Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.03.29

Uvo Hölscher (trans.), Pindar. Siegeslieder. Herausgegeben von Thomas Poiss. Mit einem Geleitwort von Michael Theunissen.   Munich:  Verlag C.H. Beck, 2002.  Pp. 160.  ISBN 3-406-49638-5.  EUR 26.90.  

Reviewed by William Allan, Harvard University (

This book contains translations of eleven Pindaric odes by Uvo Hölscher [hereafter H.], 1914-1996, one of the foremost Hellenists of his generation. Reflecting the influence of his teacher Karl Reinhardt,1 H.'s major scholarly works concern Homeric studies and early Greek philosophy.2 He also wrote brilliantly on a wide variety of topics in Classics and the classical tradition: his selected essays, published in 1994 to mark his eightieth birthday, contain thirty one items divided into six categories: Homer, Greek lyric poetry, Greek drama, Greek philosophy, the history of classical scholarship, and the influence of the classical world on German literature.3 This posthumous collection of translations and essays displays once again H.'s qualities as a scholar, combining the virtues of a 'Wortphilolog' with a wider cultural vision.

Why study Classics? This question concerned H. throughout his life, and the present book can be understood as offering an answer to it. Before discussing the book, however, it may be helpful to set H.'s response and his achievements in a wider context. Speaking in 1962, long after 'klassische Philologie' had lost its eminence in the cultural life of Germany, H. expressed the value of Classics to the modern world: 'Rom und Griechenland sind uns das nächste Fremde, und das vorzüglich Bildende an ihnen ist nicht sowohl ihre Klassizität und "Normalität", sondern dass uns das Eigene dort in einer anderen Möglichkeit, ja überhaupt im Stande der Möglichkeiten begegnet.' These words are taken from H.'s 'Selbstgespräch über den Humanismus', a meditation, free of illusion and sentimentality, on the isolation of Classics from the wider world.4 Quoting Nietzsche, H. insists that the study of Classics is valuable precisely because of its 'untimeliness': 'Ich wüsste nicht, was die klassische Philologie in unserer Zeit füer einen Sinn hätte, wenn nicht den, in ihr unzeitgemäss zu wirken.'5 Throughout his career, both as a teacher and a scholar, H. aimed to reveal the potential relevance and power of this 'untimely' discipline.

H.'s sensitivity to language can be seen in everything he wrote, though one thinks especially of his beautifully written book on the Odyssey. The translation of Pindar, however, requires a rare talent for language and rhythm. H.'s skill as an interpreter of German poetry, particularly of Goethe and Hölderlin, contributes to his success as a translator of Pindar.6 Yet the traditions underlying H.'s own poetic language do not distract from the communication of Pindar's thought. This is no mere 'Klassiker' pastiche of Pindar, but a reinvigorating confrontation with one of antiquity's most difficult and perplexing poets.7

The book has three main sections: the Greek text with translation (10-97); two short pieces by H., the first on translating Pindar, the second entitled 'Pindar und die Wahrheit' (101-120); and finally a substantial Appendix, itself of four parts: 'Zum Geleit' by Michael Theunissen [T.] (123-128); a guide to the sources of the translations (129-131) and notes on the individual poems (132-159), both by Thomas Poiss [P.]; and finally a brief guide to further reading (160). As editor of the collection, P. has brought together translations of 11 odes (Ol. 1, Pyth. 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 11, Nem. 5, 7, Isth. 5, 8). Versions of six of these were originally printed in the Festschriften of friends (Ol. 1, Pyth. 1, 3, 6, 11, Isth. 8),8 three first appeared in a volume of German Pindar translations edited by H. himself over forty years ago (Pyth. 8. 10, Isth. 5),9 Nem. 7 was printed as the opening of Das nächste Fremde (1-5), while the translation of Nem. 5, previously unpublished, formed part of a typescript (from before 1962) containing drafts of eight of the other poems. As one would expect, and as a comparison of the typescript with later versions shows, H. reworked his translations over the years. P. has carefully recorded the variants in the opening section to his notes on each poem and has regularized the layout and orthography of the printed text. Thus, for example, he capitalizes such personified powers as 'Memory' and 'Justice' throughout, whereas H. did so only in his translation of Nem. 7.10 Most importantly, P. has noted significant differences between H.'s Greek text (based on Bowra's OCT, 1935) and the standard edition of H.'s teacher Bruno Snell (first published in 1953, revised by H. Maehler in 1969, and now in its eighth edition).11

It is difficult to give an adequate impression of the quality of H.'s translations. One must simply read them, and reread them. And, as with all good poetry, each reading (preferably aloud) makes one see and hear new things. The number of (German) poets and scholars who have attempted to translate Pindar is prodigious, yet H. has achieved something remarkable and has captured the strength and grandeur of Pindar's language with an arresting intensity.12 H. is also sensitive to the range of the narrator's tone: take, for example, the advice offered Hieron (of Aitna, the tyrant's new foundation) in Pyth. 1.85-86: 'Aber trotzdem -- denn besser als Mitleid ist Neid -- | Lass nicht nach im Schönen! Lenke | Mit gerechtem Steuer | Das Volk: auf truglosem Amboss | Schmiede die Zunge!' Passages of this kind contrast with the modesty and simplicity (of both language and ambition) occasioned by an awareness of human limitations: compare the narrator's judgement of Coronis in Pyth. 3.19-23: 'Nein, sie begehrte das Fremde. | So geht es vielen. Das aber ist | Von den Menschen das eitelste Volk | Das das Heimische schmäht | Und nach draussen gafft, nach Nichtigem haschend | in unerfüllbarer Hoffnung.' From the portrayal of the idyllic life of the Hyperboreans (Pyth. 10.37-44) to the poet's candidness about his 'Muse for hire' (Pyth. 11.41-42), H.'s translations combine a sensitivity to Pindar's wide poetic register and vocabulary with an awareness of his work's political and social functions.13

On the latter topic, which H. sums up in the phrase 'Die Adelsideologie des Sportsieges', his essay 'Pindar und die Wahrheit' (104-120 = NF 92-106), first published in 1975, confronts the complex of class, sport, and politics underlying Pindar's profession. It is a stimulating discussion, free of jargon, which, while it admits that (104) there is scarcely a poet who has become 'stranger' ('fremder') to us than Pindar, nevertheless exposes the fatuity of denigrating his work as a mere (105-106) 'Typus dichterischen Hoflieferantentums'.14 The decision to reprint this essay together with the translations enables a greater appreciation of H.'s insight into the relationship between Pindar and his audience. H.'s analysis of their shared world-view is extraordinarily vivid (117): 'Pindars Dichtung ist ein beständiges Hinreden an etwas: an Menschen, Götter und Dinge der Welt, die ihn zu hören scheinen. Der Gestus des Anredens bestimmt weitgehend Form und Geist des Gedichts und gibt ihm sein dialogisches Gepräge. Es ist der Ausdruck eines Weltverhältnisses, in welchem der Dichter mit den Erscheinungen der Welt kommuniziert, und sie, als lebendige, seinem Wort antworten.'

H. saw in the study of Classics 'die Chance gesteigerten Lebens'. In his 'Selbstgespräch über den Humanismus' (quoted above) he advocated the value of this 'untimely' discipline in three fundamental areas: firstly, an education in language, which frees us from restrictive jargon; secondly, the experience of great works of art; and thirdly, a historical training which allows us to see the continuity of traditions and so deepens our understanding of the present.15 These aims are fulfilled in this book. Pindar's poetry is explored in terms of its 'untimely strangeness', but also as a form of literature that is profoundly political (in the widest Greek sense of the word) and relevant to modern readers. For as H. observes (119), following a translation of the opening strophe of Nem. 6, 'Die Antinomie von Vergänglichkeit und Sinnerfüllung, von Nichtigkeit und Glück, die auf dem Grunde der pindarischen Dichtung liegt, ist trotzdem noch die unsere.'


1.   H. has been called 'der einzige eigentliche Schüler von Karl Reinhardt' (W. Burkert, Gnomon 70 (1998) 475).
2.   Most notably, Anfängliches Fragen: Studien zur frühen griechischen Philosophie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1968) and Die Odyssee: Epos zwischen Märchen und Roman (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1988; reprinted 1989, 1990; paperback edn. 2000).
3.   Das nächste Fremde. Von Texten der griechischen Frühzeit und ihrem Reflex in der Moderne [hereafter NF], eds. J. Latacz and M. Kraus (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1994). For a complete bibliography of H.'s works, see NF 401-412.
4.   Published in H.'s Die Chance des Unbehagens: Drei Essais zur Situation der klassischen Studien (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1965) 53-86 [quotation from p. 81]; reprinted in NF 257-281 [p. 278].
5.   F. Nietzsche, preface to Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben.
6.   H. was President of the Hölderlin-Gesellschaft 1978-1990. Among his publications on that poet one might single out Empedokles und Hölderlin (Frankfurt: Insel Verlag, 1965) and '"Dort bin ich, wo Apollo ging . . .": Hölderlins Weg zu den Griechen', reprinted in NF 303-319.
7.   On the difficulties and limitations of translation, H. quotes an amusing analogy made by Bruno Snell (102): 'Das Übersetzen . . . sei immer wie eine zu kurze Decke: es friert einen oben oder unten.' Nevertheless, as H. insists, translation is fundamental to Classics, since our attempts to understand the texts inevitably involve reproducing them in our own language as best we can.
8.   Although the table on p. 130 correctly attributes Ol. 1, Pyth. 1, 3, and Isth. 8 to the Vordtriede Festschrift Weimar am Pazifik (1985), an oversight in the text above has replaced Pyth. 1 with Pyth. 8. Read also 'Bürger' on p. 134 (three lines up).
9.   Pindar: Siegeslieder. Deutsche Übertragungen (Frankfurt: Exempla Classica Bd. 52, 1962), with an Afterword by Bruno Snell.
10.   P. also follows H.'s practice (cf. Nem. 7, NF 1-5) of printing one triad per page and capitalizing the first word of each triad. In the monostrophic poems (Pyth. 6 and Isth. 8) P. prints the six strophes of Pyth. 6 on two pages (three per page) and the seven larger strophes of Isth. 8 on four pages (2, 2, 2, and 1). This arrangement results in a generously proportioned text that is pleasing to the eye.
11.   Pindari Carmina cum Fragmentis. Pars 1: Epinicia (Leipzig: Teubner, 1987). E.g. Ol. 1.113: H. reads ἐν ἄλλοισι, though the printed text drops the preposition; Pyth. 1.40: H. translates Hermann's εὐανδροῦν, but later preferred εὔανδρον, which is printed in the text; Pyth. 11.55-57: H. adopts Thiersch's τᾶν and Wilamowitz's στείχοι; Isth. 8.47: H. reads Triclinius' dual ἄνακτε. P. corrects (158) H.'s translation of Isth. 8.44, which should refer to 'evenings of the full moon' rather than 'evenings of the new moon'.
12.   Cf. Dion. Hal. Comp. 22, Hor. Odes 4.2, and H.'s comments on (102) 'die epochale Wirkung, die von dem Horazischen Wort auf die Lyrik des Sturm und Drang und ihren Begriff vom Pindarischen ausgegangen ist.'
13.   As. T. observes (127), 'Statt der von Heidegger gefordeten Übersetzung ins Fremde bieter er [H.] wirklich eine Übersetzung, eine ins Eigene.'
14.   A description of Pindar's poetry taken from P. Rühmkorf, Die Jahre die Ihr kennt: Anfälle und Erinnerungen (Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1972).
15.   Compare his remark, 'Wenn niemand ist, der sich errinern will, wird es keine klassischen Studien mehr geben' (from Die Chance des Unbehagens [n. 4 above], quoted by K. Adam in his obituary of H., Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 3 January 1997).

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