But he was no great shakes in the physical world, being small in stature and having slightly hunched shoulders. His moving eloquence in speech and his impressive singing to the lyre were counterbalanced by a stammer or lisp. He once declared that he had never enjoyed a good day's health in his whole life, and he attributed his bouts of melancholy to the influence of Saturn and excessive study!
Ficino received an excellent education at the expense of Cosimo de' Medici, who was the effective ruler of Florence and possibly the wealthiest private individual in Europe. Cosimo later gave Ficino the function of guiding a group of superlative artists, philosophers, and writers to express their talents in ways that would remind others of their divine nature. Cosimo also commissioned Ficino to translate the works of Plato and Hermes Trismegistus from Greek to Latin. In addition Ficino developed a remarkable circle of correspondents including John Colet, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral and founder of St Paul's School, and Matthias, King of Hungary. Ficino answered all the letters, keeping careful copies of everything he sent and frequently initiating correspondence himself. Later he published his letters in 12 volumes.
Why translate his letters?
This is a project that has not been undertaken before. The letters reveal a wealth of information about Ficino, his correspondents, and the stirring times in which they lived. But more importantly perhaps, they present us with a human being in whom there is the most beautiful balance of love, reason, intelligence, and sheer humanity. Marsilio is a figure we have come to love and appreciate more and more over the years, a figure who is beginning again to exert the calming, encouraging, and supportive influence that he imparted to our forebears.
The translation is all done without payment, because the work is undertaken initially as a service to the School, and subsequently as a privilege.
How many Latin scholars are in the translation group?
We currently have 25 members in the Renaissance Group worldwide, but at our fullest extent the number was close to 40. How many of these would call themselves scholars? It's not a name I apply to myself. We have taken on members of the School (for various reasons) who have known no Latin at all, and in some cases they have stayed out of love for more than 20 years, after which time they still don't know enough to pass GCSE; but their love of philosophy and of English has made them valuable members and at the same time has helped to transform their own being. At the other extreme, we have members who have graduated in the classics. All others are at various points between these extremes.
Working in groups
Over the years, translation groups have been set up in the UK, the USA, and Australia, all co-ordinated from London, where a revision group oversees and polishes the group translations. There are presently 8 groups. Each consists of a tutor and one, two, or three 'students'. In some cases the 'group' is comprised of only two in total. Usually, though not exclusively, the tutor has a greater command of Latin and English than the others.
The group is issued with the Latin text of a letter from a central source (me). Each group has some freedom in how it proceeds, and the same tutor might try out different methods of work as the terms go by. But typically all members of the group are asked to do some preparation of a few lines prior to the next weekly meeting. At the next meeting the tutor reviews what has been done, and this obviously varies according to ability and time available. The tutor makes sure that the structure of each sentence is understood: what is the main clause? How are the dependent clauses related to the main clause and to each other? Until this structure is established, nothing much can happen.
Hearing Ficino's voice
In all the groups, emphasis has always been laid upon hearing Ficino's Latin read aloud again and again, and this very often clarifies both the structure of the sentence and its meaning. His Latin is probably 99% classical, and this cannot be said of all Renaissance writers - far from it. It's very beautiful to hear and has its own majesty. Likewise, when any translation has been prepared, the English is read aloud again and again. This shows up any flaws. These are corrected and the English is read again. It's a refining process that may last for many months before a letter is said to be properly translated.
I wouldn't use the word 'metre', but the rhythm of the sound is reckoned to be of great significance, because that's what will reverberate in the reader's mind. And we work very much with an appreciation of the reader.
Oh, there are lots of these, thank goodness! This is where things get beaten out on the anvil of reason, good judgement, knowledge of the two languages and experience of Ficino himself. What is good to see in the heat of battle is the willingness to surrender attachment to one's own version once a superior version is clearly in evidence. These attachments to 'my understanding' can be very strong. Thus each translation group will produce its best English version of the letter assigned to it and will then move on to another letter. All the group translations are returned to the central source (me).
The revision group goes through the stock of group translations, with the aim of refining the translations, writing the notes (on the letters and the correspondents), preparing the Latin text as shown in the later volumes, composing the introduction (usually the editor's job), the index and all the other paraphernalia that goes to making up each volume.
Latin and English are so different
Yes, there are difficulties, but let's remember that 50% of English words come from Latin. More and greater difficulties for us come from the fact that Ficino is presenting a philosophical religion and a religious philosophy that deal with concepts that are no longer common currency.
The only clock we work against is that in which the Absolute rings the bell that sounds the final note for each of us! If necessary, we are prepared to take weeks over a single sentence, not because we are idle, but because we want that sentence to represent as well as may be what it represented to Ficino's Latin-speaking readers.
Has Ficino affected my life?
Whenever someone speaks to me of Marsilio Ficino, my eyes light up and my interest is perceptibly quickened. The same love that has prompted thousands of hours to be devoted to translation of his works has also taken me to various parts of the globe to present him and his teachings. Visitors to my home see his words in the hall: 'Let your house be a temple of God'. The dining-room is graced with his portrait and more words: 'Unless you live for others, you cannot live for yourself'. Whatever my body and mind may be engaged in, Marsilio Ficino remains ever undisturbed in my heart.
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