Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.03.24

Douglas Gerber (trans.), Greek Elegiac Poetry.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1999.  Pp. 493.  ISBN 0-674-99582-1.  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Emily Katz Anhalt, Trinity College, Hartford CT
Word count: 1508 words

Greek elegiac and iambic poets seem to speak directly about timeless human concerns: love, hope, longing; illness, old age, death; heroism, patriotism, politics. Often using the first person and at times addressing named individuals, these poets advise, insult, and plead. They exhort, they exult, they grieve. They appear to give us a glimpse of "real life" (or, at least, aristocratic life) in ancient Greece. Since tantalizingly little of this poetry survives and its conventions largely elude us, the impression of directness and immediacy may be illusory. Still, read in Greek, elegy and iambus feel vividly contemporary. The previous Loeb translations, however, no longer transmit this impression in English. They are sadly out of date, and new ones are long overdue. Gerber's elegant new translations revitalize these intriguing and evocative texts.

Gerber presents a text and translation of the main elegiac and iambic poets found in M. L. West's Iambi et Elegi Graeci, volumes I and II (Oxford, 1989 and 1992). Greek Elegiac Poetry (LCL 258) excludes only elegiac poets whose work has not survived, certain minor poets, the elegiac fragments of Antimachus, and the elegies of several poets contained in Campbell's Loeb Greek Lyric. Greek Iambic Poetry (LCL 259) excludes poets (such as Anacreon) whose work appears in other Loeb volumes and the minor poets Aeschines, Aristoxenus, Asopodorus, and Euclides. Gerber includes all testimonia that he deems "significant" and limits the apparatus criticus to only the "most important." He uses West's numbering for the fragments and his own for the testimonia. Introductions to each volume provide clear, concise definitions of elegy and iambus and a brief description of each poet.

In his translations, Gerber modernizes and reinvigorates without trivializing or distorting the Greek. He claims that his aim has been "to provide an English rendering which represents the Greek as closely as possible without being stilted or ambiguous" (Greek Elegiac Poetry, viii; Greek Iambic Poetry, vii). The contrasts between Gerber's translations and those in the previous Loeb volumes 258 and 259 (Greek Elegy and Iambus, I and II, edited and translated by J. M. Edmonds, first printed in 1931 and reprinted several times) demonstrate the extensive changes that literary English has undergone in the past three quarters of a century. But Gerber's versions go further than the replacement of "you" for "ye," and the rejection of words like "unto," "ell," "mellay," "van," "a-waxing," "fain," and verb-endings in "-eth." Consider, for example, Callinus I. 1-4:

μέχρις τεῦ κατάκεισθε; κότ' ἄλκιμον ἕξετε θυμόν
   ὦ νέοι; οὐδ' αἰδεῖσθ' ἀμφιπερικτίονας
ὧδε λίην μεθιέντες; ἐν εἰρήνῃ δὲ δοκεῖτε
   ἧσθαι, ἀτὰρ πόλεμος γαῖαν ἅπασαν ἔχει.

Edmonds translates this as,

"How long will ye lie idle? When, young men, will ye show a stout heart? Have ye no shame of your sloth before them that dwell round about you? Purpose ye to sit in peace though the land is full of war?" -- (I, p. 45).

Changing only τεῦ to τέο (1), Gerber renders these lines,

"How long are you going to lie idle? Young men, when will you have a courageous spirit? Don't those who live round about make you feel ashamed of being so utterly passive? You think that you are sitting in a state of peace, but all the land is in the grip of war" -- (Elegiac Poetry, p. 19).

By substituting "you" for "ye," "courageous spirit" for "stout heart" and "being so utterly passive" for "your sloth," Gerber remains faithful to the text, but makes the sentiments accessible to a modern audience. In contrast to Edmonds' "purpose you to sit in peace," Gerber's "you think that you are sitting in a state of peace" retains the immediacy of ἐν εἰρήνῃ δὲ δοκεῖτε ́ ἧσθαι (3-4). And Gerber's "all the land is in the grip of war" preserves the metaphor in πόλεμος γαῖαν ἅπασαν ἔχει (4) (cf. Edmonds' "all the land is full of war").

Similarly, Gerber's straightforward translation of Archilochus 25 both modernizes and remains faithful to the Greek:

οὔ μοι τὰ Γύγεω τοῦ πολυχρύσου μέλει,
οὐδ' εἶλέ πώ με ζῆλος οὐδ' ἀγαίομαι
θεῶν ἔργα, μεγάλης δ'οὐκ ἐρέω τυραννίδος
ἀπόπροθεν γάρ ἐστιν ὀφθαλμῶν ἐμῶν.
(Archilochus 25. 1-4)

Edmonds renders these lines as,

"I care not for the wealth of golden Gyges, nor ever have envied him; I am not jealous of the works of Gods, and I have no desire for lofty despotism; for such things are far beyond my ken" -- (II, p. 111).

Gerber offers,

"The possessions of Gyges rich in gold are of no concern to me, not yet have I been seized with jealousy of him, I do not envy the deeds of the gods, and I have no love of tyranny. That is beyond my sights" -- (Iambic Poetry, p. 93).

Gerber updates the visual metaphor and, unlike Edmonds, preserves the personal and impersonal constructions.

This poetry has a quality of urgency, and Gerber, at times, needs to reach beyond strict English grammar. Consider, for example, Tyrtaeus 11.27-8:

ἔρδων δ'ὄβριμα ἔργα διδασκέσθω πολεμίζειν
   μηδ' ἐκτὸς βελέων ἑστάτω ἀσπίδ' ἔχων.
Edmonds translates, "Let him learn how to fight by doing doughty deeds, and not stand shield in hand beyond the missiles" (I, p. 73). Gerber translates, "By doing mighty deeds let him learn how to fight and let him not stand -- he has a shield -- outside the range of missiles" (Elegiac Poetry, p. 57). Resorting to dashes to render the force of the final participle, Gerber transmits the vivid, colloquial quality of the exhortation.

Contemporary English does not shrink from profanity, and, to modern sensibilities, Archilochus' famously flippant reaction to the abandonment of a shield on the battlefield, ἐρρέτω (Archilochus 5.4) strikes a less polite note than "It shall go with a curse" (Edmonds, II, p.101). Gerber's "To hell with it!" (Iambic Poetry, p. 83) seems to hit the mark exactly.

At the same time, although he uses contemporary English vocabulary and diction, Gerber avoids imparting twentieth-century sensibilities or moral judgements. For example, he does not read Judeo-Christian moral theory into Solon's description of the relationship between greed and suffering:

δήμου θ' ἡγεμόνων ἄδικος νόος, οἷσιν ἑτοῖμον
   ὕβριος ἐκ μεγάλης ἄλγεα πολλὰ παθεῖν
(Solon 4.7-8)

Gerber translates, "and the mind of the people's leaders is unjust; they are certain to suffer much pain as a result of their great arrogance" (Elegiac Poetry, p. 113). Compare Edmonds' "Unrighteous is the mind of the leaders of the commons, and their pride goeth before a fall" (Edmonds, I, p.119). Gerber avoids such biblical language and anachronistic sentiments.

Gerber also avoids euphemism and periphrasis in translating sexually explicit fragments. Archilochus 43 might have startled readers in the 1930's:

δέ οἱ σάθη
ὥστ' ὄνου Πριηνέως
κήλωνος ἐπλήμυρεν ὀτρυγηφάγου

But Edmonds' "tumebat mentula eius like that of a he-ass of Priene that eateth corn," (II, p. 149) is a "translation" only for the cognoscenti and considerably less useful to Greekless readers who have the double misfortune of being Latinless as well. Gerber boldly offers instead, "His prick ... swelled like that of a Prienian grain-fed breeding ass" (Iambic Poetry, p. 113). Similarly, Gerber makes explicit fragments on fellatio and intercourse that Edmonds either veils or omits (as in, for example, Archilochus 42 and 152).

Directness in regard to erotic passages also restores relevance and accessibility to Theognis 2.1231-1389. Edmonds, for example, always delicately translates φιλότης as "friendship," whereas Gerber generally (although not invariably) renders this as "love" (as, for example, in 1296, 1359, and 1379; but cf. 1313). Demonstrating a welcome lack of anachronistic prudishness Gerber in the same way renders σὸν δ' εἶδος πᾶσι νέοισι μέλει (1320), for example, as "all the young men are obsessed with your looks," (Elegiac Poetry, p. 375). Unlike Edmonds' "all the young are concerned for thy beauty" (I, p. 393), Gerber's translation makes no effort to veil the homo-erotic sentiments.

Occasionally, however, Gerber does depart slightly from the Greek to introduce or omit a metaphor. Translating ὁμοῦ βίην τε καὶ δίκην ξυναρμόσας (Solon 36.16), Gerber offers, "blending together force and justice," (Elegiac Poetry, p. 159). Edmonds' "fitting close together" (I, p. 151) here seems preferable since it preserves the implication in the Greek that the entities do not dilute one another but, rather, remain distinct and separate even as they merge and work together. Similarly, in Archilochus 2, Gerber's "on board ship" (Iambic Poetry, p. 79) for ἐν δορί retains the metaphorical implications of the phrase, but loses the pun. But such instances are rare and generally of limited importance.

In fact, these volumes contain few shortcomings. They do lack a general index and indices of authors, technical terms, and Greek vocabulary (all present in the previous Loeb volumes). A more thorough introduction to the genres and their practitioners would also have been helpful to students. But the contemporary literalness of Gerber's translations will do much to make these poems appealing and accessible to undergraduates. The publication of these two new Loeb volumes forcefully emphasizes the continuing need for new translations to keep pace with the evolution of English. Gerber successfully transmits both the letter and the spirit of the Greek, and his eloquent directness will be welcome to both scholars and students.

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