R. Crawley’s translation of Thucydides has enjoyed a long history, especially in revisions. Rex Warner’s Penguin edition is probably the one most read now. In 1998, two new translations in English appeared: the one reviewed here and one by W. Blanco.1
Translating Thucydides is notoriously difficult. His style presents the translator with problems. How do you translate an author who uses a style that might lead a reader to think that he deliberately was putting his readers through some kind of torture?
Crawley, in his Translator’s Introduction, wrote “I have throughout attempted to convey the meaning of my author, not only as faithfully but as clearly as possible, and to avoid the intrusions of the Greek idioms which so often disfigure translations, rendering them only fit for pedants and schoolboys” (xxv). W. R. Connor wrote of Crawley’s translation, ” … it is the most uncompromising. Other translators strive for ‘readability’, and often adopt shoddy techniques” (xx). Crawley is much admired, but usually revised in editions available today.
The problem is simply how does one turn the complicated style of Thucydides into English. The two new translations take different approaches. W. Blanco writes, “I have tried to make a translation of Thucydides’ famously difficult text that would be accessible to students and general readers. To do so, I have relaxed the compressed, often crabbed, syntax of the speeches and have adopted a relatively colloquial vocabulary for them and for the narrative as a whole. I offer no apologies” (xi). Lattimore: “My principal motivation for translating Thucydides, however, was to convey to the reader with little or no knowledge of Greek a comparably accurate impression of Thucydides as an artist, in all his demanding originality…. My priority has been fidelity, and although I have not always been entirely literal in reproducing Greek syntax or idiom, I have tended to be most literal where I feel that Thucydides is at his most distinctive and idiosyncratic” (xix-xx).
Readers will find Lattimore difficult reading at times. But to his credit, Lattimore has given us a very literal translation, conveying the complexity of Thucydides’ style. Like Crawley, Lattimore does not pamper his reader but makes the reader confront Thucydides in the way he wrote. Others might favor a more ‘readable’ text such as Warner or Blanco, but they will miss the intricate thought process of Thucydides in such translations.
There are other reasons for favoring Lattimore’s translation. For some words he uses Greek transliterations (explained in a glossary). This leads the reader to a better understanding of the text. For example, he uses xenos; others translate the word as friend, which does not convey the meaning of the Greek. Lattimore’s ‘Spartiate’ is also much better than Warner’s ‘Spartan of the officer class.’ Lattimore is also careful to use Lakedaemonian where Thucydides does. Others tend to just use Spartan. That is a distinction which usually is not important. But it is worth knowing which word Thucydides used.
Lattimore’s translations of the words ‘autonomia’ and ‘eleutheria’ should also be noted. Other translations (except Hobbes) regularly translate autonomia as freedom or independence and eleutheria in similar ways or as liberty/liberation. This is misleading. While autonomia is a vague word, it does not indicate a state of complete independence as eleutheria usually does.2 And the meaning is open to negotiation. One assumes that Thucydides chose which word to use.3 In any case, the reader should know which is being used.
At 1.139.3, Spartan envoys say, “The Lacedaemonians wish there to be peace, and there would be if you leave the Hellenes autonomous.” That autonomia, and not eleutheria, is the word used here has important implications regarding Spartan objectives.4 The distinction is also important in the speech of the Mytileneans at 3.9-14. The two words have different meanings and the reader should know which one Thucydides is using.
But it should be noted that Lattimore is not consistent. He does, at times, translate autonomia as independence. Usually, that is not a problem. But it is at 5.18.5, the terms of the Peace of Nicias specifying the status of cities returned to Athens.
Lattimore gives a brief introduction to the translation and useful introductions to each book. The reader will find the notes helpful. Almost all the notes consider problems in the translation. In them, Lattimore explains difficulties and alternate translations. He frequently mentions different readings in the Greek text and tells which one he is using, sometimes with an explanation.
There are some misprints in the book, usually minor. The only serious one is at 6.8.2 where Laches should be Lamachus (index has it correctly).
This translation is the closest English translation to what Thucydides wrote. Lattimore has produced Thucydides in all his complexity. He has been careful to make the translation a reproduction of what Thucydides wrote. There will be those who prefer a more ‘readable’ text. Those who want to get as close to Thucydides as possible will read this translation.
1. In preparing this review, I checked the following translations in English: T. Hobbes, with notes and introduction by D. Grene (Chicago, 1989); R. Crawley (1874; Modern Library 1934 [current Modern Library edition is a 1982 revision of Crawley by T. E. Wick]; Everyman Edition, 1993 with an introduction by W. R. Connor [Only the 1934 has Crawley’s Translator’s Introduction]); R. Warner, Penguin 1972, with introduction and notes by M. I. Finley; W. Blanco, Norton 1998. Warner’s translation has a commentary: D. Cartwright, Historical Commentary on Thucydides: Companion to Rex Warner’s Penguin Translation (Michigan, 1997).
2. On the words see M. Ostwald, “Autonomia: Its Genesis and Early History” (American Classical Studies 11, 1982). Ostwald cites B. J. Bickerman’s 1958 article which first pointed out the problem.
3. Thucydides himself may not have been consistent in his use. See Ostwald, p. 64 n. 185.
4. Cartwright mentions this problem in his companion to R. Warner’s translation.