BMCR 2005.07.15

Tacitus, The Annals. Translated with Introduction and Notes

, , The annals. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Pub, 2004. xxx, 412 pages : 1 illustration, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0872205592. $16.95 (pb).

The appearance of A. J. Woodman’s translation of Tacitus’ greatest work is an event in classical studies. Few scholars have devoted such close and incisive attention to the Annals, and few since Syme have cared as much or thought as much about the nuances of the author’s inimitable style. The most commonly used version of the Annals in the UK, at least, is probably Michael Grant’s Penguin Classic (1956), which for all its merits constantly dissatisfies the user (one might single out the irritating neglect of the original book-divisions, the omission of chapter-numbers, visible only in the running heads, the flattening of epigrams, the sacrifice of rhetoric to readability; even the title, The Annals of Imperial Rome, combines inaccuracy with a whiff of Hollywood). Grant has long been ripe for supersession, and W.’s work, well-produced and admirably cheap, is a strong candidate. It will not please every reader, but all will allow that he has given long, hard thought to his task, and has explained his approach fully and unpretentiously. The pages of the introduction devoted to this topic (xxii-vi) repay careful scrutiny by all students of the author, even if they do not wholly endorse W.’s actual practice.

W.’s aim is to give as clear an impression as possible in English of the verbal, syntactical and rhetorical effect of Tacitus’ writing. If styles of translation fall at different points along a spectrum from ‘naturalisation’ (making the work read like everyday modern English) to ‘defamiliarisation’ (emphasising its alien or remote qualities), W.’s tendency is towards the latter. But it is also important that he is trying to make clear that this is also the effect that Tacitus would have had on the contemporary Roman (as he notes, Sallustian Latin was an unusual choice at this date). So W. introduces a number of choice and rare English terms with a view to capturing the effect of Tacitus’ archaisms (e.g. ‘dene’ [for ‘saltus’]). If English permits sentences of comparable length and word-order, he does his best to produce the same structure as in the Latin, in particular imitating Tacitus’ constant variation of construction (e.g. i.11.4 ‘metu an per invidiam’ becomes ‘in dread or through resentment’) and his unexpected sequences of ideas (i.49.2 ‘the crowd was permitted license, vengeance and its fill’). Occasionally the asymmetry is carried even further by W. than by Tacitus! (e.g. i.61.1 ‘they entered the sorrowful site, grotesque to behold and for its memories’ [visuque ac memoria]). Fidelity to the Latin is pursued with unusual dedication. The oath ‘hercule’, often watered down, is rendered ‘as Hercules is my witness’ even when used by the author in his own voice (i.3.5). Where (e.g.) Tiberius is described as ‘Caesar’ or ‘Nero’, the same nomenclature is used in W.’s version. Some titles and terms that are often Anglicised in translation are preserved ( princeps, singular and plural, is one; curia another). More important, W.’s standard practice is to use the same English word to translate a Latin word throughout, and to choose a word that has something of the same quality (rare words are represented by rare words in English, and so forth). Thus Tacitus prefers claritudo to claritas, and W. uses ‘brilliancy’ in preference to ‘brilliance’ to translate the word. Metaphors are emphasised rather than being ironed out: e.g. i. 47.1 ‘Immovable in the face of such conversation, however, was the idea, implanted in Tiberius, that…’ (‘immotum … fixumque’); or i. 46, 3 ‘it was the soldiers’ spirits which needed dressings (‘fomenta’) applied to them’ (Grant has merely the feeble ‘something must be done to calm the troops’); or i. 51.4 ‘Their spirits blazed (‘exarsere’)’. Another aim is to replicate as far as possible some of the verbal play and echoes in the original (word-play and echoes of this kind are a feature of Tacitean style in which W. has long been interested: see the discussion in Tacitus Reviewed [1998] 218ff.). Alliteration is preserved wherever possible: thus ‘tam proiectae servientium patientiae’ becomes ‘such prompt and passive prostration from the servile’ (iii.65.3); or in xvi.11 ‘et singulis vestibus ad verecundiam velati’ is rendered ‘each dressed for decency in a single drape’.

It may seem that W. has undertaken a task which would be hard enough with complete freedom, but which he has insisted on tackling with both hands tied behind him. How does all this work out in practice? In fact it is remarkable how readable and thought-provoking W.’s version can be. The general effect is of dignified and fluent English in a rather ‘writerly’ style, modulating between unusually complex sentences and vigorous shorter clauses or climactic sequences. The vivid dramatic qualities of the mutinies in Germany and the campaigns of Corbulo are well preserved. Speeches are as skilfully handled as narrative or analytical passages. Only a scholar steeped in his author and deeply versed in the resources of English and Latin could have accomplished this task at such a consistently high level.

Here are a few samples of W.’s versions of famous phrases and memorable passages. In these and other cases I have compared not only Grant but the more exact version by Church and Brodribb, as well as the Loeb translation by the remarkable amateur J. Jackson (translator of Virgil and Marcus Aurelius as well as the author of the distinguished Marginalia Scaenica). Detailed analysis would extend this review unduly, but I find W. to have the better of the comparison at many points, and seldom find the others preferable.

i.11.2 ‘More in such a speech was impressive than credible; and Tiberius’ words, even on matters which he was not for concealing, were — whether by nature or habit — always weighed and dark; but on that occasion, when he was striving to hide his feelings deep down, their extra complication led to uncertainty and ambiguity.’

[Here I would quibble only with ‘was not for concealing’ — hardly English, and inferior to ‘did not seek / was not trying to conceal’. ‘impressive’ is clearly superior to Jackson’s ‘dignified’.]

i.73 (‘deorum iniurias dis curae’) ‘the gods’ injuries were the gods’ concerns.’

ii.87 ‘Hence speech was confined and slippery under a princeps who dreaded liberty but hated sycophancy.’

iii.27. 3 (‘corruptissima re publica plurimae leges’) ‘with the infection in the state at its peak, the number of laws was at its greatest’

iii.28.3 (‘acriora ex eo vincula’) ‘Sharper were the bonds after that.’

[Of the other versions C-B seem the best: ‘Henceforth our chains became more galling’, which preserves the fierce physicality which Grant emasculates (‘From then onwards restraints were stricter’)]

iv.32.1 ‘That much of what I have recorded, and of what I shall record, seems perhaps insignificant and trivial to recall I am not unaware; but no one should compare my annals with the writing of those who compiled the affairs of the Roman people of old. Mighty wars, storming of cities, routed and captured kings, or — whenever they turned their attention to internal matters — discord between consuls and tribunes, agrarian and grain laws, and contests of plebs and optimates — it was these which they recalled and had the freedom to explore. My work, on the other hand, is confined and inglorious: peace was immoveable or only modestly challenged, affairs in the City were sorrowful, and the princeps indifferent to extending the empire.’

[Jackson’s rendering of the most famous phrase here is worth recalling: ‘Mine is an inglorious labour in a narrow field.’ Is this meant to hint at an agricultural metaphor? And if so, was Jackson a pioneer of intertextuality, seeking to remind the reader of the source of this phrase in the proem to Georgics iv?]

vi.50 ‘It was now that Tiberius’ body and strength were letting him down; but not yet his dissembling. There was the same inflexibility of spirit: attentive in conversation and look, sometimes he tried to cover up his failing condition (however evident) by a studied affability; and, after numerous changes of location, he settled at length on the promontory of Misenum in a villa of which L. Lucullus had once been owner.’

xiii.2.1 ‘And the general trend was toward slaughter, had not Afranius Burrus and Annaeus Seneca stepped in. These mentors of the Commander’s youth were mutually harmonious (a rarity in an alliance of power) and equally forceful by different means, Burrus in military concerns and the severity of his behaviour, Seneca in his precepts for eloquence and an honorable affability, each helping the other so that they might more easily retain their hold on the slipperiness of the princeps’ age by permitting him pleasures if he spurned virtue.’

But some passages may encourage profitable debate among students. The unforgettable moment at which Agrippina is murdered is given in the following form:

(xiv.8.5) ‘But the assailants surrounded her bed, and initially the trierarch struck her head with his cudgel; and, as the centurion was already drawing his sword for death, she proffered her womb, crying out “Stab my belly”; and with many wounds she was dispatched.’

Here the key phrase is ‘protendens uterum “ventrem feri” exclamavit’. Granted, the Latin too uses two different nouns, but I wonder if they felt as different as ‘womb’ and ‘belly’ do to the modern reader. It seems that ‘womb’ would be more telling in the direct speech (cf. Dio’s elaboration at 61.13.5); this would also make it possible to preserve the echo ‘womb/wounds’ (so Church-Brodribb). But perhaps W.’s version genuinely reflects an inversion of expectation which is also present in the Latin (that is, Agrippina is made to use the cruder rather than the more emotive noun, which in Tacitus always has associations of pregnancy). Grant avoids the need to find a synomym by rendering Agrippina’s words as ‘strike here’.

A passage on which I found myself stumbling was i.73.1, part of the first discussion of maiestas:

“It will not be irksome to record the charges brought in the test cases of Faianius and Rubrius, modest Roman equestrians, in order to become acquainted with the initial phases from which, given the degree of Tiberius’ skill, a form of extermination of the utmost severity crept in, was then suppressed, and finally flared up and gripped everything.”

Here ‘modest’ is ambiguous in English and we are unlikely to think first of wealth, which is what ‘modicis’ conveys. Second, ‘extermination’ is W.’s standard term for ‘exitium’, but seems very peculiar here because it is hard to imagine varying degrees of extermination (what would a less severe form of it be like?). Third, the admittedly difficult phrase ‘quanta Tiberii arte’ is here subordinated, whereas in the Latin it forms a parallel indirect question to ‘quibus initiis’; the parenthetic phrase ‘given the degree of T’s skill’ in the English is puzzling, especially to those who know little of the importance of maiestas in Tacitus’ view of the Tiberian principate (not a topic addressed in the introduction; nor, oddly, is there an entry under ‘treason’ in the glossary). Fourth, what is gained by the preservation of the passive construction ‘ut noscatur’? Surely Tacitus means that the reader will become acquainted with this information, whereas in English we would assume that it is the same person as the implied agent behind the infinitive ‘to record’, i.e. Tacitus himself. The sentence is not unduly long, but the compression of the thought is such that it might have been better broken up. Finally (and here I speak more tentatively) there is the issue of the metaphors: they are all in the Latin, but make an odd sequence in English (‘flare’, suggesting a spreading fire, suits ‘was suppressed’ but sits strangely alongside ‘crept…gripped’ which seem suited to a wild animal); all four are strange with ‘exitium’ as their subject. The core of the problem, for me, is W.’s expansion of ‘gravissimum exitium’ into ‘a form of extermination of the utmost severity’, because this doubling or trebling of the abstract quality of the phrase (form, extermination, severity) makes it all the more awkward in combination with these very vivid and non-abstract verbs. Would (e.g.) ‘a destructive force’ have been preferable (with or without the ‘utmost severity’ phrase or equivalent)? But that would have involved W. sacrificing his principle that ‘exitium’ has to be rendered ‘extermination’ in all cases (or almost all: p. xxii speaks of this ‘as a general rule’). It is this insistence on one-to-one correspondence that will surely be the most frequently criticised aspect of W.’s translation strategy. When I first heard him speak on this subject in a lecture, I was immediately struck by what seemed to me then a contradiction of the very nature of translation. Now that I have seen the results, I must modify my previous scepticism; but I still feel that his successes are often achieved despite his policy rather than because of it.

Sometimes elsewhere W.’s choices may seem puzzling or distracting. Was ‘largitio’ as curious for the Roman reader as ‘lavishment’ is to the reader of English? Is ‘juveniles’ ideal for ‘adulescentes’? Does ‘modestness’ for modestia really have any advantage that ‘modesty’ lacks? In i.64.4 is the wordplay on ‘parendi aut imperitandi’ prominent or significant enough to justify giving the reader pause with a phrase like ‘who was having his fortieth year’s service as orderly or orderer’? W.’s regular rendering of ‘tradere’ is ‘transmit’, which often seems infelicitous (i. 69.2 ‘C. Plinius… transmits that she [Agrippina] stood at the head of the bridge’). That last phrase is closely followed by a still more bizarre expression: ‘That made an unusually deep penetration into Tiberius’ mind’ (‘altius penetravit’): surely the striving for immediacy and closeness to the Latin has lapsed here into the plainly unnatural. Would W. really claim that the more obvious rendering ‘made a deep impression (or ‘impact’) upon’ is irremediably deficient? Again, take xiv.49.1 ‘Libertas Thraseae servitium aliorum rupit’: W. gives ‘The free-speaking of Thrasea exploded the servitude of others’, which is undeniably striking, but the modern associations of the verb seem ineradicable — does W. actually want us to call them to mind? Why not (e.g.) ‘shattered’ or ‘demolished’? There are also places where W.’s passion for close correlation with the Latin has led him to preserve words which seem superfluous in English in a way that (one supposes) they did not in Latin. For example, at the opening of book 2 we read ‘there were tremors in the kingdoms and Roman provinces of the East, the starting-point having originated among the Parthians…’ (ii.1.1). The Latin is ‘initio … orto’, and most teachers would label W.’s phrase, if served up by a pupil, as ‘translationese’ : would we really have lost anything by compressing these two words into one? On the level of syntax, W. insists on preserving the ‘had not…’ construction, of which one example occurs in xiii.2 (quoted above), and another at i.65.6: ‘(Caecina) tumbled from his horse, and was in the process of being surrounded, had not the First Legion placed itself in the way.’ This is idiomatic Latin but reads oddly in English; do we gain in vivid immediacy enough to compensate for the sense of syntactic eccentricity?

Any reader will find a fair number of the translator’s decisions questionable; of course, nothing is easier than to carp at detail, and the challenge will always be to produce something better oneself.

The book contains much else besides the translation proper. The introduction (pp. ix-xxxviii) discusses and documents Tacitus’ career, his use of sources, the annalistic structure, Sallustianism, variatio, the strategy of translation, and the text. The reader is made aware of the most important issues but not swamped with detail. On the controversial but central question of the nature of ancient historiography, on which W.’s views are well-known from his earlier works, he states his position moderately and without polemic, while allowing that other views can be held (pp. xviii-ix). This section ends with the attractive understatement ‘readers might do well to approach the historicity of the Annals in a frame of mind which is at least mildly agnostic.’ Otherwise, there is a page of further reading, three maps, two stemmata, and a variety of Appendices covering political and military terms, the structure of the Roman army, locations in the city of Rome, names of peoples and places, a list of emperors, and textual variants. A final index of names helpfully includes details such as consular dates.

The translation is generously annotated. Complete books are generally furnished with at least 100 footnotes: the fullest are books ii (151 notes), iii (162) and vi (147). The majority of these explain names or ancient practice, gloss chronology, clarify allusions in the text to earlier or later events, or cite parallels from other sources. The choice of what to include here must have been very hard, and it is not surprising that the selection at times seems a little uneven. On the whole cross-reference within Tacitus’ text is frequent while parallels or supplementary sources are generally not so common in the notes (though the SC de Pisone patre is given due prominence, and a number of other important epigraphic texts are referred to, usually via the sourcebook translated by Sherk). Modern works apart from the OCD are sparingly cited, and those which do appear may seem a little arbitrary (e.g. p. 67 n. 68 on 2.53, citing Murray and Petsas, Octavian’s Campsite Memorial). More interesting are notes justifying the choice of certain words in the translation (e.g. p. 154 n.116) or defending an interpretation (as, predictably, in the controversial passages iii.65 and vi.51, where W. very fairly translates what he believes the text means, with appropriate reference to his discussions in Tacitus Reviewed [1998], but gives the ‘orthodox’ translation in the footnotes: for other cases see pp. 5-6 nn. 18-19, 9 n. 34, 345 n. 21).

W.’s version will give any reader a most valuable route towards a better understanding of the Annals. It would be the ideal tool for a course in which the text is being studied partly in the original, and where the teacher wants to draw attention to verbal niceties elsewhere. The exact indication of references on the page and in the running heads, together with the abundant notes, make it a splendid teaching text. As a version for the general reader, I am less confident of its prospects when measured against the Penguin. W.’s is a much more scholarly and far more up-to-date version, which deserves success; but some may be put off by the strategies described above — while often producing pungent and powerful prose, they also occasionally lead to obscurity and difficulty for those who do not know the Latin or cannot recognise the type of construction or the rhetorical techniques involved. Those who want a good read or are trying to teach ‘Classics Lite’ are unlikely to give this long-meditated version the close attention it deserves; those who prefer authentic complexity to specious readability will use it long and often, and even when they are most critical will feel indebted to the labours of Tony Woodman.