Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.12.04

Frank Nisetich (trans.), The Poems of Callimachus--Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001.  Pp. lv, 350.  ISBN 0-19-815224-8.  L 18.99.  

Reviewed by Andrew Faulkner, Merton College, Oxford (
Word count: 1771 words

That Nisetich (N) has felt himself able to entitle his new translation simply 'The Poems of Callimachus' is a testament to the inclusive result which this project has undertaken to achieve. Since the publication of Pfeiffer's two important editions of Callimachus in 1949 and 1953,1 the English reader of Callimachus has had to turn for the most part to the two separate Loeb volumes of A.W. Mair and C.A. Trypanis.2 Not until now has an English translator attempted to house the works of Callimachus under a single roof. For other reasons as well a new translation of Callimachus has been a long time coming. Mair's English, if elegant, is markedly dated and, apart from a bibliographical addendum to the 1978 reprint, the Trypanis edition was unable to take into consideration the important Lille Papyrus published by P.J. Parsons in 1977.3 Indeed, a lot of scholarship has been undertaken on Callimachus since 1958--H. Lloyd-Jones, P.J. Parsons , A. Hollis, N. Hopkinson, A. Bulloch, W. Mineur, G.R. McLennan and A. Cameron, just to name a few, have all made important contributions 4--and N's translation has been able to take into account these significant advances in Callimachean studies.

The preface begins: '"Translated" in the subtitle of this book means more than it usually means. It includes, in the case of the fragments, a good deal of presentation as well.' This presentation is for the most part expertly handled. The verse translation is preceded by a succinct but useful introduction and a short note on the difficulties of translating the self-conscious form of Callimachean poetry. The fragments of Hecale are presented first; next come the Hymns; books one and two of the Aitia follow; then come the Iambi; books three and four of the Aitia; the Victory Song for Sosibius; and finally the Epigrams, divided into Erotic Poems, Dedicatory Poems, Epitaphs and Display Pieces. The more fragmentary works, i.e. all those except the Hymns and the Epigrams, are attended by notes between the fragments themselves in order to facilitate an understanding of context. All of the poems are supplemented by notes at the back of the book which clarify specific issues such as geography, word-play, etc. and, in the case of the fragments, indicate source. An extensive Annotated Index of Names, combined with a reasonably full Index, allows for easy reference and, for those interested, the comparative tables of Fragments and Epigrams make it easy to locate quickly the original Greek. Thus, although N indicates the 'non-specialist' (p.vii) as part of his audience, the reader with Greek and a knowledge of Callimachus has not been ignored. The elementary nature of notes explaining that 'epinician' can be either an adjective or a noun (n.9, p.xv) and that the Suidas 'is not a person but a book' (n.16, p.vii) might be off-putting for some but, despite this, the book accommodates readers of varying levels.

A quick point about the choice of included Fragments needs first to be made. N says that of the 895 fragments of Callimachus which appear in Pfeiffer and the Supplementum Hellenisticum he has translated those for which he 'could supply a context without bogging the reader down in details' (p.vii). Editorial selectivity is a necessity, but one is nonetheless sometimes left to wonder why particular fragments have been excluded. Why, for example, is fr.271 Pf. not rendered in the Hecale? Its sense is clear ('the avenging stork used to travel with us') and if we are to follow Hollis that 'it is tempting to believe that the crow speaks this line' (Hollis, p.259), a context amongst the other words of the bird which N renders is surely to be found. This placement is of course conjecture but so is much of the scholarship relating to fragmentary texts, and it does not seem that the inclusion of this fragment would have bogged the reader down in details any more than anything else. This is not to say that the selection is for the most part not well judged; it is, but a reader should keep in mind that very lucid pieces of Greek have in some cases not been included.

One of the great strengths of this translation is that, through presentation and supplementation, N provides his reader, particularly the non-specialist, with a very palatable feast of the often daunting fragments. There is, however, a thin line between making fragmentary works fluid and digestible and making them too much so; we do after all possess only very limited remains of what these poems once were. On the whole N walks this line with remarkable balance, but there is one aspect of presentation which might slightly mislead a reader. Although N warns us in his preface (p.vii) that in the case of the fragments he will employ signs to indicate instances of textual difficulty (three dots for missing word(s), a line of dots to indicate a missing line and square brackets to signify 'uncertainty of a different kind'), it would seem that these are not employed uniformly throughout. Lines one to ten of the prologue to the Aitia (pp.62-3) are translated without any indication that there are textual problems when, in fact, seven of the ten Greek lines have missing words at their beginning (Pf. fr.1). Furthermore, what about the works which are not fragmentary? The Hymns have survived in full owing to their inclusion in manuscripts with the Homeric Hymns, but that is not to say there are no textual difficulties. There is textual corruption at 3.121ff. (Pf.ii p.13) but no mention of this in the translation at 3.164 ff.; no indication at 3.291-2 that the text at 3.213 (Pf.ii p.16) is spurious; and, despite the note at the back stating that he follows a conjecture of Wilamowitz, brackets should surely enclose 6.31-2 (6.23, Pf.ii p.36), not to mention the textual corruption at 6.25 (Pf.ii p.36), which receives no mention at all. N prefaces his note to Aitia 3.1 (p.270) 'sections C, D, and E-F are less fully preserved than their translation here may suggest'; one cannot help wondering whether a note such as this should have prefaced the book as a whole.

Finally as regards presentation, it is worth noting that N has both 1) chosen to place books one and two of the Aitia, followed by the Iambi, separately from the third and fourth books of Aitia and 2) combined Pfeiffer's Lyrica, μέλη, with the Iambi, creating a corpus of seventeen instead of thirteen. Regarding the former, N points us (p.251 n.146-62) to the full and convincing discussion of the matter by Cameron (Cameron pp.141-62). Of the latter, N presents the main arguments for accepting the amalgamation in the notes introducing [Iambi] 14-17 (see also introduction p.xxiv n.40 and n.83), again referring to the arguments of Cameron (Cameron pp.163-73). He suggests that, among other factors, the most significant piece of evidence for considering the Lyrica to belong to the Iambi is that 'no indication of a break of any kind appears in the Diegesis between Ia.13 and the poems numbered 14-17 here.' As, however, Kerkhecker has since shown (Kerkhecker pp.271ff.),5 this is not necessarily convincing evidence. The Diegeses are often careless and might easily have omitted such a statement of division. The full argument need not be borne out here though: as N himself admits (p.xxxi n.52) this issue, along with the separation of the Aitia, is 'likely to remain controversial' and, while taking a clear stance, he certainly does not intend to propose a firm conclusion. It is a pity, though, that Kerkhecker's insightful study appeared too late for N to take it into consideration; its arguments for treating the Lyrica separately are strong, and any reader of Callimachus will want to have it also to hand.

N's verse is elegant, his short lines providing smooth reading, and it is easy to see what moved H. Lloyd-Jones in a forward to N's translation of Pindar to say that he has 'a genuine gift for translation'.6 He goes a long way toward preserving the form and subtlety which runs through the veins of Callimachus' poetry, reproducing the exact symmetry of composition found in the Hymn to Demeter (see and rendering throughout examples of word-play in the Greek (see Hymn to Delos 122-3 and passim). One notable success is his substitution of 'baseball for wrestling imagery' (pg. 259 n.75) at Iambi 4.75; 'strike one...strike two...strike three' preserves well the emphatic sense of counting in the Greek. N is also for the most part faithful to the Greek and strikes a good balance between a literal translation and a poetic one.

A few objections can however be raised: Lines 78-9 (p.22) of the Hymn to Zeus read 'The ancient poets, however, had no regard for truth at all'; but the Greek δηναιοὶ δ' οὐ πάμπαν ἀληθέες ἦσαν ἀοιδοί (Pf.ii 1.60) clearly intends 'The ancient poets were not altogether truthful.' The ancient poets are not, like the Cretans at the beginning of this Hymn, 'always liars' (line 10 p.20), just not truthful all the time, and to translate as N has is to misrepresent the words of Callimachus. One will in this instance prefer the dated translation of Mair 'The ancient poets spake not altogether truthfully.' Other objections are more subtle. At lines 142-3 of the Hymn to Demeter, Triopas says of his son Erysichthon 'Instead, he sits before my eyes, Hunger personified'; but the meaning is ambiguous in the Greek. As Hopkinson has pointed out (and indicated in his translation--Hopkinson pp.69 and 162-3) νῦν δὲ κακὰ βούβρωστις ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσι κάθηται (Pf.ii 6.102) can mean also 'but now a terrible hunger is seated in his (Erysichthon's) eyes'. While this latter meaning is in some ways preferable, one might consider that the ambiguity is, like so much else in Hellenistic poetry, intentional; N makes no attempt to render this, however, and does not include a note on the subject. Elsewhere one wonders why ἔπεσ' ἐξ ἵππων (Pf.ii 6.86) has been rendered 'He's had a fall' (119); what happened to the horses?

Other small points could be raised: while elsewhere meticulously indicating his source and combination of sources for fragments, N fails to mention in his note to Hecale fr.13.31 that he has combined Pf. fr.238 and Pf. fr.319, as suggested by Hollis (Hollis p.162 ad fr.19), including 'and the air darkened'. Nonetheless, despite the criticism which might be levelled against this book, it is clear that N has produced a superb piece of work. His translation is a valuable tool, making Callimachus more accessible than he has ever been in the past, and is surely destined to follow in the footsteps of his esteemed Pindar.


1.   R. Pfeiffer (ed.), Callimachus, i: Fragmenta, (Oxford, 1949); R. Pfeiffer (ed.), Callimachus, ii: Hymni et Epigrammata, (Oxford, 1953).
2.   A.W. Mair (ed.), Callimachus: Hymns and Epigrams, (London, 1955); C.A. Trypanis (ed.), Callimachus: Aetia, Iambi, Hecale and other Fragments, (London, 1958). See also the more modern but extremely selective verse translation of S. Lombardo and D. Rayor, Callimachus: Hymns, Epigrams, Select Fragments, (Baltimore, 1988), which is often too free and translates with the now outdated belief that there existed a polemic between Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes.
3.   P.J. Parsons, 'Callimachus: Victoria Berenices', ZPE 25, 1977, 1-50.
4.   H. Lloyd-Jones and P.J. Parsons, Supplementum Hellenisticum, (Berlin, 1983); A. Hollis, Callimachus: Hecale, (Oxford, 1990); W. Mineur, Callimachus, Hymn to Delos: Introduction and Commentary, (Leiden, 1984); A. Bulloch, Callimachus: The Fifth Hymn, (Cambridge, 1985); N. Hopkinson, Callimachus: Hymn to Demeter, (Cambridge, 1988); G.R. McLennan, Callimachus: Hymn to Zeus, (Rome, 1977); A. Cameron, Callimachus and his Critics, (Princeton, 1995).
5.   A. Kerkhecker, Callimachus' Book of Iambi, (Oxford, 1999).
6.   F.J. Nisetich, Pindar's Victory Songs, (Baltimore, 1980).

Read Latest
Index for 2001
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:27:39, Friday, 03 April 2009