Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.05.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.05.51

Sylvie Laigneau-Fontaine, Catherine Langlois-Pézeret, Gilbert Ducher. Epigrammes. Textes littéraires de la Renaissance, 18.   Paris:  Éditions Honoré Champion, 2015.  Pp. 728.  ISBN 9782745329127.  €135.00.  

Reviewed by Florence Bistagne, University of Avignon – Institut universitaire de France (

This 728-page volume is divided into five parts : a very long introduction (p. 1-140), the text of Ducher’s Epigrams with their French translations and with 200 pages of critical notes placed at the end of the section, thus at the same time allowing easier reading and providing more detailed analyses for those who want them (p. 141-636), a series of appendices with critical apparatus (p. 637-358), a copious bibliography (p. 659-708), and, finally, a very helpful index (p. 709-720). The authors are to be congratulated first and foremost for producing a volume that is such a pleasure to read, and one that brings the finest scholarship and scientific accuracy to a text which does not figure among the classics of the university curriculum.

The introduction begins with a well documented biographical sketch, which focuses on the networks that the author had within his native country; this is an important point for the study of sixteenth-century multilingual France since it allows us to understand the place of intellectuals in relation to their perceived audience. After resolving the issue of the date of Ducher’s birth, the authors turn to his intellectual training : he learned Greek (still something of a rarity at the time, p. 16), no doubt with Aleander. Around the same time, he became a printing-house corrector, editing Martial in 1526 (p. 20), and, already, a poet (p. 21), publishing his first epigrams.

After Paris and Savoy, we find him in Lyons in 1538, where he had become a teacher of the humanities and a corrector for the printer Sebastian Gryphius, who published the collection of epigrams that is the subject of the present volume. He frequented the Lyonnese sodalitium, an episode which is dealt with in some detail in the introduction (p. 32-82), and which is extremely interesting, not only for the light it sheds on Ducher’s work and its poetic interpretation (pp. 32-36), but also for its status as a historical source (p. 57-82): the places and the people mentioned here are in no way simply legendary. For instance, Marot (pp. 52-54) embodies a kind of early form of “product marketing” (p. 53) based on a fashionable author. Quarrels are of course also mentioned (pp. 60-65), and this brings these intellectuals back down to our level, and makes them appear more human, thus reversing the traditional notion that old times were more peaceful than our own. Being seen and heard is shown to have been something essential: meeting places, dinners among friends, small gifts, reciprocal translations (on p. 81, that of Marot, for example) also helped to construct the identity of these intellectuals as Frenchmen.

The authors then turn to the study of Ducher’s poetics in the Epigrammes (p. 83-140), underlining the large proportion of moral epigrams in this collection. They do not forget to state their editorial principles (p. 139), and they also give an overall view of all the types of metre used by Ducher, thus demonstrating its variety.

The section containing the text and its translation is, for obvious reasons, the longest (almost 500 pages), and we can have nothing but praise for this initiative, since there are few things that are trickier to translate than poetry. The authors have taken the option of translating the text in unrhymed verse, corresponding to the Latin verses, and thereby sacrificing the French metrics. This allows them greater precision and fidelity, while not excluding poetic inspiration and contrasts in tone that are quite in keeping with the original epigrams. Since the notes have been relegated to the end, it is possible to enjoy the translation without being distracted by the scholarly apparatus. When we do refer to it, however, we appreciate the translators’ expertise all the more, with room only for the occasional criticism. For example, in note 153 (p. 436), on epigram I, 29 (p. 162), they indicate that Ducher used here a variant form (the noun helluo) rather than the usual expression (tempus edax), and yet they themselves employ the stereotyped phrase “all-devouring time”. When we read the translation without referring to the notes, we admire the semi-alexandrine, but if we look at the note, we wonder why they didn’t try to find a more original turn of phrase. However, such quibbles are rare, as there are so many translations that are both subtle and precise : for example, the translation of fuco sibi pingit by peinturlurer (p. 241), the polyptoton in mille in I, 176, “sur Félix, imitation de Martial”, or again on pp. 354-355, where the authors manage to translate the verses on the libelli and on the nugae without resorting to clumsy imitations of Ovid or Horace. After the second book of Ducher’s Epigrams, there are further epigrams, written by “several people (true poets)” to Ducher; the epigram by Maurice Scève (p. 390) is truly a perfect example both of the elegiac distich in Latin and of how it can be best translated into French: the authors respect the alliterations, the assonances, the polyptota, and the layout of the verses with regard to the Latin original. Finally (pp. 402-409) we have Ducher’s eclogue Le Dauphin, imitated from Virgil – from the Bucolics, of course, but which also refers to the Hyrcanian tigress from the Aeneid (p. 407).

Then comes the section containing the 1718 footnotes, spread over 225 pages (pp. 411-636). This part is the epitome of exceptional scholarship: description and explanation of the metres used, information about the people referred to, identification of sources and secondary bibliography, contextualisation of the epigrams within the contemporary scene. The reader who refers to them will find there a wealth of information (we should just point out that the proceedings of the conference La Réception du ‘couple’ Virgile-Ovide…, quoted p. 583, note 1222, have now been published: in 2015, at around the same time as this volume, no doubt). The critical apparatus concerning the sources is no less accurate. We should also mention that some Greek epigrams are found here, with their translations, but that there are also sometimes quotations from Greek (isolated words, hemistichs or even whole verses) in the Latin epigrams: the authors translate them, of course, but sometimes they are put in inverted commas, as though they were quotations – which they do not seem to be in the original. In I, 134, p. 332-333, for example, the authors give the translation “it sent many souls to Hades”, and explain in note 1238 (p. 585) that this refers to the anger of Achilles in Homer; however, they do not indicate whether this translation is their own or a translation of Homer, whether the quotation is exact (with regard to our modern editions) or whether it is a text from the time, or something quoted from memory. This may not seem to be of primary importance; and yet, it raises the question of textual transmission and its witnesses.

These few remarks do not detract in any way from the excellent scholarly quality of this volume nor diminish the merit of the translators, who have tackled a particularly difficult corpus. By putting at our disposal this collection of texts from one of the most important authors of the early sixteenth century, they allow us to gain entry to a whole world which was still to some extent bilingual.

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