"The famous slogan about the strong and the weak comes, obviously, from the Athenian side of the argument, and its current popularity owes much to the nice balance between the powerful doing 'what they can' and the weak suffering 'what they must' -- as well as that iron law of inevitability (or realism, depending on your point of view) that is introduced by the phrase 'what they must.' But that is not what Thucydides wrote. As Simon Hornblower correctly acknowledges in the third and final volume of his monumental, line-by-line commentary on the whole of Thucydides' History, a more accurate translation is: 'The powerful exact what they can, and the weak have to comply.' Even that exaggerates the idea of compulsion on the weak: to be precise, what Thucydides claimed was only that 'the weak comply' -- no necessity was introduced at all. And Hornblower's commentary also raises the question of exactly what the action of the strong was supposed to be; it could equally well be translated from the original Greek as 'do' or 'exact' or even (as one Renaissance scholar thought) 'extort'. 'Do what they can' and 'extort what they can' conjure up very different pictures of the operation of power.

Does this mean that "do" "exact" or "extort" are equally possible for translation?

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    Personally I think OP's citation is a poor usage. Normally when one says something could be done equally well another way, the implication is that both methods end up achieving the same result. But in this context, obviously the author is specifically talking about subtle differences in meaning conveyed by the particular choice of translated words (they are not in fact "equal"). I therefore think it would have been far better to use different phrasing, such as it could just as easily be translated as [blah blah]. – FumbleFingers Oct 9 '13 at 17:13

Yes. Sort of. The original quote (since it isn't explicitly stated in your question) is:

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.


Changing the verb gives us very different meanings. Try the context of this pair of sentences:

We do what we can; let others look out for themselves. (I make my own way, and others can do so based on their own strength. I don't care about them.)

We extort what we can; let others look out for themselves. (I make my way by taking that which belongs to others. They had better watch out for me!)

This should make the difference clearer. In the first sentence, the speaker is discussing a hard world in which each person must look out for peronal interests. In the second sentence, the speaker introduces a dystopian world where those without power are effectively subject to those with power.

Clearly this is not the same, so why would the author assert that they are? Simply, it's because translation is not an exact science. There is not a 1-1 relationship between a word in one language and a word in another. Understanding culture and context is highly important in doing a good translation. The Greek word in question could be translated as any of those English verbs, but that doesn't mean that they are all correct, or that the meaning would be the same in English.

TL;DR: The author of the passage in the question was making an assertion about the translator and our modern understanding of the quote, not about the quote itself. This is evident from the paragraph that follows the passage in the question:

"Whatever the linguistic nuances, the truth is that the 'jingle' that we attribute to Thucydides was, in part at least, the work of [translator] Richard Crawley, a not very successful nineteenth-century Oxford classicist whose main claim to fame was a few satirical verses in the style of Alexander Pope."

Confronting the Classics--Mary Beard.


could equally well means that it could be done equally well the other way, so yes, the author is saying that "do", "exact", and "extort" are all possible translations of the Greek word, but that there's disagreement about which sense the Thucydides meant.

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