Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.55 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.55

Corinne Bonnet, Florence Bouchet (ed.), Translatio: traduire et adapter les Anciens. Rencontres, 52.   Paris:  Classiques Garnier, 2013.  Pp. 331.  ISBN 9782812408601.  €32.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Anne Mahoney, Tufts University (

Table of Contents

This volume collects papers from the Séminaire transversal held at the University of Toulouse II–Le Mirail between 2008 and 2010. The fourteen papers and the editors' introduction take a broad view of “translation,” incorporating not only versions of ancient texts put into the vernacular for the general reader, but also adaptations, excerpts, re-workings, and reception more generally. One unifying idea is that of translation as a social process, not (or not only) something done by a single writer to a single text. Nearly all of the papers discuss translations into French; the volume will thus be useful to scholars of French literature as well as to classicists.

Following the editors' introduction, the papers are grouped into three parts. The first part, “Penser la traduction,” considers the theory of translation, from Cicero to the early 19th century. Bruno Rochette, in “«Traduire ou ne pas traduire». Un dilemme bien connu des auteurs grecs et latins,” considers “the old question whether translation is possible” (p. 21; translations from the text under review are my own) and determines that in fact for Cicero, Jerome, and other ancient translators, the question is more subtle: whether the veritas of a text resides in the sign or the signified. Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat's contribution, “L'ombre portée de la traduction. Des erreurs initiales, de la Genèse à Goethe,” traces persistent errors in translations of the Bible, taking John 1:1, Numbers 5:31, and Matthew 26:26 as primary case studies. Olivier Guerrier's “Auteur – Traducteur – Publique aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles. Enjeux et mutations d'une relation triangulaire” is a historical study on the practice and influence of translation. In “Naturaliser Virgile en vers français. Le cas des Bucoliques et des Géorgiques (1770-1820),” Jean-Noël Pascal compares passages from the two works, both of which received several French versions in this period, most of them aiming to make Vergil sound thoroughly French.

Marine Molins, in “L' Antiquité comme source d'inspiration et matière à rèflexion chez les traducteurs de la Renaissance. Les choix de Charles Fontaine,” looks at translation as a way to enrich the national vernacular (p. 71). Fontaine (1514-1573?) translated Ovid's Heroides in 1552, with a revised version in 1556, along with various other works, adding commentaries of his own, which Molins calls Fontaine's “main original contribution” (p. 83). In these commentaries, Fontaine points out the usefulness of the ancient works, whether as rhetorical models or as a way to consider the difference between truth and fiction (p. 86). For Fontaine, “admiration for Antiquity doesn't mean complacency but always opens up dialogue” (p. 89). He is a self-aware translator, comparing the merits of Latin and French, and paying attention to current discussions of theories and principles of translation. This is a particularly intriguing essay for its extended study of Fontaine's practice.

The second part, “L'Antique comme enjeu de transferts culturels,” is about how translation transforms its models. The process of translatio is not merely the re-writing of a text in a different language, but the transferring of a cultural artifact into a different culture (p. 9-10). And that artifact need not be textual: the first paper in this section, “Rome, les Romains et l'art grec,” by Alexandra Dardenay, talks about the translatio that Roman sculptors performed on Greek models. Dardenay reminds us that Roman scupture is eclectic, deliberately mixing stylistic features from different periods of Greek art; she notes the similarity between this process and Quintilian's advice (10.2.25) that an orator or other author must not just imitate a single Greek model but choose the best parts from various predecessors. Treating Roman sculptors' aemulatio of Greek models as a process of “translation” is an original and, I think, productive approach.

Daniel W. Lacroix in “La traduction des textes latins en prose norroise au Moyen Âge” considers how classical Latin texts are domesticated into medieval Scandinavia, a culture with no native Latin tradition and no direct inheritance from classical antiquity. Francine Mora's “Des translations différentes : les versions manuscrites du Roman d'Eneas, du XIIe au XIVe siècle” looks at a text written in French, though drawing on Latin sources, whose several manuscripts present significantly different versions, for different audiences, “translating” this text without changing the language it's presented in. In “Platon latin, Platon françoys: quelques traductions de la Renaissance. Philosophie de l'amour et «fictions poétiques»” Anne-Hélène Klinger-Dollé looks at the reception of Marsilio Ficino's Latin translations of Plato in sixteenth-century France, both the direct translations and the use of translation in other philosophical works. Luigi-Alberto Sanchi gives us a sort of intellectual biography of an important French humanist in “Guillaume Budé, de la translatio studiorum au De Transitu.” Here “translation” comes to include the migration of scholars to Paris and Budé's own change of point of view from glorification of Rome to comparative study of the broader ancient world (p. 200). Sanchi includes an extensive bibliography.

The third part is called “Moderniser l'antique : innover dans la tradition.” As the editors observe, Modernity has not just contested and sometimes rejected Antiquity, but has tamed, restored, and reformulated it (p. 14). Violaine Giacomotto-Charra's chapter, “La clémence de la terre. Histoire d'un topos plinien à la Renaissance,” takes Pliny NH 2.63 as it appears in the 1562 translation by Antoine du Pinet, the first complete French version of Pliny, and in three other philosophical texts, forming “a type of network, or system of echos from one re-writing to another” (p. 218), each using Pliny's ideas, in similar language, for strikingly different purposes. Laure Lévêque in “L'Antiquité au présent. Lire et relire le politique, 1780-1850” shows how Romantic writers, including Chateaubriand and Mme. de Staël, used classical references for political purposes.

Cédric Chauvin in “Traduire Homère aujourd'hui. L'Odyssée de Philippe Jaccottet” looks at a contemporary version of the Odyssey, namely the 1955 French translation by Philippe Jaccottet, along with its 1982 re-issue and interviews with the translator. The translation is in lines of roughly 14 syllables, more or less, without rhyme; this is similar to the “loose 6-beat line” beloved of English Homer translators, but unusual for French verse. Chauvin analyzes the meter and contrasts it with a standard prose translation (that of Victor Bérard in the Budé series), which is structured in predominantly six-syllable phrases, almost but not quite turning into alexandrine lines. That is, the prose translation sounds like classical French verse, but the poetic version rejects “the fluidity of the alexandrine” (p. 264). Jaccottet's diction, too, is resolutely non-poetic, but regularly mixed with “hellenization” (p. 265) in the form of slightly irregular word order, carefully deployed hiatus, and heavy phrases matching the longer verb forms of the Greek text. Chauvin takes a passage from each version (Od. 7.112-132) to discuss in detail, showing how Jaccottet brings out the “limpidity, freshness, and simplicity” of the Greek text (p. 261). The chapter is a marvelous close reading of a graceful, modern Odyssey.

Finally, Jean-Yves Laurichesse takes up a modern novel in “La guerre en latin. Claude Simon et la bataille de Pharsale.” The book is La Bataille de Pharsale (1969), not actually a story of Caesar and Pompey but rather a novel set in the present, in which (among other things) the narrator visits the site of the battle and remembers struggling to translate Caesar's Bellum Civile as a schoolboy, a motif Simon had used earlier in Histoire, and here developed at length. The novel has been described by Julia Kristeva as “a mosaic of quotations” (quoted p. 296), a deeply, thoroughly intertextual work. Caesar, Lucan, Plutarch, guidebooks, art history: all are brought in. Laurichesse shows how Simon distances himself and his narrator from Roman culture and the Latin language, even as these long-ago memories (both personal and cultural) are “not fundamentally different from recent memory” (p. 303). Translation here is not only the young narrator's literal schoolwork, but Simon's process of revivifying or rejuvenating the ancient past in his new medium.

There is a general bibliography at the end of the volume, not including everything cited in the individual chapters but giving some studies on historical translation theory.

The goal of the book is “to consider the reception of Antiquity through the prism of translatio” (p. 9): What to translate, how, for whom, why? And what is the translator's role or status (p. 10)? In this wide-ranging collection all these questions are considered. We sometimes take translation for granted; this book gives readers a chance to see this ubiquitous process anew.

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