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Translating Aristotle’s Poetics

Translating Aristotle’s Poetics

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


September 22, 2023

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

For me, Aristotle’s Poetics is less about advice for the writer than it is about defining structures. By that, I mean that Aristotle wants us to understand how to produce good art that expresses an important aspect of human nature. He goes so far as to define individual letters as necessary grammatical units which sustain the larger infrastructure. Each unit builds into the next, making all elements as necessary as others. So Aristotle explains that letters morph into the syllable which creates conjunctions, articles, nouns, verbs, etc. He scaffolds this bit of grammar into Poetics just so that we understand that fundamentals are as vital to execution as plot and character. Poetics is not about telling someone how to write, but more about how things are written. It’s a helpful analysis of writing and yet it can be particularly hard to access considering the antiquity of his examples.

Since many of Aristotle’s literary examples are antiquated or lost, I thought that maybe we might enhance our understanding by using modern day works. This will be a two-part project, which means that first we have to define some of Aristotle’s terms for ourselves. Then, next week we will return to Poetics with a handful of modern examples.

Chapters 10 and 11 clearly explain what Aristotle views as a successful plot. Here is Chapter 10 in its entirety (Bywater translation):  

“Plots are either simple or complex, since the actions they represent are naturally of this two-fold description. The action, proceeding in the way defined, as one continuous whole, I call simple, when the change in the hero’s fortunes takes place without Peripety or Discovery; and complex, when it involves one or the other, or both. These should each of them arrive out of the structure of the Plot itself, so as to be the consequence, necessary or probable, of the antecedents. There is a great difference between a thing happening propter hoc and post hoc.”

First, it is important to note that the translator, Ingram Bywater, uses the terms “Peripety” and “Discovery.” I also consulted two other translations to learn more about these terms which seem so vital to Aristotle. W.H. Fyfe (Perseus version) employs the terms “reversal” and “discovery.” Two changes are important here. First, instead of peripety, Fyfe prefers the more accessible, though more fluid term, reversal. He also chooses to lowercase these words. I don’t have much to say about whether the terms should be capitalized or not, however, I am interested in the idea of reversal instead of the perhaps more obscure Peripety. S. H. Butcher’s translation (on MIT’s classics) opts for Reversal as well. In addition, Butcher selected “Recognition” (instead of “Discovery”). 

Without knowing the root words in Aristotle’s original text, I prefer the following terms because they align most closely with his explanations. First, peripety is the clearest and most direct since it has only the one meaning. Therefore, while it may be obscure, we avoid any misconceptions. It also maintains a straightforward connection to the original terminology. In section 11, Aristotle continues: “A Peripety is the change of the kind described from one state of things within the play to its opposite” (Bywater’s translation). So, while reversal may be an appropriate word choice since it indicates a change in fortune, it seems to lack the suddenness implied by peripety. Aristotle coined the term peripety, intending it to signify struggle, enlightenment, and a dramatic reversal or change. It seems to me that the word reversal simply does not fully capture the striking or surprising nature of peripety.

Next, discovery seems more impactful than recognition. According to Merriam-Webster, recognition can mean anything from an encounter to an acknowledgment. Yet, I believe that Aristotle intends something more substantial, like an act of surprise, change, and discovery. Both audience and character find themselves on a journey toward a critical discovery which, at the very least, astonishes and sheds new light on a difficult situation. Rather than simply acknowledging a change, one must feel it and therefore, for me, discovery is the stronger word.

Chapter 11 continues: “The finest form of Discovery is one attended by Peripeties, like that which goes with the Discovery in Oedipus.” In other words, a complex plot includes not just a discovery, but also  a sudden reversal of fortune. This leads into a third important element of the plot, which Aristotle labels: “Suffering; which we may define as an action of a destructive or painful nature” (Bywater translation). In other words, this change or discovery or reversal brings some amount of pain to the characters, and therefore also to the audience. Aristotle reasons that emotional engagement with a character will invite a cathartic release of emotion for the audience. How this functions may remain a mystery, but either way, I feel that peripety and discovery more accurately align with the original.

These differences may become clearer as we walk through contemporary examples on next week’s blog.

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