Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.06.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.06.27

Josefine Kitzbichler, Ulrike C. A. Stephan (ed.), Studien zur Praxis der Übersetzung antiker Literatur: Geschichte - Analysen - Kritik. Transformationen der Antike, 35.   Berlin:  De Gruyter, 2016.  Pp. xi, 412.  ISBN 9783110426496.  $112.00.  

Reviewed by Matthias Widmer, University of Glasgow (

Table of Contents
[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Translations of Greek and Latin classics now occupy a special place in the corpus of literary works translated from one language into another. Due to the ever-decreasing familiarity of the reading public with the originals, such renderings are more and more likely to be uncritically accepted as adequate substitutes for their respective source texts. The task of analysing and evaluating individual translations necessarily falls to classical philologists; yet modern scholarship—at least in the German-speaking world—has for a long time tended not to see how translation is conditioned by specific factors of the target culture that deserve attention in their own right. In recent years, the collaborative research centre ‘Transformations of Antiquity’ has begun to fill this gap as part of its interdisciplinary programme, reappraising the history of German translation theory on the one hand, and establishing guidelines for the critical assessment of future translations on the other. The present collection of essays edited by Josefine Kitzbichler and Ulrike Stephan builds on the results of these efforts and exemplarily applies them to key texts of ancient literature in German translation. The focus on a small but representative sample from various genres allows in-depth discussions that show how a single ancient text has been given a number of different shapes through the ages.

The volume opens with Wolfgang Rösler’s examination of the mutually productive relationship between two poetic fragments—Alcaeus fr. 129 and Sappho fr. 94 Voigt—and renderings of them since the first half of the last century. The incomplete state in which the source texts have come down to us (both of them lack a clearly defined beginning and end) poses a particular problem for editors and translators alike, and while the latter obviously depend on the groundwork laid by the former, Rösler convincingly argues that translation may in turn help us to reconstruct and understand the meaning of the Greek originals. In his own experimental attempt at resolving the ambiguity of one of Sappho’s adverbs, for instance, he first proposes rendering it literally, which sheds new light on the fragment as a whole and also prompts refinements at other points in the translation; upon further inspection, the overall strength of the novel interpretation he has put on the poem then proves to support his provisional solution on the local level.

The title of Johann Martin Thesz’s contribution—‘Prosastile und Übersetzungsstrategien: Zur Geschichte und zum Verhältnis deutscher Thukydides- und Herodot-Ubersetzungen’—promises an enquiry into the translation strategies that have historically been employed on the works of Herodotus and Thucydides. In fact, the study functions as a complementary piece to Thesz’s still unpublished PhD dissertation on German translations of Thucydides from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, and thus mainly focusses on Herodotus’s reception during the same period; the earlier findings are referred to for comparison and contrast, but no actual specimens of Thucydides’s prose—whether in the source language or in translation—have been included here. Unfortunately, this means that remarks about the stylistic differences between the two historians and the extent to which they have been preserved in translation remain, for now, unsubstantiated. The omission of material already discussed elsewhere is understandable in view of space constraints, but even so, one would like to see some evidence of translators’ alleged tendency to make Herodotus and Thucydides sound the same by erasing their distinctive characteristics (p. 85). On the other hand, Thesz does a fine job of situating the translations of Herodotus in their historical context and illuminating the theories that informed them. Particularly noteworthy is the early nineteenth-century rendering by Friedrich Lange, whose nationalist sentiments may be reflected not only in an archaising translation policy imitating the language of Luther’s Bible, but also in the choice of the source text itself, as the Greco-Persian Wars must have provided a fitting allegory for the ongoing political conflict between Germany and France at the time.

Shifting the focus from Greek to Roman literature, Nina Mindt explores the influence of classical rhetoric on German translations of Cicero’s speeches. Her three-step approach begins with a brief account of Germany’s rhetorical culture and the extent of its endeavours to emulate the ancient models, especially Cicero, since the middle of the eighteenth century. This is followed by several examples of critics and translators reflecting on the proper method of rendering the Roman orator, the most interesting of whom aspired to reproduce the performative dimension of the original in order to contribute to their own native tradition of rhetoric. Lastly, Mindt addresses the specific difficulties that arise from the translation of Latin speeches, as well as the concrete solutions developed by certain translators. The emphasis on performativity is productive, for it allows Mindt to differentiate the demands of rhetoric (which, she suggests, have rarely been met in translation) from those of other classical genres. Much like Thesz’s argument, however, her third subsection could be enhanced by a few additional excerpts from the texts under discussion.

By far the longest and most substantial contribution to the volume is Ulrich Schmitzer’s survey of the many German translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that have appeared over the past 800 years. To deal with the wealth of translators’ responses to the source text, Schmitzer selects three passages: from the prooemium, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, and the Pygmalion episode. Each presents a unique set of local challenges, allowing Schmitzer to observe the changing standards applied by the translators over time. The translation history of the Metamorphoses is divided into a first period that lasted from the Middle Ages until the end of the eighteenth century and was characterised by amateur productions aimed at a non-academic audience; a second phase that coincided with the age of Goethe and saw the appearance of scholarly versions by August Rode and Johann Heinrich Voss; Ovid’s gradual decanonisation and relegation to the schoolroom during the nineteenth and the twentieth century; and the sudden revival of interest in the 1980s with new prose translations by Michael von Albrecht and Gerhard Fink. In many respects a pioneer effort, Schmitzer’s study impresses with its extraordinary thoroughness. He is to be commended for covering not only translations in the narrow sense of the word but also related forms of adaptation such as parodies and retellings.

On a smaller scale, Antonia Renz examines the possibilities for translating the freedmen’s speeches in the Cena Trimalchionis, the most famous part of Petronius’s Satyricon. The original features characters whose language deviates from the norms of classical Latin through vulgarisms on a number of levels—phonological, lexical, morphological, and syntactical—and who use short paratactic sentences. Renz duly describes these idiosyncrasies before turning to the question of whether and how they were replicated in four German translations published between 1763 and the present day. Starting with Wilhelm Ehlers’s version of 1965—the first and only consistent attempt at mimicking the jargon of Petronius’s freedmen—the texts are analysed both generally and with regard to their handling of a specific passage, in reverse chronological order. Renz’s insights are fascinating from a sociolinguistic point of view because they highlight the potential for the creative exploitation of different registers; the example of Ehlers, whose long-time residence in Munich seems to have prompted an occasional Bavarian inflection in the tone of his translation, may encourage us to think about ways in which colloquialisms could be used to represent class distinctions in a foreign work of literature.

Another Latin novel, Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, forms the subject of Ulrike Stephan’s comparative analysis. The fact that there have only been five complete translations of this text since 1783 enables her to study them in greater detail. (The numerous attempts at rendering the inset story of Cupid and Psyche separately are not taken into consideration, but the interested reader will at least find a list of the most important publications.) As a preliminary, Stephan devotes ample space to defining the essential features of the original—which include a complex relationship between author, narrator, protagonist, and recipient as well as a polyphonic blend of styles—and she provides an overview of its critical reception in the modern age. Once the existing translations have been examined individually, they are juxtaposed in a parallel reading of Apuleius’s prooemium. The particular strengths and weaknesses of each version thus appear quite clearly, although Stephan is perhaps a bit too severe in her criticism of Carl Fischer’s propensity to borrow entire phrases from his predecessors (p. 343-44)—a practice that might be more common than one would expect and does not necessarily imply a lack of creative imagination.

The six case studies outlined above are complemented by a methodological essay in which Thomas Poiss, Josefine Kitzbichler, and Enrica Fantino have compiled a list of criteria for assessing translations of the classics; based on the qualities that emerge from such an assessment, moreover, they devise a scheme for classifying translation types and techniques. Drawing on the influential maxims of Wolfgang Schadewaldt’s ‘documentary’ approach to translation, and expanding them with reference to the discipline of text linguistics, the thoughts articulated there inform all the preceding discussions to a greater or lesser extent, and might as well be read in advance. Instead of universally imposing these categories upon the disparate subjects of their analyses, however, the contributors wisely recognise that translation is too complex a process to be reduced to a single model or theory; the present inventory makes no claim to exhaustiveness but rather serves as a flexible tool that can be modified and adjusted depending on the occasion.

While students of classical philology will appreciate this volume for its close readings of Greek and Latin authors as they have been translated in the German-speaking world, the resulting observations are also of interest to those engaged in the field of translation studies by virtue of being situated within a larger critical framework.

Table of Contents

Vorwort V
Wolfgang Rösler, Alkaios Fr. 129 und Sappho Fr. 94 Voigt: Wie übersetzt man Gedichtfragmente ? 1
Johann Martin Thesz, Prosastile und Übersetzungsstrategien: Zur Geschichte und zum Verhältnis deutscher Thukydides- und Herodot-Ubersetzungen 63
Nina Mindt, »Haben wir Deutsche Ciceronen?« Zur Rolle von Übersetzungen der Reden Ciceros für die deutsche Rhetorik 89
Ulrich Schmitzer, Ovids Verwandlungen verteutscht. Übersetzungen der Metamorphosen seit dem Mittelalter und der Frühen Neuzeit bis zum Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts 113
Antonia Renz, Die Freigelassenengespräche der Cena Trimalchionis. Deutschsprachige Petron- Übersetzungen vom 18. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart 247
Ulrike C. A. Stephan, Deutsche Übersetzungen der Metamorphosen des Apuleius seit 1780 277
Thomas Poiss, Josefine Kitzbichler, Enrica Fantino, Reflexionen über ein mögliches Instrumentarium zur Analyse von Übersetzungen griechischer und lateinischer Texte 361
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