BMCR 1996.08.14

Anacreon Redivivus

, Anacreon Redivivus. A Study of Anacreontic Translation in Mid-Sixteenth-Century France. Ann Arbor: University Of Michigan Press, 1995. Pp. x, 276. ISBN 9780472106172. $44.50.

In one of his most well-known stories, J. L. Borges narrates how the French writer Pierre Menard rewrote Cervantes’s Don Quijote. After years of painstaking labor, he finished his novel: “El texto de Cervantes y el de Menard son verbalmente idénticos, pero el segundo es casi infinitamente más rico.” The same words, the same phrases ring completely different when written by an author with all the (inter-) textual power of the twentieth century.

The texts that John O’Brien studies in this book are an early example for similar rewriting. The collection of sixty Carmina Anacreontea (hereafter CA), written over several centuries from the late Hellenistic down to the Byzantine era, was intended to capture the spirit of Anacreon’s poetry by imitating his style. But their authors’ post-hellenistic Greek was rife with quotations, allusions and intertextual play. Trying to be identical, they could not help becoming different—just like Menard’s novel, their poetry was “infinitely richer” than their predecessor’s. Patricia Rosenmeyer’s brilliant study 1 has taught us to take these poems seriously and to appreciate their intertextual playfulness. In the Renaissance translations of the CA, this process is taken one step further. Their Neo-Latin idiom adds yet another intertextual dimension—Anacreon read by the writers of the CA read by classical Latin poets read by Renaissance scholars. These translations are thus an especially rewarding field for the study of the intertextual riches characteristic of Renaissance poetry.

In his first chapter (5-48), O’Brien sets Estienne’s editio princeps of the CA (1554) in a contemporary frame. He shows how Estienne’s edition with its emphasis on conjectural emendation and comparative interpretation displays features characteristic of French scholarship (as opposed to the recensio of Italian scholars). Estienne’s view of the poems emphasized the “twin notions of simplicity and pleasure.” This was to become decisive for the whole reception of the CA in France.

The second chapter (49-90) discusses Renaissance theories of translation. Their refusal of word-for-word translation can be traced back to classical sources, especially Cicero’s De optimo genere oratorum and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria. This theoretical stance stresses the importance of stylistic appropriateness in the target language and thus brings translation close to imitation. O’Brien then shows the intertextual techniques of allusio, variatio and contaminatio at work and notes that there are no clear-cut boundaries between these various aspects of imitatio.

Chapter 3 (91-124) scrutinizes Estienne’s Latin translation. Unsurprisingly, O’Brien discovers a strong interdependency between text, commentary and translation. His remarks on Estienne’s Latin are more rewarding: He points out that instead of choosing one particular style, Estienne draws on vocabulary from all genres and epochs of Latin literature. “All previous writing becomes a repository permanently available to succeeding generations” (p. 121).

Chapter 4 (125-154) examines Elie André’s translation, published for the first time in 1555. O’Brien contrasts André’s use of contaminatio with Estienne’s. He then goes on to study the ubiquity of (typographically marked) sententiae in André’s text and argues convincingly that this is to be seen as a strategy “to assert a familiarity within the Anacreontic text that will present no uncomfortable problems for the prospective reader.”

The two following chapters deal with Ronsard and Rémy Belleau respectively, and one senses immediately that this is the section where O’Brien feels most at home. 2 Ronsard never did an actual translation of the CA, but he incorporated material from these poems into several collections published between 1554 and 1556. His experimenting with “Anacreontic” material took him gradually from a mixture of translation and imitation (in the Bocage of 1554) to a final amalgamation into his own poetic idiom (in the Continuation des Amours of 1555 and the Nouvelle Continuation of 1556). O’Brien has illuminating things to say about the difference between Neo-Latin and vernacular translations: Since specific words are not loaded with intertextual reminiscences, vernacular writers have to rely on larger contexts if they want to practice allusio or contaminatio. Chapter 6 (201-240) explores how Belleau, unlike Ronsard, created a style of “mignardise” which he deemed suitable for rendering the CA’s “naiveté et mignardise.” O’Brien shows that for Belleau, Ronsard’s earlier appropriation of Anacreontic themes had attained a quasi-classical status and that therefore, in his translation, we detect a ubiquitous presence of Ronsardian diction. I found the remaining part of this chapter less than convincing: O’Brien explores the role of “metamorphosis” in Belleau’s translation and argues that Belleau is “blurring the distinctions between inside and outside” (p. 230). A brief conclusion follows (241-246); the book closes with a helpful appendix giving the comparative numeration of the CA in Estienne’s, West’s and Campbell’s edition, a bibliography and an index.

Before turning to more general observations, I will raise some particular points. P. 5-13: This summary of the history of Classical scholarship in France offers nothing new for the specialist, yet it is too sketchy to be useful for the uninitiated. P. 37, 45: O’Brien’s attempts to interpret these passages in terms of the opposition between diachronic and synchronic are unsuccessful. If imitatio really is, as he claims, an “extratemporal movement,” it cannot be a “diachronic feature.” Dorat in his poem does not present “all writers as implicated in a synchronic activity,” he explicitly emphasizes the diachronic nature of the writing process (see olim, v. 4, ante and denique v. 11). P. 50-52: I do not think that in Cicero’s and Jerome’s theoretical statements there is an opposition between res and verba; the point in question rather is rhetorical decorum. P. 64-69: The central point of this passage is not made clear enough. The most important aim of vernacular translation in sixteenth-century France was the “deffence et illustration de la langue françoyse.” This was of course not the case for Neo-Latin translations. P. 80-83: O’Brien should have pointed out that for Renaissance readers, there was no fundamental difference between the poetry of Anacreon and that of Callimachus. They knew, to be sure, that these poets lived centuries apart, but since the notion of “archaic” or “Hellenistic” had not yet been invented, they did not think that their poetry had to be read with completely different methodologies. (Maybe this ignorance was in fact an advantage.) P. 127: The passage from Quintilian quoted in n. 10 is inappropriate, as it says nothing about “stylistic uniformity.” P. 171: It would have been worthwhile to point out that Ronsard’s “c’est assés beu” translates Estienne’s Latin “Ohe satis bibisti” (quoted on p. 93), not the Greek text. P. 191: The initial sonnet of Ronsard’s Continuation is not a recusatio. P. 213: In classical Greek, ἀθύρειν never means “play an instrument.” P. 234: O’Brien does not see that Giangrande’s interpretation depends on Saumaise’s conjecture καθίσω; it is incompatible with Estienne’s Greek text.

But apart from these quibbles, there are more serious objections. Most importantly, this study is badly organized. There is rather too much close reading of particular passages. This entails that time and again the reader loses sight of the thread of the argument (see e. g. p. 107-120 or 175-7). It is also irritating to be given only small extracts from the poems that are being studied. After reading two or three chapters, I found myself yearning to read at least one of the translations as a whole. It would have been easy to include a few samples in an appendix.

O’Brien never seems to decide which theoretical approach he should follow. Many modern concepts and critics make a furtive appearance and are never heard of again. The reader does not see to what end Ferdinand de Saussure, George Steiner, Michael Riffaterre, Gérard Genette, Harold Bloom and others are referred to only once or twice when their terminology and methodology are never systematically applied. Even more deplorable is another lack of consistency: In his second chapter, O’Brien goes a long way to explain Renaissance theories about translation, yet in his later interpretations of translational practice, he never takes up these theories. P. 209 is a case in point: O’Brien plausibly argues that Belleau’s “translation proclaims its distance from the classical text and its adherence to a contemporary fashion or idiom, while nonetheless labeling this distancing as an authentic reading of the Greek author.” It would have been the author’s job to explore the relation between these qualities of Belleau’s translation and the Renaissance views of what a translation should be. As it is, the reader is left wondering whether this translation is not exactly what Jacques Peletier du Mans (and, to a lesser degree, Etienne Dolet) had prescribed in their theoretical comments (see p. 67). It is difficult to resist the impression that O’Brien wrote these different parts at different times and did not pay enough attention to harmonizing them.

This is not the only case where readers do not get enough help from the author. O’Brien’s book appears to be intended for students of vernacular Renaissance literature, not for classical scholars (all quotations in Greek and Latin are translated while those in French are not). Yet these readers would need to be told (albeit briefly) what the Anacreontic collection really is—how do we know that these poems are later compositions, what is their relationship with the “real” Anacreon? These readers would not be able to understand the term “the ecphrasistic poems” (p. 224) without further assistance. As a general rule, O’Brien gives his readers too little information about the ancient background, and where he tries to do so, his own expertise in classical scholarship seems shaky. Authorities are quoted in a haphazard way: Thus on p. 76, we are given two lengthy quotations from Sitzler 3 (1898) and Couat (1882) dealing with a subject for which more recent scholarship was available. Heavy weather is made of Couat’s statement that during the Hellenistic period epigrams were “des espaces de pièces lyriques” (see p. 163, 179), but O’Brien never addresses the questions what “lyric” means in this context and whether this is not an outdated view. It is equally irritating to see that O’Brien identifies Ronsard’s and Belleau’s “beau stille bas” and “mignardise” with Alexandrian λεπτότης (p. 208, 244). They certainly have some points in common, but no reader with a firsthand knowledge of Alexandrian poetry could possibly regard them as identical.

Readers are not given enough information about Estienne’s editio princeps either. It would have been important to learn that Estienne had to manipulate the text of the Anacreontea quite violently in order to pass them off as authentic Anacreon: He simply did not include the first poem in the Planudean collection because it describes explicitly how the first-person-narrator dreamed of Anacreon and began to write Anacreontic imitations. O’Brien also makes too little use of Estienne’s extremely interesting Greek preface. Three points ought to have been mentioned: 1. With his very first words (a quotation of Archilochus, frg. 122 West), Estienne tries to establish his “Anacreon” in the context of Greek archaic lyric. 2. The whole preface is distinctively apologetic in tone. Estienne compares the CA to a dessert which should be eaten only after the more wholesome food (of serious poetry) has been consumed. Estienne was thus aware of the inferior quality of the poems he published. 3. When Estienne quotes ancient testimonia about Anacreon, he gives the reductionist picture of the amorous old drunk. As Rosenmeyer has shown, this is exactly the stereotype that the CA propagated. Estienne thus bolstered his claim that these poems were authentic. 4

Not only does O’Brien neglect his own readers, he is not interested in Renaissance recipients, either. Many of his interpretations talk about allusions or quotations without ever asking who would be capable of grasping them. What follows is one extreme example. On p. 143, he writes: “[…] ἄωρα is right in a sentence commenting on Eros’ effect on a woman, since in ἄωρα the ear inevitably hears ἄωρες.” But ἄωρες “women” is a phantom word which only occurs in scholia and late antique lexica. It is highly improbable that any reader would see an allusion here. The same holds true for other interpretations which O’Brien gives (see p. 138 or 217): The alleged subtexts or allusions are not perceptible for any educated reader—unless he were a scholar using concordances and lexica.

One final point: In a book about translations, much more attention should have been given to the author’s own translations. Smaller inaccuracies abound, and there are quite a few real howlers: P. 19 cujus notae sint“to whom they are known” should be “of what sort they are,” p. 114 queritur translated as “asks” (mistaken for quaerit ?), p. 117 loquere taken for an infinitive instead of second pers. fut., p. 149 quid me iuuabit aurum translated as “why should I bother about tomorrow,” p. 153 temperare here means “to mix a drink,” not “to tune,” p. 159 bonarum artium, quarum ipse refertum pectus habet is not “the liberal arts, which are close to his heart,” but “with which his mind is replete.” This list could go on. And does O’Brien really believe that the title of Estienne’s edition ran Anacreontis Teij odae. Ab Henrico Stephano luce and à Latinitate nunc primùm donatae (p. IX)?

The editor(s) should have saved O’Brien from writing ungrammatical phrases (p. 122 “For Green’s image to be entirely valid is to underplay the variatio -inspired transformations that translation brings into play.” P. 188 the poet “lays dreaming”), clumsy English (p. 208 “with much greater infrequency,” p. 224 “ecphrasistic,” p. 233 what is an “interpellated gloss”?) or indigestible jargon (I give one example only, p. 122: “[…] The highlighting, through lexis and the complex tropes of elocutio, of certain linguistic areas carries with it the stasis affecting those areas of lexis unvitalized by renovatio.“).

To sum up: My overall impression is that of an opportunity missed. O’Brien has much to offer that is illuminating, thought-provoking, even brilliant. More accuracy in details, however, and, above all, a greater concern about the presentation of the argument would have been necessary to make a convincing book out of these ingredients. It is highly unlikely that anyone will write another book about Renaissance translations of the CA soon. This is a pity because O’Brien does show that these texts deserve a careful study. But his book is not what we wanted.

  • [1] The Poetics of Imitation. Anacreon and the Anacreontic Tradition, Cambridge (England) 1992. [2] He is also (together with K. Cameron) editor of a new edition of Belleau’s Odes d’Anacreon Teien, which he modestly terms “the new standard edition” (p. IX). [3] The quotation from Sitzler’s Anthologie, which is given in the original German, says exactly the opposite of what O’Brien thinks it says. [4] More could also have been said about Estienne’s mysterious papyrus-manuscript (see p. 15-19). In his edition of the CA, Estienne gives only two references to this manuscript, both on the first page of his commentary. One of these quotations is completely inconsequential (it states that a word which could not be deciphered in the papyrus was clear in the other manuscript). The other one says that the poem which is # 23 in West’s edition took the first place in the papyrus. As I have mentioned, it was extremely important for Estienne to find a suitable introductory poem after he had left out the actual programmatic opening poem, which would have destroyed his claim that this collection was authentic Anacreon. Therefore, I think we can confidently reconstruct the story of Estienne’s papyrus: When he wanted to change the order of poems, he made up manuscript authority to do so. In order to avoid suspicion, he “quoted” this fictitious papyrus one more time on an irrelevant point and then simply forgot about it. It was only later, when people no longer believed the story of this papyrus, that he could not back out and felt forced to invent all sorts of details about it (see p. 15).