Translation in
the Perennial Tradition

Norman D. Livergood

     The English word "translation" comes from the Latin words trans, meaning across, and latus, the participle of ferre, to carry. Translation means to bear, remove, or change from one place, state, form, or appearance to another, a carrying over or transference from one medium or domain to another.

      It's interesting to note that "translation" also means to convey a person to a non-temporal state (heaven, mystical ecstasy) without physical death.

Latin translation by Cristoforo Persona, Illuminated by Matteo Felice, Dedication copy for Sixtus IV, Fifteenth century      Language involves several different kinds of translation or carrying across:

  • Translation from physical, metaphysical, or spiritual reality to mental thoughts, ideas, or images

  • Translation from mental thoughts, ideas, or images to spoken or written words or other representations

  • Translation from one person (A) to another person (B)

  • Translation by B of A's representations in symbols meaningful to B

     Ordinary translation involves time as well as space:
  • I am currently (as I input the alphabetical letters through my computer keyboard) translating my meanings or the meanings of others (e.g. Plato) into the words of this essay

  • The words of the essay will later appear on my Web site

  • You are now (later) reading the words of my essay

  • I am communicating my translations of meanings from a small city in California

  • You are reading the words of my essay in whatever spatial location you presently find yourself

     Since any translation is a "carrying over" from one realm to another, from one person to another, from the original to its symbol, there is always the possibility of distortion at any point in the transference:

  1. the initiator of a communication (translator) may misunderstand the physical, metaphysical, or spiritual reality he is trying to interpret

  2. the recipient may misinterpret the translator's meaning (deliberately or otherwise) to herself or others

Correct translation of a meaning Incorrect translation of a meaning
Chinese character
for experiment

English translation of the meaning of the Chinese character:

A test under controlled conditions that is made to demonstrate a known truth, examine the validity of a hypothesis, or determine the efficacy of something previously untried

Translating Higher Meanings

     Translating higher artistic phenomena from one realm to another requires preeminent discernment and consummate skill. In a previous essay on the essential aspects of creative rendering of transformative music, 1 we saw that an artist must not only possess complete mastery of her musical instrument, but must have attained an advanced discernment of the higher meaning which the composer embodied in the music.

     In a similar vein, we earlier examined the five aspects of enlightened artistic creativity: 2

  • Appreciative discernment of artistic manifestations

  • Opening oneself to inspiration from higher sources

  • Selective envisioning of artistic expression

  • Creative manifestation

  • Rediscovering and preserving the human wealth of art

Edward Kilenyi      In studying transformative artistic expressions, such as Plato's philosophy, Rumi's poetry, or Chopin's piano etudes, we are constantly involved in a particular "translator's" rendering of the artistic artifact from his perspective and according to his skill. Between the actual art object (music, painting, drama, literature, poetry, etc.) and the recipient (reader, viewer, listener), the translator interposes himself. If the interpreter displays consummate skill and discernment, for example, the pianist Edward Kilenyi's rendition of Chopin's Twelve Etudes, then we receive a true interpretation. If, on the other hand, the translator lacks discernment and skill, we are left with a misinterpretation at least and a disfigurement at worst.

The original artifact Because of lack of
discernment and skill,
the translator
misinterprets the artifact

The resulting disfigurement

     In some instances, we are able to get back to the original artifact and correct the misrepresentation, creating our own more veracious interpretation. But correcting misinterpretations requires that we have the requisite discernment and skill ourselves.

      To understand all the ramifications of the problem of interpretation, we'll first examine the study of Plato's philosophy. In this instance, we're able to get back to the original Greek text and compare the various translations (interpretations) of the original writing: Thomas Taylor, Benjamin Jowett, A.E. Taylor, Francis M. Cornford, Paul Shorey, Hugh Tredennick, R. Hackforth, W. K. C. Guthrie, E.R. Dodds, Seth Benardete, and many others.

     A creative interpreter must have a sense that there is a message or a range of meanings which he can discover in the original artifact and bring to others in a manner that will enhance their understanding and appreciation.

     Thomas Taylor, the outstanding interpreter of Plato's thought, reflects this frame of mind:

"The mistakes I may have committed in lesser particulars, have arisen from my eagerness to seize and promulgate those great truths in the philosophy and theology of Plato, which though they have been concealed for ages in oblivion, have a subsistence coeval with the universe, and will again be restored, and flourish for very extended periods, through all the infinite revolutions of time."

     Masterful translation requires discernment and skill.

"It is necessary to speak concerning the qualifications requisite in a legitimate student of the philosophy of Plato, previous to which I shall just notice the absurdity of supposing that a mere knowledge of the Greek tongue, however great that knowledge may be, is alone sufficient to understanding the sublime doctrines of Plato; for a man might as well think that he can understand Archimedes without a knowledge of the elements of geometry, merely because he can read him in the original."

"By a legitimate student, then, of the Platonic philosophy, I mean one who, both from nature and education, is properly qualified for such an arduous undertaking . . . who has never considered wisdom as a thing of trifling estimation and easy access, but as that which cannot be obtained without the most generous and severe endurance, and the intrinsic worth of which surpasses all corporeal good, far more than the ocean the fleeting bubble which floats on its surface. To such as are destitute of these requisites, who make the study of words their sole employment, and the pursuit of wisdom but at best a secondary thing, who expect to be wise by desultory application for an hour or two in a day . . . the sublimest truths must appear to be nothing more than jargon and reverie, the dreams of a distempered imagination, or the ebullitions of fanatical faith."

"The greatness of communication is not the mere fact of communication, but the creation of new understanding."
Stewart Edward White. The Unobstructed Universe

     Plato's philosophical writings are challenging, intricate, subtle works of art; every word contains a special significance. A "literal" translation is necessary--a translation that truly reflects the Greek words in their inter-relationships. This is why in some of my essays I have found it necessary to create a new translation of some of Plato's writings. Paraphrasing translations, such as those of Benjamin Jowett, for example, water down Plato, making him prosaic and unsurprising, missing much of the essence. A more discerning and skillful translator such as Thomas Taylor is able to transmit much more of Plato's meaning.

Thomas Taylor 1758-1835

"Taylor himself translates Plato's Dialogues from within the ancient Greek Tradition. No English translator, before or since, has been so completely at one with the Greek philosophical and religious world view: Taylor fulfills, to the highest degree, the first requirement of the art of translation, - that of making the original writer's thought-patterns his own. Although Thomas Taylor lived in eighteenth and nineteenth century London, his spirit breathed the purer airs of an Athens of long ago, his soul worshipped in her temples, and his eyes beheld these things by the clearer light of her sun. To the student of the present day, he delivers the breadth and depth of Platonism remarkably free of the distortions which had darkened the millennium between the closure of the Academy in Athens and his own time.

"Secondly, Taylor adds to Plato's Dialogues, many of the surviving commentaries of the later Platonists (e.g. Olympiodorus, Damascius, Hermias, and especially, Proclus), as footnotes and endnotes. In this way, Taylor transforms the presentation of Plato's philosophy from that of mere faithful reproduction, as remarkable as that may be in itself, to one similar to that which students are likely to have received during the later period of Plato's Academy.

"'This Philosophy,' writes Taylor, 'May be compared to a luminous pyramid, terminating in Deity, and having for its basis the rational soul of man and its spontaneous unperverted is the greatest good in which man can participate: for it purifies us from the defilements of the passions and assimilates us to Divinity, it confers on us the proper felicity of our nature.'"

The Prometheus Project,
Introduction to Thomas Taylor's The Works of Plato

Translating Plato

     To examine this phenomenon of translating Plato's philosophy, we can take a specific passage from Plato's Ion, examining two very different translations of this passage:

Jowett's Translation Thomas Taylor's Translation
"I perceive, Ion; and I will proceed to explain to you what I imagine to be the reason of this. The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not as works of art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their minds, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains; but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed." " I do consider, Io; and proceed to show you how it appears to me. That you are able to discourse well concerning Homer is not owing to any art of which you are master; nor do you explain or illustrate him, as I said before, upon the principles or from the rules of art; but from a divine power, acting upon you, and impelling you: a power resembling that which acts in the stone, called by Euripides the magnet, but known commonly by the name of the loadstone. For this stone does not only attract iron rings, but impart to those rings the power of doing that very thing which itself does, enabling them to attract other rings of iron. So that sometimes may be seen a very long series of iron rings, depending, as in a chain, one from another. But from that stone, at the head of them is derived the virtue which operates in them all. In the same manner, the Muse, inspiring, moves men herself through her divine inpulse. From these men, thus inspired, others, catching the sacred power, form a chain of divine enthusiasts. For the best epic poets, and all such as excel in the composing any kind of verses to be recited, frame not those their admirable poems from the rules of art; but possessed by the Muse, they write from divine inspiration. Nor is it otherwise with the best lyric poets, and all other fine writers of verses to be sung. For as the priests of Cybele performl not their dances while they have the free use of their intellect; so these melody poets pen those beautiful songs of theirs only when they are out of their sober minds."

     In the table above, we can see how these two very different interpretations relate to the original Greek text. In this separate graph, we see the distinct difference in three renderings of one of the most important passages in Plato's Phaedo: the discussion of philosophy as the practice of dying.

     We can see--from both these graphs--how much more of Plato's meaning is transmitted through Taylor's rendering of these passage. If one were to read only Jowett's translation, most of the meaning would be lost. This occurs, in part, because Taylor approached philosophy as an entry-way into the Higher Mysteries. 3

Translating the Gospel of John

     We can get an even better sense of the role of the translator if we look at a passage in the New Testament with which most of us are familiar: the beginning of the Gospel of John.

     The New Testament was written in koine (vernacular) Greek. These are the actual Greek words and their transliteral meanings:

     Now, let's examine three different renderings of this passage from John's Gospel:

The King James Version

J. B. Phillips Version

A New Rendering

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God, and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning. All creation took place through him, and none took place without him. In him appeared life and this life was the light of mankind. The light still shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out. When Time began, there occurred a self-revelation of the One Reality. This manifested self-revelation expressing spiritual meaning was subsistent with, identical to, and coeval with the One Reality. All entities came into being by the instrumentality of this manifested expression; and without this self-revelation of the One Reality not a single thing came into being. All created entities have their being in this manifested expression and all earthborn creatures have their subsistence in it. This manifested expression has the power to give truth to humankind. This giving of truth penetrates ignorance and ignorance does not overpower the giving of truth by the One Reality.

     I've created this new rendering of the passage by a careful study and selection of the relevant meanings of each Greek word. John's concepts are so engorged with meanings, that a simple rendering is not true to his thought. The Greek word/concept "logos" (logos), for example, has such manifold meaning in its classical Greek setting, that translating it simply as "word" is a gross distortion. If one studies John's text carefully, word by word, and reflects on the range of meanings in Greek, I believe this new rendering contains more of John's meaning than other, simpler translations.

Translating Higher Artistic Phenomena

     I use the phrase "Higher Artistic Phenomena" to include not only art objects but also the higher phenomena of human existence and being in general. The author of the Gospel of John and Perennialist teachers such as Plato affirm that human life in particular and being in general are the handiwork of the "One Reality," sometimes termed God or The Divine. To "translate" these artistic phenomena into modern terms of understanding requires a higher discernment made possible through entry into Higher Consciousness.

     Such "interpretations" of the meanings of higher phenomena are esoteric in the strictest sense. Esoteric teachings contain an advanced knowledge through which they affect (and effect) each recipient (reader, listener, viewer) relative to her level of spiritual attainment. For example, esoteric Perennialist material contains an internal screening mechanism, through which the recipient may be pruned relative to specific characteristics:

  • If she only "likes" simple, uncomplicated material that can be understood without effort

  • If she lacks the discipline to persist in studying complex material

     The two examples of transformative material linked below test the reader to the maximum--and reward the persevering, intelligent, discerning reader to the fullest:

     Shakespeare saw drama as a translation of the meaning of human life, revealing "the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."

"Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably."

Shakespeare, Hamlet

The Higher Meaning of Translation

      As we noted earlier, "translation" also means to convey a person to a non-temporal state (heaven, mystical ecstasy) without physical death. In his letter to Jewish Christians (titled Hebrews), Paul says: "It was because of his faith that Enoch (a descendant of Adam) was translated to the eternal world without experiencing death."

      The King James Version (KJV) spells this out in more detail: "By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God" (11:5)

     Paul taught that Christians experience "translation" into a Higher Realm: "Who did rescue us out of the authority of the darkness, and did translate us into the reign of the Son of His love" (Colossians 1:13)

     A similar spiritual state is spoken of in Greek classical writings, in Hindu and Buddhist texts, and in the New Testament: transfiguration. The Greek word is metemorphothe: a striking change in appearance or character or circumstances; an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change. Jesus is said to have been transfigured in the presence of some of his disciples.

     In earlier discussions, we've seen that the formal religion that became known as the Holy Roman Church was and is nothing but a vast repository of false teachings and practices. At the present time, what is called Christianity, in all its Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant guises, is a horrible deformity of Jesus's original teachings.

     Jesus's teachings say that man is capable of a second birth into the sovereignty of the higher realm (mistranslated "kingdom of heaven"). However, this re-birth or second birth belongs to the inner aspect of man, not to man as he seems to be in himself: a materialistic body living on earth.

     Jesus and Paul taught that we must undergo a definite re-birth, a complete regeneration of our being from one state to another, the removing of the person from the earthly to the heavenly state without the intervening experience of physical death--translation and transfiguration.

"There is a faculty in man which is immeasurably superior to those which are grafted or engendered in us. By it we can attain to union with superior intelligences, finding ourselves raised above the scenes of this earthly life, and partaking of higher existence and superhuman powers of the inhabitants of the celestial spheres."


1 "Perennialist Art"

2 Chapter 9 in The Perennial Tradition: "Perennialist Artistic Creativity"

3 "Philosophy may he called the initiation into the true arcana, and the instruction in the genuine Mysteries. There are five parts of this initiation . . . The fifth gradation is the most perfect felicity arising from hence, and, according to Plato an assimilation to divinity as far as is possible to human beings." Thomas Taylor, Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries


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