BMCR 2002.03.09

Response: Smith and Hutchinson on Todd on Smith

Response to 2002.02.08

Response by

I. Martin F. Smith on Robert B. Todd (BMCR 2002.02.08)

The mess Professor Todd made of the publication details of my book, giving it one hundred too many pages and having the ISBN numbers the wrong way round (mistakes that BMCR’s editors have now corrected), was an appropriate prelude to his myopic and misleading review. Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura is not only of great philosophical interest and importance, but also a poetic masterpiece. Therefore my aim was to produce a translation that would not only accurately and clearly convey the meaning of the Latin, but also give readers some idea of the work’s poetic power and grandeur. Likewise the introduction and notes are designed to be as helpful as possible in an all-round way.

My balanced presentation of De Rerum Natura displeases Todd, who apparently is interested only in the philosophy and wants a translation that would be part of an Epicurean source book: “The ideal translation of the ‘De rerum natura’ for philosophers should probably have arguments laid out with headings and subdivisions (as, for example, in Vol. 1 of Long and Sedley’s ‘The Hellenistic Philosophers’), and with passages from Epicurus interspersed in the text”. Given that this is Todd’s ideal, it is inevitable that I have disappointed him.

Although Todd’s view strikes me as highly misguided, he is entitled to it. But I must protest when he alleges that I neglect philosophy, and that in this area my book compares unfavorably with John Godwin’s useful revision of Latham’s Penguin (1994). Naturally space was limited, but my introduction (more substantial than Godwin’s) gives proper attention to Epicurus and Epicureanism and Lucretius’ presentation of his master’s philosophy. My notes too give due attention to the philosophy: see, for example, the long note on 1.638 and contrast it with the brief note in the Penguin. Todd does not seem to have read all of the introduction, for, to illustrate the way in which “Smith only skims the surface of philosophical issues”, he gives readers to understand that the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia is handled only in a brief note on 5.11-12. In fact, it is given proper prominence in the introduction (pp. xxii-xxiii, xxviii-xxxi).

Admittedly my list of “Suggestions for Further Reading” is much shorter than Godwin’s “Bibliography”. This does not necessarily mean that Godwin (knowledgeable though he is) “is more au courant with the secondary literature on Epicureanism”. What it does mean is that I judged it better not to follow him in providing a long list (his runs to more than eleven pages) containing numerous specialized books and articles, many of them in foreign languages and/or out of print or otherwise not easily accessible.

Although Todd says that “Smith’s translation…is often more effective [than Latham/Godwin] in explicating the text and in capturing the Lucretian mood”, he adds that “imperfections include esoteric vocabulary and pointless slang”. But neither of the expressions he considers slang, “the reason… is knocked on the head” (2.790) and “each of their other senses is being snuffed out” (3.612), is anything of the sort (see OED). In 3.612 I was consciously or unconsciously following Byron: “‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle, / Should let itself be snuffed out by an article” ( Don Juan 11.60.7-8). As for “esoteric vocabulary”, yes, I do sometimes use words that help to give the translation, like the original, an archaic tinge. But it is hard to see what is objectionable about, for example (Todd’s example), “squamous” for squamigeri(s) (1.372, 378). It seems Todd is ignorant not only of Byron on Keats, but also of Rupert Brooke on the “One / Who swam ere rivers were begun, / Immense, of fishy form and mind, / Squamous, omnipotent, and kind” ( Heaven 19-22).

It is remarkable that Todd devotes no less than one seventh of the body of his review to discussion of the coital position described in 4.1270, and that the only other line of my translation quoted by him is 4.1107, describing the imminence of the male’s orgasm during sexual intercourse. No further comment!

In his summing-up Todd claims: “Its philosophical material, better outline, shorter paragraphs, and larger type font give the Penguin a clear edge over Smith”. The claim that the Penguin is superior on the philosophical side has already been addressed, but it may be added that my book includes significant material published since the Penguin was revised. Examples: the new Epicurean texts recorded by me at Oinoanda in Turkey in 1997; the latest news of Lucretius in (or not in!) Herculaneum (p. xx n. 23); the new fragments of Empedocles published by Alain Martin and Olivier Primavesi in 1999; and the conclusions reached in David Sedley’s important new book, Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1998). The other grounds given by Todd for preferring the Penguin are extraordinarily misleading. So far as the “outline” is concerned, my “headnotes” are somewhat fuller than the Penguin’s “synopsis” and, unlike it, are so arranged that each book has its own set preceding the translation. The assertion that the Penguin has shorter paragraphs is false: my translation contains about one hundred more paragraphs than the Penguin, which means that the average length of its paragraphs is about twelve and a half lines of the original, while that of the Penguin’s is about fifteen lines. Todd’s other claims are also incorrect: the Hackett’s margins are the same width as the Penguin’s, and its typeface, though in a different style from the Penguin’s, has the same point size (10/12).

Some other advantages of my book over the Penguin may be mentioned. Despite being printed on much better (acid-free) paper, it costs $4 less than the Penguin; it uses American English spelling; it avoids sexist vocabulary; it has a far fuller index; and it is much more user-friendly: whereas in the Penguin the notes are separated from the translation and there are several appendices, so that readers are constantly turning the pages, in the Hackett the notes are printed at the foot of the relevant pages of the translation and, unlike in the Penguin, are identified by the line numbers of the original as well as by footnote numbers.

The aforementioned advantages of the Hackett over the Penguin are significant. But it is above all by the quality of the translations that the two books should be judged. Even Todd allows that my version is often clearer and more Lucretian than the Penguin is. I hear that others, including teachers who have already adopted it in place of the Penguin, think it is in a different class altogether.


II. D.S. Hutchinson on Robert B. Todd

D.S. Hutchinson, Fellow of Trinity College and Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto; Director of the Collaborative Ph.D. Program in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy:

I’m afraid BMCR has done its readers a disservice in publishing that dyspeptic review by Robert B. Todd of the new Hackett Lucretius, translated by Martin Ferguson Smith (BMCR 2002.02.08). Whereas my own praise of the book, published on its back cover, was unstinting and unqualified, Professor Todd has trouble, in the course of writing nearly a thousand words, finding any good things about it worth mentioning. So I hope I may be allowed to come to the book’s defence and show its merits in a truer and more favourable light.

It would be a sterile exercise for me to try to penetrate the meretricious mysteries of the whore’s hijinks at 4.1270, on which the reviewer focusses with such prurient interest (esp. in note 13), despite sensing that it might be “unfair to pick on a single line.” About this and the three cases noted in note 9 where, he judges, MFS as translator may have made a mistake, it suffices to say that these are all difficult cases where responsible scholars have differed and may well differ in future.

I can, however, explain why, in the book’s index to the poem, “Diogenes of Oinoanda, whom Smith has edited with distinction, is omitted, despite fifteen citations.” D of O could have meant nothing to Lucretius, who was dead before D of O was born. Of course, it’s not Lucretius who cites D of O in his poem, but Smith who provides parallels to D of O in his extremely helpful footnotes. Among other delicacies, Smith’s footnotes offer us, for the first time ever, illustrations of the text of Lucretius by means of the evidence from the Epicurean inscription by Diogenes, evidence that Smith himself has been wrestling out of the ground at Oinoanda and puzzling out of the stones and squeezes. When at a banquet we’re offered such delicious home-made morsels as these, I’d rather just enjoy them gratefully than grumble that they weren’t indexed on the menu.

Not much is gained by griping about the inclusion or exclusion in MFS’s bibliography of a few modern philosophical or scholarly contributions: Nagel’s article “Death” (1970); Furley’s general comments in Luce (ed.) Ancient Writers: Greece and Rome (1982); two chapters in Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire (1994); an entry in the Encyclopedia of Classical Philosophy (1997). Personally, I don’t find these the most crucial resources for students, but even if other teachers disagree, all these contributions whose absence your reviewer managed to detect are easily accessible via the bibliographies in the volumes to which MFS does provide reference. The fact is, this handy bibliography is the most useful and most up-to-date and most judiciously selected Lucretius bibliography presently available, and I reckon that’s enough for me. And “if enough isn’t enough for you, nothing will be” ( VS 68).

But the main issue certainly does need to be addressed. “The ideal translation of the De Rerum Natura for philosophers should probably have arguments laid out with headings and subdivisions (as, for example, in Vol. 1 of Long and Sedley’s The Hellenistic Philosophers), and with passages from Epicurus interspersed in the text.” I find this a truly barbaric, almost taxidermic, suggestion: why skin a precious literary unity like the poem of Lucretius (a unity carefully and lovingly studied by David Sedley in his recent book Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom (1998)), then chop it up into subjectively determined ‘fragments’, then intersperse them with the voice of another very different kind of writer, and then re-assemble them for the ‘benefit’ of students under headings providing pre-masticated analyses and sub-headings? It may seem attractive to a certain kind of teacher to de-construct the poem into a self-teaching primer of Epicurean philosophy; but I insist on the freedom to teach my own students with the aid of relatively unadorned primary texts, in authentic versions which support a variety of approaches and areas of focus.

Finally, what are we to make of this eructation? “The revised Smith is not only a far cry from this ideal but also does not even begin to be a tool for philosophical teaching.” I know this is false because I have witnessed countervailing evidence. In the course of 5 lectures, on 2002 January 28 and 30 and February 1 and 4 and 6, to the undergraduate students in my University of Toronto ancient philosophy course PHL200Y, I read aloud various substantial passages of the poem in the new translation by MFS. These readings had a palpable effect on the audience: the hush deepened, the students leaned forward, they occasionally nodded their heads at moments of recognition, and after the class they told me that the passage was “awesome”, “spell-binding”, or “glorious”. And this is my advice for university and college teachers whose students read Lucretius in this translation: select favourite passages, and read them aloud to your students, sonorously, as if you meant it — and the words will fly forward, propelled by both poetry and conviction. Several of my students spontaneously commented on how much more effective they found this translation than the ones in the Penguin or Loeb which they had found in their parents’ libraries.

Early one Friday morning in the autumn of 2000 I was pre-occupied with the prospect of going to say my last farewell that afternoon to my friend and colleague Desmond Conacher, the distinguished classical scholar, who lay a-dying. When a student came during my office hours, I turned the conversation to death, and asked him to read to me out loud from MFS’s 1969 (original) translation, starting at 3.830: “Death, then, is nothing to us and does not affect us in the least.” He had never heard of Lucretius, being a first year student, and I wanted to see how effective MFS’s version was in speaking to a student for the first time. The effect was electrifying, both on me and on the student: in him, it awakened an instant apprehension of the plausibility and attractiveness of the Epicurean ideas, and in me it switched the light back on, so to speak, and chased away the gloom, letting me see my own situation, and also Des’s, in a clearer and brighter and more cheerful aspect.

When a translation of the poem of Lucretius speeds on wingèd words directly into the comprehension of modern students, and when it speaks with comforting enlightenment to a philosopher preparing himself for the death of his friend, then I call that translation a brilliant success. And it will continue to succeed brilliantly with future readers whose taste is not impaired by wooden ears and dyspeptic sensibilities. Smith’s Lucretius is vintage wine of Thasian quality, but even so it won’t taste good when poured into a jar which “contaminates with a foul flavour” (6.22-3) its sparkling contents.