He was born into a wealthy London family, the son of William and Elizabeth (née Sloan) Sotheby, and was educated at Harrow School and the Military Academy, Angers, France before joining the army at 17. where he served until 1780.
He then published a few dramas and books of poems, which had limited success; his reputation rests upon his translations of the Oberon of Christoph Martin Wieland, the Georgics of Virgil, and the Iliad and Odyssey by Homer. The last two were begun when he was over 70, but he lived to complete them. His Georgics is considered one of the best translations from the classics in the English language.
He died in London in 1833 and was buried in Hackney churchyard.
- "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 20 October 2010.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Cousin, John William (1910). "Sotheby, William". A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource