Some Notes On Translating
An extract from the Introduction to my forthcoming translation
of and commentary on tractate XIII
of the Corpus Hermeticum.
As with many of the tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum, the Greek
text of tractate XIII provides an interesting insight into ancient
Hellenic paganism and mysticism. It also – as with most of those
tractates – presents the translator with certain problems, sometimes
related to textual corruption, sometimes grammatical (should ῥοίζῳ,
for example, in v. 9 of XIII be related to νικηθεῖσαι or to
ἐξέπτησαν) and many of which problems concern the variety of
meanings which can be assigned to certain words, as for instance in
the important matter of νοῦς which is invariably translated as
either "intellect" or as "mind", neither of which is satisfactory
especially given what both of those English words now often denote
almost two thousand years after those Greek tractates were written.
My own choice in this tractate in respect of νοῦς – as in my
translations of other Hermetic tractates – is
perceiveration/perceiverance, which, even though such English words
hint at what I believe νοῦς meant and implied esoterically and
philosophically in Hellenistic times, are not entirely satisfactory.
The only reasonable alternative seems to be a transliteration, as I
do in this tractate – and have done in other tractates – in respect
of λόγος, θεός and several other Greek words.
However, given that the goal of the translator is to provide for the
general reader an intelligible interpretation of the text, to
utilize transliterations for every problematic word would fail to
accomplish that goal. Which is why the translator has to use their
judgement and why every translation is 'an interpretation of
Such problematic words occur not only in the title of tractate XIII
but also from the very first line of the text. In respect of the
title – Ερμού του τρισμεγίστου προς τον υιόν Τάτ εν όρει λόγος
απόκρυφος περί παλιγγενεσίας και σιγής επαγγελία – there is the
question of translating (i) Τάτ, (ii) λόγος απόκρυφος, (iii)
παλιγγενεσία, and (iv) ἐπαγγελία. In respect of the first line there
is the question, at the very beginning, of Ἐν τοῖς Γενικοῖς, and
what ὦ πάτερ – and the related ὦ τέκνον – might imply.
All of which questions – and the many subsequent ones together with
the Cantio Arcana (The Esoteric Song) of sections 17 and 18 – make
tractate XIII most interesting in regard to ancient Hellenic
paganism and mysticism.
A conventional translation of the title (by GRS Mead) is:
"Concerning Rebirth and the Promise of Silence Of Thrice-greatest
Hermes unto Tat his Son."
My translation, however, is:
"On A Mountain: Hermes Trismegistus
To His Son Thoth, An Esoteric Discourse Concerning Palingenesis
And The Requirement of Silence."
Which translation requires some explanation:
Thoth. As in other tractates
I translate Τάτ by Thoth, avoiding the conventional Tat which, in
English, has a colloquial meaning inappropriate here. As to which
'Thoth' is meant, the consensus is that in this and some other
tractates it refers to the son (possibly biologically or more
probably metaphorically) of Hermes Trismegistus who himself was
named by the Greeks as Thoth, with the Τάτ of some other tractates
being a scribal corruption of the name Thoth.
Esoteric Discourse. λόγος απόκρυφος.
While 'esoteric' is an apt translation in regard to απόκρυφος,
'discourse' is not entirely satisfactory in respect of λόγος since
it could be here interpreted to mean 'disclosure' or
'explanation'. However, given what follows in section 1 –
πυθομένου τὸν τῆς παλιγγενεσίας λόγον μαθεῖν…παραδιδόναι μοι –
'discourse' does seem appropriate.
Palingenesis. Rather than ascribe a
particular meaning to παλιγγενεσία – such as 'rebirth' or
'regeneration' – I have chosen the English word palingenesis (from
the Latin palingenesia) with that word explained by what follows
in this particular discourse, qv. sections 12 and 13.
Requirement. The sense of ἐπαγγελία
here, given what is discussed in this tractate, is 'requirement'
rather than the strident 'command' or what is implied by the
rather vague word 'promise'.
The First Line
The first part of the first line of XIII is: Ἐν τοῖς Γενικοῖς͵ ὦ
πάτερ͵ αἰνιγματωδῶς καὶ οὐ τηλαυγῶς ἔφρασας περὶ θειότητος
Conventionally: "In the General Sermons, father, thou didst speak in
riddles most unclear, conversing on Divinity."
My translation is:
When, father, you in the Exoterica conversed
about divinity your language was enigmatic and obscure.
Which translation, as with title, requires some explanation:
Father. The Greek ὦ πάτερ –
literally 'my father' – is a polite form of address, akin to the
English 'sir'. Similarly, ὦ τέκνον – 'my son' – is a polite reply.
Given the esoteric nature of the text, a possible interpretation
here of ὦ πάτερ would be 'Master', and of ὦ τέκνον 'my pupil'.
in the Exoterica. Ἐν τοῖς γενικοῖς.
Since the term γενικῶν λόγων occurs in tractate X it is reasonable
to assume that γενικός here refers to the same thing although the
meaning of the term is moot given that no details are provided in
this tractate nor in tractate X, nor in Stobaeus – Excerpts,
III, 1 and VI, 1 – where the term also occurs. While most
translators have assumed that it refers to 'generic' things or
'generalities' and thus (by adding λόγοι) have opted for an
expression such as 'General Sermons', and given that a
transliteration – such as genikois or genikoi – is awkward, I have
in respect of the γενικοὶ opted for exoterica (from the Latin via
the Greek τὰ ἐξωτερικά) with the meaning of "exoteric treatises
designed for or suitable to the generality of disciples or
students," with the plausible suggestion thus being that there are
exoteric Hermetic treatises and esoteric Hermetic treatises, with
Reitzenstein describing these other treatises as διεξοδικοί λόγοι
(R.A. Reitzenstein. Poimandres. Teubner, Leipzig. 1904.
p.118) a distinction he also mentioned in his later work Die
Hellenistischen Mysterien Religionen. One such esoteric
treatise is tractate XIII.
The Esoteric Song
This much translated part of XIII has, in my opinion, been somewhat
misunderstood given, for example, that θεὸς has invariably been
translated by 'God' – implying as that word now so often does the
God of Christianity – and φῶς (as in translations of the New
Testament) translated by 'light', with ἀλήθεια as some kind of
abstract 'truth', and with ὕμνος as 'hymn' suggestive as that
English word now so often is of the hymns of Christian worship.
Conventionally, the first few verses are translated along the
"Let every nature of the World receive the
utterance of my hymn!
Open thou Earth! Let every bolt of the Abyss be
drawn for me. Stir not, ye Trees!
I am about to hymn creation's Lord, both All and
Ye Heavens open, and ye Winds stay still; and let
God's deathless Sphere receive my word."
My translation  is as follows:
Let every Physis of Kosmos favourably listen to
Gaia: be open, so that every defence against the
Abyss is opened for me;
Trees: do not incurvate;
For I now will sing for the Master Artisan,
For All That Exists, and for The One.
Open: you Celestial Ones; and you, The Winds, be
Let the deathless clan of theos accept this, my
Which, for me at least, evokes – as tractate XIII does in its
entirety – something redolent of paganism rather than of