Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.4

Andrew M. Miller (trans.), Greek Lyric: an Anthology in Translation. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996. Pp. 184. $8.95. ISBN 0-87220-291-7 (pb).

Reviewed by Sarah Ruden, University of Cape Town,

Bare-bones translations of the Classics are everywhere, and so are self-expressive and anachronistic ones. Between cribs for British schoolboys and the glib efforts of poets in flights of scholarship, there was little available until recently. Some of the latter works are a lot of fun, and a persuasive argument can be made that they stand on their own as literature. But for those of us who teach ancient literature in translation, it is a great relief to see translations that can actually help us teach. It seems more likely, for example, that students will read a translator's glosses if these are prominent and close at hand -- between divisions of the text is a better location than as footnotes or endnotes. Andrew Miller's translation of a selection of the Greek lyric poets of the Archaic period follows the first of these formats, but the translation really stands on its own in its sober and conscientious accessibility. A problem which trails me through Loeb editions and other ordinary translation fare is what I call "translation lag": I have to go to the Latin or Greek to figure out what is going on, because of some careless use of English. This never happened to me with Miller. My feeling is that a neophyte reader will have a relatively easy time here, even if he does not use the notes regularly. The notes are, in fact, not as generous as they could be, making the clarity of the translation even more important.

The test of this clarity, of course, will be Alcman and Pindar, but even these sections of Greek Lyric inspire confidence. Miller has been diligent in collecting and incorporating the simplest and most plausible of editors' and commentators' suggestions, and the most straightforward behavior of other translators. As their sources, most translators of ancient literature name in their prefaces only the main edition they have used, and one or two commentaries. Miller's paragraph on his sources covers a solid page (ix) and lists nineteen works. Choppy or obscure translation might be expected to come from so much research, but the English is on the contrary remarkably lucid. Some of the most opaque lines (46-48) in Alcman's Partheneion concern the "horse ... of under-the-rock dreams." I have sat dazed through Gregory Nagy's explication of the layers of significance here (ritual, mythological, social and linguistic), both in a class and through "Phaethon, Sappho's Phaon, and the White Rock of Leukas: 'Reading' the Symbols of Greek Lyric",1 and I have confused the dickens out of my own students with my home-made translation and footnote in a course handout; Miller seizes usefully on the consensus that this phrase is about a supernatural and significant animal, perhaps Pegasus, and translates "one of those winged steeds in dreams." There is no gloss. In the Pindar there is a similar middle-roadedness and commitment: the communis opinio usually yields a simple image or a graspable idea. If no communis opinio exists, Miller makes a sensible choice. The problem is the occasional passage which cannot emerge clearly on its own without substantial annotation, as in Pindar Pythian 8.56-60:

I myself am also glad
to pelt Alkmaion with wreaths, and sprinkle him with song as well,
because as neighbor and as guardian of my goods
he met me on my way to the storied navel of the earth
and laid his hands on prophecy by means of inborn arts.
There is a single brief note on these lines, identifying the "navel of the earth" as Delphi. Nothing gives further help in understanding the eerie scene (probably a visit to a shrine, or an epiphany) intruding autobiographically into what has seemed pure myth. On the other hand, notes which completely fill in readers of Greek lyric who are starting from nothing may not be a realistic proposition. In the case of Pindar, paragraph-long attempts to slow down the narrative did not satisfy my students. Perhaps the genre is just too hard; it wasn't included in the Greek civilization course I attended at the University of Michigan fifteen years ago, and many lecturers content themselves with a tiny selection of the chummier poets -- Sappho and one or two others, taught through touristy lectures and translations. I don't know the solution, but it would be sad if the first recorded lyric poems in the West, maddeningly beautiful and forming the main literature of a couple of centuries, have to be skipped in most curricula for technical reasons, and are not available to readers outside the academy either. At any rate, Miller's work is a great advance over the latest thing like it, M. L. West's Greek Lyric Poetry,2 where the fragments of Asius, Demodocus, Pythermus and Ananius on pages 112-115 -- rather taciturn fragments for the most part -- do not get a single gloss. West has fourteen pages of endnotes in a 213 page book, for cryin' out loud.

As West's selection of versifiers shows by contrast, Miller has been chaste and sensible in his associations, translating works of only twenty well-known poets. Of course I have no idea how he arrived at his choices, but it could have been by consulting David A. Campbell's Greek Lyric Poetry: a Selection of Early Greek Lyric, Elegiac and Iambic Poetry, for years the primer for the study of the works in Greek.3 If you take away the five most obscure of Campbell's authors (Phocylides, Demodocus, Pratinas, Timocreon and Praxilla) along with the Carmina Popularia and the Scholia, and add Pindar, you have Miller's table of contents. The selection of fragments of each of the authors is also quite Campbellesque. But of course the Cologne Archilochus Papyrus enjoys the status of a normal fragment (9-12) -- Campbell has it tucked into an appendix (463-464) of his 1982 edition -- as in all of the translation anthologies of the 90s. The bottom line is that Miller's selections make it possible for me to recommend his book to my students without the craven fear that overnight they will have questions about twice as much literary trivia from the ancient world as I ever heard of. Who is this Susarion in West, anyway? And who cares? Re-canonizing hot-dogging is strange in the case of a genre heavily catalogued and categorized in antiquity and sparse and almost static in its modern evidence; and with its dust mice (you know, those little balls of fluff you find under the bed?) being, as far as we can tell, creatures of dull silliness or exuberant derivativeness. Our modern experience of poetic vocation as equivalent in prestige to sexually transmitted disease might make us suspect that from the ancient Greek world, too, there are treasures in the form of unappreciated poets worth reexamining as actual literature, through an anthology, rather than merely as historical documents. But how likely is that when poetry was the main form of literature of the age in question? I think that the original compilers of the canon had great taste. At the least, whoever now wants to spend time on Lasus should not get students and other non-specialists involved. Thank you, Andrew Miller.

Miller's translation is stylistically undistinguished, with nothing really poetic about it. The Sappho has different line lengths to indicate Sapphic stanzas, elegiac couplets are indented every second line, and there are a few other visual reminders of the original form, but the sound offers little relief from bland free verse. The enjambments look almost random. I select a passage of Theognis (39-42) rather dramatic in the original, in order to show the translator's apparent indifference to tonal nuance:

Kyrnos, this city is pregnant, and I fear that it may give birth to a man
who will chastise and correct our wicked arrogance.
For though the citizens here are still of sound mind, their leaders
are on a fixed course to fall into great wickedness.
The force of the warning bleeds away after repeated blows of unnecessary English words. But perhaps this is too harsh a way to put it: the extra words fill out the meaning -- but at such a cost to the sound that the result is almost bureaucratic. "Chastise and correct" is a rendering in verbs of the noun euthunter ("straightener"), in apposition to "man"; chastise and correct is what a straightener does, but the action is over-defined and abstract-sounding at the same time here. That the "man" is no longer identified as a "straightener" detracts from the abrupt nastiness of the original phrasing. Slitty-eyed cowboys and cops in movies threaten in terms of who they are ("I'm your worst nightmare"), not of what they will do; their whole being is concentrated on justice. "Wicked arrogance" is from the word hubris alone; the English adjective is unnecessary, and clumsy in proximity to "wickedness" in line 42. Miller often does away with the strength and character of lines by such indifferent choices.

On the other hand, there are no embarrassments, no bad or really awkward verse, and where the fragments of Corinna of Tanagra were concerned this must have been a challenge indeed. I don't think she even deserves the dignified treatment she gets. She tells, for example, of two mountains having a singing contest and then a fight, with one of them heaving chunks of himself at the other (Fr. 654 col. i), as in a comic animation sequence. She has a seer blandly telling a bereaved father not to worry: it is various gods who have taken his large family of daughters by the handful ("three are now with Zeus the father, king of all; / three are wedded to the ruler of the sea, / Poseidon..." [13-15]) -- isn't he proud and relieved? (Fr. 654 col. iii). But it would probably be impractical to represent Corinna's grandiose bad taste with appropriate language. However, translation being often and appropriately a foolhardy exercise, I would have liked to see more risk-taking on Miller's part, a longer reach toward the individual voices of the poets, where the beauty is. Instead, everyone speaks in the same style, as clearly and calmly as a driving instructor who has been through this all a hundred times before. That voice used to make me want to try a wheelie with my twenty-year-old Buick.


1. Greek Mythology and Poetics, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990, 223-262.

2. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

3. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1982 (2nd edition).