above as nōbīs. The information structure of the text combined with agentēs being a temporary-state and not an inherent-type description allows no different interpretation. The clauses would be un-telescoped as follows: magna pars vītae nōbīs ēlābitur dum male agimus... More details in the comments to Vegawatcher's answer.

Linked article:

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    "Incidentally, all the translations apart from the Italian one appear to be mistaken when they say "doing ill, mal faire, Schlechtes tun" - this whole letter is not about doing good or bad deeds, but about wasting time by not putting enough thought into our actions. " I think that is an excellent point. It is not doing ill/evil, that is the problem, but acting poorly, acting on nothing, or acting on the wrong thing. Feb 20, 2022 at 16:26
  • There is the curious case of this side-by-side Latin/German edition which has the magna/maxima/tota order in Latin, but translates it as größte/großer/ganze. The remarks section notes the sentence features a “Trikolon” but is otherwise silent. (Tusculum is a reputable series!) Feb 20, 2022 at 19:01
  • @SebastianKoppehel You know, after concluding that all the translators have misinterpreted the sentence in exactly the same way, it occurs to me that Latin translations were/are commonly done by translating mainly from a modern language and not from Latin, the latter being more for reference. A simple editorial mix-up would explain that German edition but not everything else. I wonder if anyone in the habit of comparing multilanguage translations like the OP does has seen more evidence for this. Feb 21, 2022 at 2:50
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    @Unbrutal_Russian tibi multas gratias! I didn’t know there were two versions of the text. Your other remarks on the translation are also helpful.
    – polygokko
    Feb 21, 2022 at 3:31
  • @Unbrutal_Russian Except for the Latin and German text, the others I’ve read use largest/large/all. I had also read the Spanish on wikisource, but then noticed that EN, ES, and FR, all from wikisource, had the same order and wondered if maybe they all copied each other (oddly enough, the Latin version on wikisource has magna/maxima/tota). I also have a pdf from an old German version, and also downloaded an ebook sample from a more recent English translation to check, and both have the wikisource sequence (though the English version has a footnote, which I can’t see unless I buy the book).
    – polygokko
    Feb 22, 2022 at 17:40
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Welcome to the site!

I am reading the Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium by Seneca, both in the original Latin and in various translations for comparison/understanding (English, French, Italian, German). For the following sentence, I have an issue with most of the translations, except the German:

“(Et si volueris attendere), magna pars vitae elabitur male agentibus, maxima nihil agentibus, tota vita aliud agentibus.”

Rather than continuing to comment, I think I am ready to venture my first actual answer, having now actually researched the full context of this quote.

First, at least one version of Seneca's words I found differs from yours. This site has:

Et si volueris attendere, maxima pars vitae elabitur male agentibus, magna nihil agentibus, tota vita aliud agentibus.

Notice that maxima and magna are reversed from the version you posted. I do not know which version is correct or if both versions have come down to us through the textual tradition, but this accounts for some of the differences in the translations.

When I read the full text, to me the German version comes closest to how I understand the Latin (except for the reversal of maxima and magna) because it does not restate the topic and leaves the reference vague. Seneca is addressing a particular person, Lucilius, and first warning against wasted aspects of life common to all of us. Then he elaborates with the generic reference you have quoted.

The Latin phrase si volueris attendere could be addressed specifically to Lucilius or could be a "generalizing" second person addressed to everyone in general. Previously, he says:

quaedam tempora eripiuntur nobis, quaedam subducuntur, quaedam effluunt

certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach

He then ups the ante by saying:

Turpissima tamen est iactura, quae per neglegentiam fit.

The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness.

To me, this comment implies that the first three kinds of loss may be beyond our control, but carelessness is something that we do have the power to avoid.

Then Seneca expands with the three situations you cited without repeating any reference to the first person plural, leaving open exactly what he is talking about.

To me, his math works out only if he is talking about three different types of people or three different types of behavior and not if he is saying that we all tend to engage in all three types. To me, maxima, magna, and tota are words that cannot apply to the same lifetime, but seem like comments on different types of people. There are people who ignore morality most of the time and so waste most of their lives, accomplishing little of true worth. There are people who don't amount to much and so waste a good part of their lives. And there are people hellbent on doing things not worth doing and so waste their entire lives.

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    I'd like to reciprocate and upvote your answer, but unfortunately your "three different types of people" interpretation cannot be correct. It took a mental backflip for me to even see how the sentence could be read this way - the backflip was out of Latin and into some modern language that doesn't use participles the way Latin does. In addition, that interpretation is only possible when the topic of the sentence is three different types of vīta ēlāpsa associated with some substantivised agentēs. Feb 20, 2022 at 16:48
  • @Unbrutal_Russian: I agree with you that it should be about the same generalised person who may behave differently during his life, not three different types of person. But, if we did not have this strong semantic reason, I don't see why substantivised participles couldn't have been used in the way you exclude?
    – Cerberus
    Feb 20, 2022 at 17:11
  • @Cerberus When truly substantivised they can't take adverbs or complements like male and nihil. By taking these they're signalling being telescoped clauses, and these clauses express temporal states as opposed to being restrictive. I think even in Late Latin already you can find agēns used in the philosophical/linguistic substantive sense. Feb 20, 2022 at 17:13
  • @Unbrutal_Russian: Hmm well, I didn't mean the philosophical sense, just using them substantively, i.e. not modifying a head noun. E.g. "to those acting poorly, he gave twenty sesterces; to those doing nothing, he gave a young sparrow". If this were semantically possible, would it sound impossible to you?
    – Cerberus
    Feb 20, 2022 at 17:20
  • @Cerberus It would be possible if the context first established there being a group of people (X agentēs) and then proceeded to list the correspondences in a typical subgroup 1 -> life 1 topic-comment structure, simulatenously defining the groups. This order is reversed in our case and I'd say it's only possible if the three groups and the three types of living have been listed beforehand and established as given information, at which point the author specifies which group is associated with what type of living: "the ones who lose the biggest part of their life is the act-poorly people". Feb 20, 2022 at 18:46

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