BMCR 1994.10.16

1994.10.16, Hunter, (trans.), Apollonius of Rhodes

, , Jason and the golden fleece : (the Argonautica). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. xxxiii, 175 pages : maps ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780198147572. $38.00.

The recent flurry of monographs, including Richard Hunter’s own The Argonautica of Apollonius. Literary Studies (Cambridge 1993), and dissertations (the most recent APA bulletin lists two more) on Apollonius attests to the burgeoning interest in the Argonautica as a poem worthy of literary study in its own right. The great advances that have been made in the criticism of Apollonius—and indeed of Hellenistic poetry in general—over the past few decades point out the great need for a new scholarly translation of the poem. Gone are the days when a translator could reasonably write the words written by E.V. Rieu in the introduction to his 1959 Penguin translation, which has until now been the most accessible and widely read rendering of the poem into English: “I for one am prepared to condone his wildest departures from exactitude—he makes them with such zest and obvious enjoyment. He has, however, one mannerism which cannot be dismissed so lightly, and that is redundancy. When he has told us (III, 1240 ff.) that Aeetes, Lord of the Colchians, driving off to see Jason tussle with the bulls, looked like Poseidon setting out in his chariot to attend the Isthmian Games, we feel that the picture is complete and gains nothing by the addition of seven alternative destinations that the god might have had in mind. But it seems that the Alexandrians liked this sort of thing. What I deplore is its appearance in that delightful passage where ‘Medea’s heart fluttered within her, restless as a patch of sunlight dancing up and down on a wall as the swirling water poured into (a cauldron or) pail reflects it’ (III, 755). Virgil, in adopting this simile ( Aeneid VIII, 22), wisely spares us a choice of vessels for the agitated water; and I have ventured to follow his example” (31-2). Sadly, such editorializing, based on aesthetic assumptions that startle today, is what Greekless readers have had to contend with, and this has compounded the difficulty of teaching the Argonautica to undergraduates. Hunter’s new prose translation, fortified with an introduction and explanatory endnotes, will make the task somewhat easier, and is thus particularly welcome.

The translation, which is based on Vian’s now standard Budé text, is readable and scrupulously accurate. A comparison with Rieu’s translation of several passages may help to give a taste. First, Hunter’s version of the famous simile castigated and compressed by Rieu: “Often her heart fluttered wildly within her breast. As when a sunbeam, which is reflected out of water that has just been poured into a bowl or a bucket, dances inside a house and darts this way and that as it is shaken in the rapid swirl, so did the young girl’s heart quiver in her breast.” Unlike Rieu, Hunter retains the structure and syntax of the Apollonian simile, only reversing—as one must in English—the syntax of τινάσσεται and ἀίσσουσα. As for diction, it may be noted that both translators use the verbs “flutter” (a tad tame?) and “dance” for ἔθυιεν and ἐνιπάλλεται respectively.

Hunter’s close adherence to the text and his resistance to compressing or elaborating on Apollonius can be felicitous, as, for example, in his translation of the difficult simile at A.R. 2.541ff., where the text and interpretation are uncertain. First Rieu’s version:

“There comes a moment to the patient traveller (and there are many such that wander far afield) when the road ahead of him is clear and the distance so foreshortened that he has a vision of his home, he sees his way to it over land and sea, and in his fancy travels there and back so quickly that it seems to stand before his eager eyes. Such was Athene’s speed as she darted down to set foot on the inhospitable coast of Thynia.”

Now Hunter’s:

“As when a man who wanders far from his own land—as indeed we wretched men often do wander, and no land seems distant, but all paths are spread before us—can picture his own home, and as he sees in a flash the path there over land and sea, his thoughts dart quickly and his eyes grasp one place after another, just so did the daughter of Zeus swiftly leap down and place her feet on the Thynian coast of the Inhospitable Sea.”

At the level of diction, “wretched” surely does better justice to τετληότες than does Rieu’s “patient,” but more importantly, Hunter’s literal version preserves the elliptical and evocative quality that I at least miss in Rieu’s “in his fancy travels there and back so quickly …”.

Elsewhere, too, Hunter does a fine job of handling densely packed and difficult passages. Rieu (31) quite rightly heaps scorn on R.C. Seaton’s 1912 Loeb translation of 4.435ff.:

“And when she had worked upon the heralds to induce her brother to come, as soon as she reached the temple of the goddess, according to the agreement, and the darkness of night surrounded them, that so she might devise with him a cunning plan for her to take the mighty fleece of gold and return to the home of Aeetes, for, she said …”

Rieu himself has the following:

“Medea gave the heralds a message for Apsyrtus that would serve as bait. As soon as she had come to the temple of Artemis in accordance with the treaty, he was to meet her there under the cover of night. She was planning to steal the golden fleece and return with him to the palace of Aeetes—they must confer. And as a pretext for her treachery she said that the sons of Phrixus had compelled her to go off with the Argonauts.”

Now here is Hunter’s:

“Medea entrusted her message to the heralds, to lure Apsyrtos to come, as soon as she reached the goddess’ temple in accordance with the agreement, and the dark gloom of night was spread around; he would help her devise a trick by which she might take the great golden fleece and return again to Aietes’ house, for the sons of Phrixus had forcefully compelled her when they handed her over to the strangers.”

The Apollonian passage provides a fine example of the way the poet innovatively extends indirect discourse to lengthy speeches which in Homer would be reported directly. Hunter has a useful discussion of the phenomenon in Literary Studies, where he draws upon Genette’s distinction between “narratized, or narrated, speech” ( narrativisé, ou raconté) and “transposed speech” ( transposé): the indirect mode of the latter “never gives the reader any guarantee—or above all any feeling—of literal fidelity to the words ‘really’ uttered” (G. Genette, Narrative Discourse [Ithaca, NY 1980] 171-3, quoted by Hunter on p. 144). In the case of A.R. 4.435-44, the indirect mode is specially significant: “Here then indirect speech is associated with deceit; heralds are used as the trustworthy transporters of untrustworthy words. Indirectness of speech points to the possible gap between ‘what is said’ and ‘what is meant'” (Hunter, 145). While this gap is made distortedly explicit by Rieu’s “as a pretext to her treachery she said that…”, Hunter’s version, which omits (as Apollonius does) any overt introductory “she said”, nicely catches the subtlety of the Apollonian passage.

It is in such passages, where Apollonius’ language somewhat resembles “versified prose” (cf. intro. xxix-xxx), that the translation is at its best. At other times, though, Hunter is less successful at capturing the complexities of Apollonius’ diction, style, and tone. This is understandable and, to some extent at least, unavoidable. How would it be possible for a translator fully to approximate in English (especially if she or he has endeavored to remain as literally close to the text as possible) the great variegation of Apollonius’ style—in which a predominately “Homeric” substrate is regularly overlaid with words of (e.g.) medical, lyric, or tragic coloring? The difficulty is that Hunter’s concern with literal accuracy tends often to produce markedly and uniformly prosaic English. I suspect, for example, that my students will find it hard to imagine poetry behind the translation of A.R. 1.18-9: (Νῆα μὲν οὖν οἱ πρόσθεν ἔτι κλείουσιν ἀοιδοὶ ): “The ship is celebrated in the surviving songs of earlier poets who tell that it was built by Argos with the advice of Athena.” Accurate, yes, but unlikely to leave many with a good sense of the lines’ flavor in Greek.

Another central problem for the translator of Apollonius is how to handle the poem’s rich intertextuality. Except for some brief discussion in the introduction of the way in which the poem evokes and engages antecedent texts as a way of producing meaning, Hunter offers little, either in the translation or in the explanatory notes, that will help the Greekless reader in this regard. Again, I suspect that the problem of how to deal with Apollonian intertextuality in a translation is an insoluble one, short of appending a full (and necessarily unwieldy) commentary. But while readers will have different views on the matter, I myself would have liked to see a little more attention paid in the endnotes at least to some of the more significant allusions that scholars, including Hunter himself, have uncovered in recent years.

In fact, the endnotes devote the greatest amount of space to explanations of toponymns and proper names, and in this regard Hunter is careful to call attention to and explicate Apollonius’ etymologizing. He is also scrupulous about noting those passages where the text or interpretation is uncertain. Other sorts of literary issues are discussed somewhat less frequently (e.g., his note to “we know” on p. 6).

The introduction contains a very brief discussion of the evidence for Apollonius’ life; a short but sane treatment of the relationship between the Argonautica and other Alexandrian poetry, especially the work of Callimachus and Theocritus; a section on “The Argonautic Story and the Argonautica”; and a page and a half on the Argonautica in Rome. Interested students should be encouraged to consult Literary Studies, where the issues raised cursorily here are discussed at greater length. There are three helpful maps, and an index of proper names, as well as an abbreviated list of “References and Further Reading”; for a fuller bibliography readers are referred to Literary Studies.

Translating the Argonautica is an unenviable task, and one fraught with perils. Hunter, more a scholar and critic than poet, has not avoided them all, but he has given us a reliable translation of the Argonautica that surpasses those previously available. The volume marks an important step forward for the study of Apollonius by those without access to it in Greek.