Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.26

Alexandra Lianeri, Vanda Zajko (ed.), Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture. Classical Presences.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2008.  Pp. xii, 435.  ISBN 9780199288076.  £70.00; $150.00.  

Reviewed by Victoria Moul, The Queen's College, Oxford (
Word count: 2217 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In recent years, classicists have become increasingly self-conscious about the demands and decisions involved in teaching texts 'in translation': how can we best choose and use translations for these purposes? How can we encourage both ourselves and our students to think with greater sophistication of the role of translation? But whenever we teach or discuss a classical text -- even if we do so with linguistically skilled students or colleagues who have no need of a Loeb -- we engage in translation of various kinds (or, as Neville Morley discusses in his excellent essay in the volume under review, with a marked refusal to translate). More than any other single insight, this volume taken as a whole testifies to the extent to which the translation of the Latin and Greek classics, far from being a slightly lowly and (embarrassingly) an increasingly necessary adjunct to the teaching of language and literature 'in the original', lies instead right at the heart of the discipline's perpetuation and self-understanding, beginning with the various Roman translations of Greek culture. As such, this suggestive and very wide-ranging collection of essays has much to offer classicists of many kinds, not only those most directly concerned with reception. But it suffers to some degree from the extent of its range and not all the essays included are of equal strength, or equally well integrated into the volume as a whole.

There is no doubting the importance of translation to modern teachers and scholars of classics, both at a theoretical and a practical level. Lianeri and Vajko's volume, however, has a more ambitious remit: as they set out in their introduction, they are interested in the various ways in which translation -- the translatability of certain texts and concepts, or their resistance to translation, or the details of their translation through history -- shapes and defines what it is for a text to be considered 'classic'. So while several articles are concerned quite straightforwardly with the role of translations in teaching and studying 'classical texts', both in the present and the past, a second series of papers are focused more specifically upon the issue of the 'classic' -- what is it? how does it become so? and how is translation implicated in that definition?

The volume includes several excellent essays in both categories--such as Seth Schein's humane, modest and very readable discussion of translating Aeschylean choral lyrics for classroom use (Chapter 17) and (in the latter category) Fred Parker's essay on 'classic simplicity' (Chapter 10), a masterfully clear and engaging explanation of how we get from the 'classicism' of Pope (where originary virtue belongs to Latin and Greek texts) to the 'simplicity' of Wordsworth (where that sense of purity has been transferred to nature). Schein's paper focuses upon the practicalities of translation and takes the 'classic' status of Aeschylus more or less for granted; Parker on the other hand is interested in the role of translation--and especially of 'translation-consciousness'--in the authors and periods he discusses, but his paper includes no detailed analysis of a translation and this does not strike the reader as an omission.

Several papers successfully combine these concerns--that is, the definition of a classic, and the 'translation of the classics': Deborah H. Roberts' chapter on the various strategies employed for translating (mostly Latin) obscenity is essentially an informative survey of various approaches to the problem, but it is suggestive too of the ways in which different modes of translation may establish a text as a 'classic' of different kinds, and aimed at different imagined readers. Of all the papers, Martindale's excellent essay (Chapter 4) confronts most clearly what it might mean for a translation to be itself a classic, but this is a theme that recurs in several of the contributions, and his chapter is well positioned towards the beginning of the book.

Among the more purely theoretical pieces, Lawrence Venuti's contribution ('Translation, Interpretation, Canon Formation', Chapter 1) is an admirably clear exposition of the interpretative and evaluative strategies we bring to bear upon the 'classics' when we translate or engage with translations. In this category, Richard H. Armstrong's essay 'Classical Translations of the Classics: The Dynamics of Literary Tradition in Retranslating Epic Poetry' (Chapter 8) also stands out: a little longer than most of the contributions to the book, he uses the additional length to good effect, and manages to include not only a rich discussion of how to teach with and from translations in an intelligent way--using them to open up, rather than close down, the texts in question--but also to confront some key theoretical issues. His exploration of the extent to which Roman literature is itself rooted in translation--so that our 'classics' turn out to be translations to begin with--is particularly valuable.

This is a large book, however, and it is hard to tell, amongst these various sub-categories and concerns, what you are going to get in any one paper. There is an introduction but no conclusion, and the volume is divided into three sections -- entitled 'Theorizing Translation and the Classic' (seven papers, see list below), 'The Survival of the Classic: Tracing the History of Translations' (six contributions) and finally 'Contesting the Classic: The Politics of Translation Practice' (just five papers). Such distinctions are always going to be porous and hard to define; and for the most part the implied divisions work reasonably well. There are some oddities though: Joanna Paul's paper on Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film Le Mépris, for instance, which is the final article in the 'theorizing' section, is an intelligent discussion of an interesting film, but seems strangely specific for its position in the volume. Although the author is interested in the implications of equating translation and adaptation, she makes little attempt to relate her conclusions to other films self-conscious about adaptation or multi-lingualism, other interpretations of Homer, or indeed alternative explorations of that central question of 'fidelity' (whether linguistic, literary and sexual) with which the film is concerned. I think this good paper is disadvantaged by its climactic position in the 'theory' section. Questions that seem like omissions here might not do so if the essay was framed and positioned differently.

This is a fairly minor quibble of course -- if a paper is stimulating and well-written it doesn't much matter where it comes in a large volume -- but there are a few too many loose ends here for my taste (other readers may of course find that feature of the volume pleasing in itself). Among these is the surprising 'tail-off' effect to the book as a whole. The final and shortest section, 'Contesting the Classic: The Politics of Translation Practice' suggests in its title a concern with the ways in which the practice of translation contests or determines the reception of a classic as a classic, and the ways in which the idea of a classic invites or debars various kinds of reader. Chapters 14 and 15 (by Edith Hall and Lorna Hardwick respectively) are assured explorations of just this kind of thing, and also a good example of the ways in which the juxtaposition of essays can itself be fruitful: Hall's paper (like that of Roberts, Chapter 13) is essentially a well-written survey of the topic ('Translation as Access Route to the Classics'). It has all the virtues of this kind of piece when it is done well: she alerts us to important facts and trends--for instance the significant difference between the early modern 'canon' of classical texts and our own, as revealed by patterns of translation and publication. And like all good survey articles she mentions in passing a host of texts and authors that sound fascinating (such as Randolph's 1630s translation of Aristophanes' Plutus, mentioned on pp. 327-8). Hall's piece -- which reminds us of the variety, both in texts and readership, to be found just in the last few hundred years in England -- is an effective complement to Lorna Hardwick's more theoretical and impressively clear exploration (and defence) of the concept of 'hybridity' in contemporary translations (Chapter 15). One essay looks forward (or around), the other back; one mostly surveys what we find, the other suggests an interpretative framework, and reading the two together makes for a rich and successful juxtaposition.

But then this section, subtitled the 'politics of translation practice', concludes with three papers, all marked by their rather narrow focus upon particular texts. The first of these, Dimitris N. Maronitis' essay 'Intralingual Translation: Genuine and False Dilemmas', is concerned specifically with the translation of Greek classics, and especially of Homer, into modern Greek (the author is himself a translator of the Odyssey). The second is Seth Schein's admirable paper on 'Translating Aeschylean Choral Lyric' (Chapter 17), a close and detailed discussion of the author's decisions in his translation of a single portion of chorus from the Agamemnon. Finally, the volume ends with the novelist J. M. Coetzee's short piece on 'Working with Translators' (Chapter 18) which is, again, interesting but extremely specific.

The inclusion of Coetzee's paper -- and the article about him in section one (Johan Geertsema's 'Between Homage and Critique: Coetzee, Translation and the Classic', Chapter 5) -- strikes me as an odd decision. Coetzee's own work is (arguably) a classic, or a classic-in-the-making; his works often mention or engage with acknowledged 'classics'; he wrote a lecture discussing the idea of the classic; he has also thought about translation, and sometimes practised it. But these various points do not quite add up to a coherent reason why he deserves or invites a (rather laboured) paper discussing his own approach to the classic; added to which, his personal contribution to the volume (Chapter 18) doesn't really think about what it is to be a classic at all. Although Coetzee's own article -- a lively if fairly slight account of the problems encountered by the author whose work is being translated around the world -- has plenty of interest in its own right, it bears only tangential relevance to the themes of the volume as set out or implied by most of the essays, and it makes for a weak ending (especially as the editors have added no conclusion).

While Coetzee receives, in effect, two chapters, other contributions -- arguably of more direct relevance to the theme -- could usefully have been strengthened by a companion piece. Maronitis' essay would be stronger, and the implications perhaps clearer or more widely applicable, if it were accompanied by another considering intralingual translations in another language (such as English 'translations' of Chaucer; or of "difficult" Latin texts into "easy" Latin prose, a very common practice in medieval and early modern editions of the classics). Similarly, Morley's excellent article on the resistance to translating key terms in ancient history feels isolated: his is the only chapter directly relevant to ancient historians. Although Translation and the Classic works well as a source of individual readings on various related topics, it is at its strongest when contributions interact -- as in the links between Chapters 14 and 15 (discussed above), or between the papers by Martindale (on Dryden), Armstrong (on 'retranslating' epic poetry) and Hooley (Chapter 11, an agile and enjoyable piece on Marlowe's Lucan).

But I do not want to be over-critical: there is a good deal of excellent work included in Translation and the Classic, and almost all of it is interesting. Anyone concerned principally with the theory or practice of translation from the classics should certainly read all or part of it. And if the collection tries to do, and to include, a bit too much, that is itself testament to the fertility and excitement of these topics in contemporary "classical" scholarship, whatever that might turn out to be.

Although I found several typographical errors, the quality of the volume is otherwise good, and the short bibliography at the end of each essay is a convenient feature for those excerpting individual chapters as set readings.

Table of Contents


Still Being Read after so Many Years: Rethinking the Classic through Translation, Alexandra Lianeri and Vanda Zajko

1. Theorising Translation and the Classic:

Translation, Interpretation, Canon Formation, Lawrence Venuti

The End of Translation, John Sallis

Political Translations: Holderlin's Das Höchste, Andrew Benjamin

Dryden's Ovid, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Aesthetic Translation, Charles Martindale

Between Homage and Critique: Coetzee, Translation, and the Classic, Johan Geertsema

'Das Alterum, das sich nicht übersetzen lässt ': Translation and Untranslatability in Ancient History , Neville Morley

Homer and Cinema: Translation and Adaptation in Le Mépris, Jo Paul

2. The Persistence of the Classic: Tracing the History of Translations

Classical Translations of the Classics: The Dynamics of Literary Tradition in Retranslating Epic Poetry, Richard Armstrong

Tradition, Translation, and Colonization: The Greco-Arabic Translation Movement and Deconstructing the Classics, Azzedine Haddour

Classic Simplicity, Fred Parker

Raising the Dead: Marlowe's Lucan, Dan Hooley

'An Agreeable Innovation': Play and Translation, J. Michael Walton

Translation and the 'Surreptitious Classic': Obscenity and Translatability, Deborah H. Roberts

3. Contesting the Classic: The Politics of Translation Practice

Navigating the Realms of Gold: Translation As Access Route to the Classics, Edith Hall

Translated Classics Around the Milennium: Vibrant Hybrids or Shattered Icons?, Lorna Hardwick

Intralingual Translation: Genuine and False Dilemmas, Dimitris N. Maronitis

Translating Aeschylean Choral Lyric, Seth L. Schein

Working with Translators, J. M.Coetzee

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