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Following John Bostock's 1855 translation of Pliny the Elder: The Natural History, II 44–45:

I know not whether she ought not to be considered as our instructress in everything that can be known respecting the heavens; as that the year is divided into the twelve divisions of the months, since she follows the sun for the same number of times, until he returns to the commencement of his course; and that her brightness, as well as that of the other stars, is regulated by that of the sun, if indeed they all of them shine by light borrowed from him, such as we see floating about, when it is reflected from the surface of water. On this account it is that she dissolves so much moisture, by a gentle and less perfect force, and adds to the quantity of that which the rays of the sun con- sume

Here it says “if indeed they all of them …”

But in this 1938 edition from the Loeb Classical Library, translated by H. Rackham, it says:

… as in fact she shines with a light entirely borrowed from him …

Why there are differences in translation, which is changing the whole meaning of sentences?

The Latin text is as follows:

haut scio an omnium, quae in caelo pernosci potuerunt, magistra: in XII mensium spatia oportere dividi annum, quando ipsa totiens solem redeuntem ad principia consequitur; solis fulgore, ut reliqua siderum, regi, siquidem in totum mutuata ab eo luce fulgere, qualem in repercussu aquae volitare conspicimus; ideo molliore et inperfecta vi solvere tantum umorem atque etiam augere, quem solis radii absumant

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  • Could you edit in the Latin text?
    – dbmag9
    Jun 30, 2022 at 7:56
  • 2
    @dbmag9 I have edited Jun 30, 2022 at 8:21
  • I replaced the image with text, copied from LacusCurtius; the only difference, as far as I can see, is that it has XII instead of duodecim. Note that Naturalis Historia is generally translated as “Natural History” and not “History of Nature,” although that would probably be equally correct (and equally misleading, as historia is not used in the usual (even in Latin) sense of “past events” here). Jul 5, 2022 at 19:00

1 Answer 1

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The Latin word here is sidquidem (= si quidem), and if you look it up, you will find that it can mean both things:

  • if indeed
  • since

The first, condicional meaning is certainly the original one, since si pretty unequivocally means “if.” The second, causal meaning must have developed out of it. A similar thing can sometimes be observed in English when people say things like: “Well, if that's how he thanks me for my efforts, I won't feel very motivated to do him a favour in the future” – where the speaker clearly means “since that's how etc.”

Anyway, seeing that the expression is ambiuguous, how can we determine what meaning the author intended?

Notice that the two translations differ not just in the translation of siquidem, but in fact in what they think is the subject of the sentence introduced by it, and in how they interpret in totum. In fact, the two translators came to totally different conclusions:

  • … if indeed they all of them shine by light borrowed from him [the sun] …
  • … as in fact she [the moon] shines with a light entirely borrowed from him [the sun] …

This is ambiguous in Latin because the verb is an infinitive. Also notice how strange it is that si should be followed by an infinitive? What is going on here?

In my opinion the first translation is mistaken. The subject of the long string of infinitives is clearly each time the moon. It divides the year into twelve months, it is governed by the sunshine, later on it only shows as much light as it receives itself from the sun, etc. It is obvious that Pliny knows that the moon is illuminated entirely by the sun, and it seems far-fetched to imagine that the subordinate clause introduced by siquidem refers to the other stars, just because they happened to be mentioned before in a terse ut reliqua siderum.

And if we imagine siquidem functioning as an adverb like nam, just modifying a clause without subordinating it, then we may have an explanation for the somewhat puzzling continuation of the AcI.

And finally, Pliny only ever used siquidem in the sense of “since.” I found an interesting treatment on Google Books by one Antonius Ludewig: Quomodo Plinus maior, Seneca philosophus, Curtius Rufus, Quintilianus, Cornelius Tacitus, Plinius minor particula quidem usi sint. (= Prager Philologische Studien No. 3, Prague 1891) It has this to say on si quidem:

Ac primum quidem alii scriptores frequenter, alii raro si quidem usurpant. Apud Plinium maiorem semel et sexagiens legitur [⋯]

In omnibus his locis compositioni si quidem Plinius eam subicit significationem, ut sit idem fere ac quoniam aut nam (enim) da ja, indem, nemlich, denn, numquam vero si = wenn. Quid eo mirabilius videtur, quia qui ante Ciceronem scripserunt numquam ei causalem vim tribuerunt [⋯]. Atque ut probem eodem modo quo nam etiam siquidem a Plinio poni, ex multis haec seligo exempla: n. h. [sequuntur plerique loci]

Quae cum ita sint, non admodum mirabimur infinitivum poni II 45 (in constructione accusativi cum infinitivo): [hic refertur locus noster]

Hoc loco excepto si quidem cum indicativo coniungitur, ut hac in re idem de usu Pliniano et Ciceroniano statui possit.

In English:

First, some writers use si quidem frequently, others rarely. In Pliny, it is found 61 times. [⋯]

In all these cases, Pliny places more or less the same meaning in this phrase as quoniam or nam (since), da ja, indem, nemlich, denn [these are all German phrases meaning “since, as, for,” etc.], but never si = wenn [“if”]. Which is curious, because the writers before Cicero never assigned any causal force to it. Now in order to show siquidem is used by Pliny in the same way as nam, I present the following of many examples: Naturalis Historia [here follow many citations from Naturalis Historia]

This being so, we will not be very surprised that the infinitive is put II 45 (in an AcI construction): [here follows our example]

With the exception of this case, si quidem is used with the indicative, so that in this regard we can state that the usage of Pliny and Cicero is the same.

Thus, in my opinion the correct translation is:

… since the moon, like the other stars, is influenced by the light of the sun, because it shines entirely with light borrowed from it, …

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