Usually I like Amazon. They do a lot of things well. Delivery is fast. Customer service is usually good. I save a lot of money in shipping with the Prime account, and the Prime video is a good supplement to Netflix. Plus, I don’t have a neighborhood bookstore for them to drive out of business, so I don’t have to feel guilty about that, either. However, considering that they started out in the book-selling business, and have been pretty good at it by all accounts, you’d think they would make it easier to find the exact book you want when you’re looking for it. Amazon sometimes has the devil of a time distinguishing between both different expressions and manifestations of the same work, especially of translations.
Here’s an example. After reading A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (definitely recommended) I wanted to read Epictetus’ Discourses, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Epictetus recommends the Robin Hard translation from Everyman’s Library, i.e., this translation. So far, so good. I considered a library copy, but my library doesn’t own that translation (since ordered). But I wanted my own copy and it’s inexpensive. However, Amazon says it’s temporarily out of stock. Okay, fine, I could wait, except I don’t need to because supposedly it’s available in “other formats,” including hardcover. That’s great. I love Everyman’s Library hardbacks because they’re well made.
So I click on over to the used hardcovers, relishing the first sale doctrine and the money it’s about to save me. Had I not been paying attention, weirdbooks would have been a few dollars richer because they advertise the lowest-priced “used–very good” copy and that’s what I usually buy. Fortunately, I glanced at the picture of the book at the top of the page, and knew that whatever that green book was, it wasn’t an Everyman’s Library edition. The title says “Heritage Press” edition. If collecting old translations of classics hardbound in slipcovers is your thing, then the Heritage Press is the publisher for you. Truth be told, that green volume would probably go well with the sofa in my den, so it was tempting. Regardless, I knew at a glance that it couldn’t be the translation from 1995.
From that page, you can click on “return to product information.” I clicked on it, but returned nowhere. Instead I was taken to the product information for for the Heritage Press edition, which lists the translator as P.E. Matheson. Unless Robin Hard was using a pseudonym, or unless P.E. Matheson also translates under his porn-star name, those are probably not the same people, and thus not the same translations. And it gets worse! One of the reviews on the page of the Heritage Edition reads: “I read A. A. Long’s, “Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life” (2002, also rated five stars). Long wrote that the best translation was by Robin Hard (this edition).” But obviously we’re not on the page for that edition. There are a couple of reviewers skewering the translation and copy editing, but that’s true on the Everyman’s Library edition as well, because the reviews are identical. The same reviews are also on this edition, which is obviously a public domain reprint with no translator even listed. But they’re missing from this edition, this edition, this edition, this edition, and this edition, despite them all bearing the same generic title The Discourses of Epictetus. What gives?
I’ve found the same thing throughout the Kindle store as well, especially because for just about any classic work there are several “publishers” hoping to make a few bucks by copying text from Project Gutenberg, converting it to a .mobi file, and uploading it to Amazon, and the results are all lumped together. All of which leads me to conclude that Amazon either needs to improve their algorithms or hire some catalogers. I’d go with the latter, because technology can only take us so far without some human intervention.