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Although all translators of a work try to capture the basic ideas of the original, they often disagree over individual words, phrases, or even complete sentences. Such differences will sometimes provoke a discussion of what meaning was intended by the author, a discussion that may result in a better understanding of the original work.
This is especially true in translations of The Prince. For example, in translating Machiavelli's discussion in Chapter 21 of the ways that a prince can win a good reputation, Paul de Alvarez renders the original words thus: "Nothing makes a prince so esteemed as when he does great enterprises, and gives by himself rare examples of his actions." Luigi Ricci, on the other hand, translates the same sentence more indirectly, not crediting the enterprises mentioned by Alvarez as the prince's responsibility: "Nothing causes a prince to be so much esteemed as great enterprises and giving proof of prowess." Kenneth Douglas translates the same sentence only slightly differently from the first two, but substitutes "schemes" for "enterprises": "Nothing of a prince is so valued as his grand schemes, or when he gives himself to noble actions." George Bull chooses still a third word when he translates the sentence: "Nothing brings a prince more prestige than great campaigns and striking demonstrations of his personal abilities."
Notice how the differences between the words chosen by the different translators open up a variety of possible interpretations. Ricci and Alvarez use the most general term, "enterprises." Douglas substitutes "schemes," which is likely to suggest more underhanded behavior to the reader. But Bull, with the word "campaigns," directs the thrust of Machiavelli's statement more in the direction of military activity. It is important to realize that, while any competent translation of The Prince will give you the essential substance of what Machiavelli wrote, different translations will often have subtle differences of tone. One reason for this is that Machiavelli's "rhetorical" style-his use of figures of speech like metaphor, simile, and hyperbole (exaggerated language) to express his meaning-is often difficult to put into contemporary terms.
Machiavelli's use of the rhetorical style of writing is an important consideration to keep in mind when you read The Prince. At certain points in the discussion, you may need to remind yourself that the figures of speech are literary devices used to emphasize a point. For example, Machiavelli's use of hyperbole, should not be taken literally in Chapter 26, when he exhorts Lorenzo de' Medici to act swiftly to drive foreign invaders from Italy and thereby earn the gratitude of the people: "Nor can I possibly express with what affection he would be received in all those provinces that have suffered so long from this inundation of foreign foes!- with what thirst for vengeance, with what persistent faith, with what devotion, and with what tears!"
Machiavelli also makes significant political statements in his use of metaphors and maxims (wise proverbs). The most obvious metaphorical image is the use of the myth of Chiron in Chapter 18. The example of Chiron (who was a centaur-half man, half beast) is for Machiavelli a positive force that promotes a keen mind (man) and a strong will to survive (beast). Carrying the imagery further, Machiavelli suggests that the prince should have two sides to his "beast" nature: he should strive to be both a "lion" and a "fox" in his political posture. Maxims are another literary technique used in The Prince. These "golden rules" of political behavior and attitude are sprinkled throughout the book and help pinpoint Machiavelli's thought. One very practical piece of advice is found in Chapter 10, when he warns that "it will not be difficult for a prudent prince to keep the courage of his citizens in time of siege... provided there be no lack of provisions or means of defense."
Machiavelli wrote The Prince hurriedly, in a burst of passion, and his rising and falling emotions are visible in his changing writing style. Much of the material in The Prince is presented in direct and simple language. With his carefully reasoned and logical arguments to sway the thoughtful reader, Machiavelli's political experience and his abilities as a scholar shine through; in these passages he is, in essence, a thoughtful and capable adviser counseling his leader.
He can also be biting, sarcastic, as when he discusses the "virtues" of leaders who failed. You can almost feel his contempt at the stupidity of Louis XII, the French king who made blunder after blunder when dealing with foreign powers and territories.
In striking contrast, there is the eloquence and poetic imagery of the last chapter, where Machiavelli makes an impassioned plea for patriotism, in the hopes of firing Lorenzo's enthusiasm for liberating Italy.
Though the tone sometimes changes from passage to passage, the text flows naturally; it is as if Machiavelli is talking to you. What kind of conversationalist is he? A very skilled one, most would agree, because the different arguments-whether using scholarly, scientific analysis; stirring poetic eloquence; or cutting sarcasm-always seem to hit the mark.
NOTE: ON SEXISM
Although Machiavelli's 450-year-old instructions are how a man can increase his power and become prince over all men, these terms should be considered only as the standard, general forms of address that existed in Machiavelli's day. If Machiavelli lived in the twentieth century, his writing would undoubtedly reflect modern usage; as a political realist, he'd be very much aware of the equal abilities of women. In fact, during his diplomatic career, Machiavelli had engaged in difficult negotiations with women as well as with men.