BMCR 2005.06.09

Response: Willett on Noe on Lateiner

Response to 2005.04.65

Response by

At the start of his review, Prof. David C. Noe (hereafter N.) claims that he will judge Lateiner’s revised edition of G.C. Macaulay’s Herodotus on two criteria: (1) does it live up to Barnes and Noble’s professed intent to provide “quality editions of enduring works” enhanced by “new scholarship with commentaries, viewpoints, chronologies, notes, and discussion questions” and (b) does it provide the best edition for this purpose? In neither case has N. provided a fair and balanced assessment of the revision.

The problems begin at the start when N. declares that “Macaulay’s translation itself, of course, is not the subject of this review, and students of Greek and English style will no doubt have their preferences, whether Rawlinson, de Selincourt, Grene or Waterfield.” Macaulay’s two-volume translation has, unfortunately, been out of print for a century, although it is available on the Internet. The edition first appeared in 1890 and was reprinted once by Macmillan in 1904. One can occasionally find the 1890 or 1904 editions in used book stores, but most Classicists have no first-hand familiarity with his version. It is problematic, then, to claim that “students of Greek and English style” will have their own preference when Macaulay wasn’t even on the menu as a possible classroom choice. The reviewer’s job, on publication of a revised Macaulay, is precisely to survey its quality, accuracy and style without taking knowledge of them for granted. N. also fails to list Henry Cary’s 1849 translation, which is still in print, though without any notes, maps or detailed index, and A. D. Godley’s Loeb translation, which is better than its reputation.

Macaulay is, as Lateiner notes (503), “accurate beyond any competitor.” One certainly doesn’t learn that from N. Enoch Powell sketched a short history of the English translations of Herodotus in the introduction to his own translation (“Herodotus,” 2 vols. (Oxford 1949)) and called Macaulay (xxxi) the “most painstaking” and the “most accurate” to his date, although he expressed some reservations about Macaulay’s diction. Lateiner faced a mammoth job in revising more than 500 pages of nineteenth century prose, pruning archaic pronouns and diction, transforming passive constructions to active and removing obsolete words or repetitions. He seems to have done a better editorial job than any previous reviser faced with a similar task.

This however is where N. decides to quibble, suggesting that Lateiner “has not revised as thoroughly as perhaps he ought.” N. then selects three trivial examples of insufficient revision. The first is on circumcision in II.104, where he thinks that the “archaic definition” of ‘intercourse’ — connection by reciprocal action or dealings — carries too sexual a connotation for twenty-first century ears. But this use of the word is still current in modern English dictionaries. The second is a passage from IV.23, where he objects to the use of ‘men’ as a generic noun for Scythian men and women who were supposed to be bald-headed from birth. Its modern usage, he asserts, is “outmoded, archaic, and even offensive.” The Greek word in question is ἄνθρωποι, which he thinks ought to be replaced by ‘people’ or ‘mankind.’ Well, the PC police would certainly not approve ‘mankind,’ and as for the alternative, there isn’t the slightest reason why anyone should revise accurate and elegant nineteenth-century prose to retrospectively introduce contemporary gender-free language. The third passage occurs in VIII.135 where Herodotus describes a marvel reported by the Thebans. Here again N. finds lack of readability (due mainly I assume to the passive syntax) and “archaisms.” There is nothing archaic at all in the diction as such, despite N.’s keen nose for those succulent roots of petrified meaning, and the editor can hardly be expected to rewrite every single circumlocution that was lucidly clear a century ago. In fact there is nothing unreadable about the sentence, though I would admit that by the stylistic standards of USA Today it does require some slight effort to construe.

N. summarizes his skepticism about the practicality of revising older English texts for a modern audience in the following words: “How is [sic] that Lateiner can both be true to Macaulay’s original translation, tied as it rightly is to the vulgar of the 19th century, and yet tolerate alterations for the sake of updating the language to remove what is ‘obtrusive’ to modern ears?” The answer to this false quandary is simple: we don’t let masterpieces of English prose like Macaulay’s translation die when modest revision can keep them alive. The most obvious case refuting N.’s skepticism is the use of Richard Crawley’s 1874 translation of Thucydides for “The Landmark Thucydides.” Richard B. Strassler lightly edited Crawley for some archaisms, replaced certain of his words that had changed or lost meaning, americanized British spelling and broke up a few of the longest sentences. He made almost no changes to Thucydides’ highly demanding speeches. Strassler’s edition has been hugely successful in both undergraduate and graduate courses. As for Macaulay writing the “vulgar” of the nineteenth century, that is as misinformed as it is ungenerous if N. is using the word in its normal semantic meaning of ‘common,’ ‘popular’ or ‘vernacular.’

N. then turns to the “new scholarship” of the edition. He generally approves Lateiner’s notes, though with a few quibbles. What else do we learn from N. about the book? He catalogues the poor quality paper, the attractive relief of Darius on the cover (actually one of the Immortals), the indices, the 32-page introduction, the appendices on the translation history and the influence of Herodotus and the section of comments and questions. He lavishes space only on the introduction, which is “a fine blend of learning and popular appeal.” N. rises to something like praise, though rather snidely remarking that “Here, as at many places in his notes, Lateiner writes relatively engaging prose: … .” Lateiner’s prose in all his work is consistently clear, pointed, lively and frequently quite funny in a subtle way. N. doesn’t bother to report the extremely helpful annotated bibliography “For Further Reading” (515-22) and is entirely wrong about Macaulay’s index, which Lateiner reprints: it runs to 61 pages (against Waterfield-Dewald’s 27-page list of proper names) and includes an invaluable subject index. Macaulay’s index is alone worth the $6.95 price of the edition.

N. never overtly answers the first of the two criteria he has professed to follow: whether this volume lives up to Barnes and Noble’s self-professed intention of publishing “quality editions of enduring works” with new scholarship. The heavy impasto of trivial criticism he lays over the revision would suggest the answer is no. The answer to the second criterion, whether or not the revision was the best edition for the publisher’s declared purpose, is a slightly oblique no. N. concedes it brings “Herodotus to a broad audience very cheaply,” but favors the Waterfield-Dewald translation for the extra $3. He underscores his choice by claiming that “The translation itself, as Lateiner in part acknowledges, is better … ,” better by implication than Macaulay. Lateiner says no such thing, he merely comments (504) that Waterfield is “sometimes superior and always fluent,” not superior absolutely to Macaulay.

The fundamental mistake N. made was his decision to judge the publisher’s blurb rather than the inherent value of having Macaulay’s masterpiece back in print. Waterfield’s translation reads easily, which is not the same as reading elegantly, because he destroys Herodotus’ style by breaking up, truncating, transposing and simplifying the Greek sentences. Its only value for English literature are the annotations by Carolyn Dewald. Macaulay, however, is an enduring possession of English prose.