BMCR 2006.03.07

Rhetoric in Antiquity. Translated by W.E. Higgins

, Rhetoric in antiquity. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xiv, 269 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780813216386 $27.95 (pb).

The original French edition of Laurent Pernot (henceforth π La Rhétorique dans l’Antiquité (2000), was reviewed by Thomas Schmitz in BMCR in 2002.1 Several other reviews have also been published; a recent one is also available online.2 All testify to the fact, if further evidence is still needed, that interest in and appreciation of rhetoric in the Graeco-Roman world is flourishing as never before. Thus, my remarks, which focus on how well W.E. Higgins’s (henceforth H) English translation succeeds in conveying P’s thoughts to French-less readers, will add little to what reviewers have said about Pernot’s elegantly passionate little book. It is at once a magisterial introduction to the theory and practice of effective speaking from Homer to Augustine and an eloquent argument for the necessity of rhetoric in human society; I recommend it unreservedly.

For undertaking the task of turning terse, highly charged French into smooth, articulate English, H deserves thanks. His version of Rhetoric in Antiquity offers P’s work in a clear, workmanlike form for Anglophone readers, faithfully preserving the book’s original arrangement of contents, which also makes it easier to consult the original if desired. He also enhances P’s already copious references to ancient and modern authors with additional citations in English and explains a few terms.3 In place of the Budé translations of Greek and Latin texts used by P, H substitutes the corresponding Loeb Classical Library versions, and, where a standard English translation of a text P quotes in French is lacking, H provides one, indicating its source so as to provide absolute accountability for his handling of the original. The book itself is well produced, its dust cover adorned with likenesses of Demosthenes and Cicero and its lucidly designed pages virtually unmarred by typographical errors.4

The book’s air of conscientiousness does not, however, guarantee felicity. H’s use of the Loeb translations, sometimes modified (and noted “WEH”) “in order to suit the tenor of Professor Pernot’s argument better or to foster … a contemporary reader’s livelier understanding” (vii), is unsatisfactory. For instance, the passage of the Dialogus 34.1-2 from Peterson’s Loeb edition illustrating old-fashioned Roman education (86; unimproved by H) is more clumsily distant from Tacitus’ Latin than the original’s Budé French. Transliteration of proper names is always a fraught subject. H claims ‘a happy eclecticism that can tolerate both “Socrates” and “Isokrates”‘ (vii); I remain unconvinced that “Aiskhylos,” “Thucydides,” “Aiskhines,” and “Plutarch” can comfortably coexist.5

Given that the translation is generally sound,6 there are still difficulties with technical terms, usage, tone, word order, and punctuation. H handles words like parole, discours, signaler, signifier, and métier with care, trying to avoid mechanical one-for-one substitutions. Others — préciser, problèmatiser, enseignement, formation, and judiciaire, to name a few — show a less secure touch. For example, characterizing rhetorical instruction ( enseignement) in the Hellenistic period, H says (73; cf. 144) that it possessed “a dimension of general literary culture” ( une dimension de culture littéraire génerale) and concern for “ethical and civic formation” ( formation éthique et civique). While Anglophone readers may be able to work out the implications of the first phrase, they will be puzzled, or at least bemused, by the second; something like “education in ethics and good citizenship” would have been preferable. In the case of judiciaire, which P uses in contexts where English-speaking scholars of rhetoric employ “forensic,” i.e. for oratorical contexts and works connected with legal proceedings rather than political situations, H opts for “judicial” (e.g. 11, 12, 160, 171 et passim). Far from being a mere lexical variation, this choice generates needless ambiguity by implying that such speeches were delivered by judges as well as to them and to juries; “legal” (104) is better but still unidiomatic.

Turning to usage and tone, pouvoir need not always turn into “can”; in many situations, “may” is more appropriate. As well, though H is aware that the use of the article varies from French to English, he does not altogether avoid the pitfalls of le …, most strikingly in the titles of Chapter Four, “The Hellenistic Globalization” ( La Globalisation Hellénistique), and Chapter Six, “The Empire: Innovation in the Tradition” ( L’Empire, ou l’innovation dans la tradition). The latter, as it stands, raises the question “… of what?”; “Innovation within Tradition” is the simplest solution. While academic French functions within a fairly narrow lexical and syntactical range, leading to a degree of repetitiveness undesirable in English, its English analog can draw on a larger store of words and more flexible syntax to convey the directness and meaning of the original without loss of coherence and abrupt shifts of diction. It should thus be possible to avoid a mix of expressions like “right off” (ix: dejá; cf. “First of all” on 3), “Decoupling theory and oratorical practice separates ….” (xi: Couper la théorie de la pratique oratoire, c’est instaurer une séparation), “as he paced up and down the platform, waving about his toga for effect” (97: se promenant à la tribune et faisant des effets de toge tout en parlant), and “the political life of the local city” (133: politique municipale).

Pure ‘translationese’ emerges in “chevalresque song cycle” (7: la geste chevaleresque), “written proofs” (109: preuves écrites), and “On top of its generic recommendations, the encomium grafted specific counsels and requests. Because it coaxes pleasingly, the encomium readies the reception for hard sayings”(181). H’s punctuation, while not that of the original French, does not always conform to good English principles either. To his credit, however, H does remove some disruptive parentheses bracketing many of P’s remarks, though even more could have been eliminated. The question of punctuation points toward the fundamental issue of readability. Good punctuation is indicative of how a text should be read. Unlike P’s original, H’s version seldom gives the impression of having been read aloud. After 2,500 years, oral delivery must still be the acid test for all texts not intended to accompany items of electronic equipment.

A few bibliographical details remain. P’s remarks about the oratorical component of embassies from one city to another (79) would have profited from a reference to Christopher Jones’ work on kinship diplomacy.7 Likewise, Mary Beard’s perceptive essay on the role of declamation in the Roman collective imagination would be completely germane to P’s discussion of Roman declamation (151-157), as also a reference to this reviewer’s book in the context of Boethius, Cassiodorus, and rhetoric after the end of antiquity (208-209).8 Lastly, a correction: H rephrases a reference to Malcovati’s Oratorum romanorum fragmenta as “his collection” (94); the editor’s first name is Enrica (“Henrica” in Latin).

In conclusion, I affirm this book’s fundamental usefulness to readers interested in rhetoric but lacking French. The dissemination of notable works of French-language scholarship in the English-speaking world is unquestionably a good thing. All the same, it does less than justice to the zestful expertise of P’s original.

A final observation: the great gulf (for which of course neither H nor the publisher is to blame) between market and intellectual forces and between North America and Europe is reflected in H’s footprint (15.3 x 22.8 cm., which perceptibly exceeds that of the 12 x 18 cm. French original) and online price (P was under 7 Euro at FNAC, while H was $29.95 at 3 January 2006, a big difference even with bad exchange rates).


1. BMCR 2002.08.11, by Thomas A. Schmitz. He remarked, “One only wishes P. had not used the Budé-translations which prettify the Homeric texts in an atrocious manner.”

2. Rhetorical Review 3:1 (February 2005): 12-15 (Kyrre Vatsend).

3. H’s explanation of equites of the Roman Republic as “essentially those members of the wealthy elite who did not belong to the Senate because they were too young to run for public office or because they chose not to pursue such a career” (89 n1) does not satisfy.

4. The “N.G. Kennell” for “N.M. Kennell” (11) in the first Excursus (“Rhetoric of …”) is imported from the original; “Diels-Krantz” (65) is not. See also n. 5 below.

5. “Kleanthos” (69, 255) for “Cleanthes” (of Assos) is of a different order. Inconsistencies occur between the running text and the index: cf. “Lykourgos” (34-36), “Gregory Thaumaturgus” (206), and “Gregory of Nanzianzus” (207) vs. “Gregory of Nazianzos” and “Gregory Thaumaturgos” (254) and “Lycourgos” (255).

6. E.g., translating what Odysseus seeks of Nausicaa as “the young girl’s help”(1) for l’aide de la jeune fille (P 13) does indicate some insensitivity to basic French, as does using “the argument of practicality” (112) for “l’argument de l’utilité” (P 150) in connection with Cicero’s addresses to the people and saying Dio of Prusa’s situation was that of ‘a “Prime Nabob” ‘ (175; premier notable, P 229). P’s references to the consulships of Fronto (183, cf. P 240) and Herodes Atticus (190, cf. P 249), both of which occurred in A.D.143, are inexplicably truncated.

7. C.P. Jones. Kinship Diplomacy in the Ancient World (Cambridge Mass, 1999).

8. M. Beard. “Looking (Harder) for Roman Myth: Dumézil, Declamation and the Problems of Definition.” In Mythos in mythenloser Gesellschaft: das Paradigma Roms, ed. F. Graf (Stuttgart, 1993), 44-64. S.A.H. Kennell. Magnus Felix Ennodius: A Gentleman of the Church (Ann Arbor, 2000).