BMCR 2007.09.38

Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days

, , , Theogony ; and, Works and days. Works and days.. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2006. 116 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0472099329 $16.95.

Catherine M. Schlegel (S.), a Classicist, and Henry Weinfield (W.), a poet and literary scholar, have together produced a memorable and unique translation of Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days. What distinguishes this translation from others is the rigid use of iambic heptameter couplets, a meter never before employed to translate Hesiod’s poetry. The result is a flowing, rhyming translation that pleases initially but soon drowns out Hesiod’s voice because it is more of an exercise in English poetry than in translation. It is best read in small quantities.

The volume includes two introductions: the first is S.’s general overview of Hesiod and his poetry, the second W.’s explanation of his strategy in rendering the two poems into English. Translations of both poems follow. Useful notes supplement the translation, and a glossary completes the volume.

In her introduction, S. offers a broad view of Hesiod and his world. She succinctly treats the important questions of authorship and personality, connections between the two poems (and to other Hesiodic poetry), as well as the likelihood of eastern poetic influences. She is, however, occasionally over-confident in stating her own interpretations of the poems, blurring the fact that Hesiod is a very elusive poet. In her summary, for instance, of the Pandora story from the Works and Days, S. states that, “But hope stays inside, beneath the rim of the jar. Hope is the unborn child inside a woman’s belly, but whose child will it be? Implicit is the male’s fear about the outcome of his desire for this beautiful maiden” (6). The question of why Ἐλπίς remains in the jar has plagued interpreters since at least the days of Aristarchus (second century BCE) and allows for multiple interpretations; by positively stating her own gendered, metaphorical reading of this passage, S. guides non-Classicist readers to overlook Hesiod’s subtle ambiguity. The vexed meaning of Works and Days 40 ( νήπιοι, οὐδὲ ἴσασιν ὅσῳ πλέον ἥμισυ παντός), which is translated as “Fools, they don’t know how much more the half is than the whole” (58), receives similar treatment by S.: “This is a moment that registers Hesiod’s bleak recognition of human limitation: we are not gods and thus cannot have the whole; the half is our inevitable portion — and yet with Justice we can live with this, live without bad Strife, and have the better path” (8). Moralizing aside, S. never actually offers an explanation of why Hesiod states that the half is better than the whole nor considers other interpretations of the saying. Besides these and other questionable observations, S.’s introduction sufficiently conveys to a general audience the important aspects of Hesiod and his poetry.

W.’s introduction offers a brief history of his process of translating Hesiod. He states that his intention was to produce a translation in contemporary English, “that would allow Hesiod to sing and would thus make a difference to English poetry” (11). In order to revivify Hesiod’s song, W. chose to render the poems in iambic heptameter couplets, otherwise known as “fourteeners,” a meter popular in the 1600s but little used in the last few centuries (though Blake, Dickinson, and Shelley dabbled in them). This is, of course, the same meter used by George Chapman in his translation of the Iliad which so aroused Keats’ admiration. And, if still unfamiliar, American readers will recognize fourteeners from Ernest Thayer’s ‘Casey at the Bat.’ W. describes how he varied the placement of caesurae, and employed anapests as well as slant-rhyming to prevent monotony (12-16), and he has succeeded in dulling the lockstep movement of the translation. Whether this meter succeeds in a translation of Hesiod’s poetry is largely a matter of individual taste. I would personally question whether it is possible to arouse contemporary literary interest in Hesiod through the use of so dated a meter.

In the proper measure, the translations are pleasurable to read and contain memorable passages. Illustrative of this translation’s effects is Works and Days 355-356: “A giver gives to those who give, not to the niggardly: | Giving is good but Seizing bad — a giver of death is she” (68). S. and W. have here captured Hesiod’s alliteration and the repetition characteristic of his gnomic statements without too closely following the balancing of his clauses. In fact, one of the strengths of this translation is that S. and W. have repeatedly tried to replicate the sound effects of Hesiod’s poetry. Their translation of Theogony 380 as “Eos lulled in love lay languorous” (35) is a nice rendition of the alliteration of the taus and thetas in the Greek: ἐν φιλότητι θεὰ θεῷ εὐνηθεῖσα. However, not all their attempts to do this are successful, and they occasionally employ alliteration or assonance which is absent in Hesiod. Thus their translation of Works and Days 31, “For whom sufficient sustenance, in season, isn’t stored” (58), is an unseemly paroemion with no corresponding sound in the Greek.

Some drawbacks to this translation are distortions and importing figures and thoughts alien to Hesiod. The translation of Theogony 233-235 reads “Then Pontos fathered Nereus — this was his eldest son: | Old man Nereus, so called because that truthful one | makes nary an error : he is kind and worthy of all trust” (30). From their translation, it would seem Hesiod here offers an etymology of Nereus’ name, but this is far from certain; one should consult West’s note (skeptical). At any event, “nary an error” does cleverly replicates the name “Nereus” in English. At Theogony 737, S.’s and W.’s sea is “undraining” (46), which is not just an unclear image, but a questionable translation of ἀτρυγέτοιο. And Hesiod’s ἐναποψύχειν of Works and Days 759 is a bit more vivid than to “move your bowels” (80).

There are fourteen pages of concise and useful notes. These include explanations of the rhythm and rhyme of the translation, notes on the Greek, and interpretations of the poems. Welcome are comparisons of Hesiod to later Greek and Roman authors, as well as to scripture; such observations will be especially useful if the translation is used in the classroom. I found one bizarre error in the notes. The authors state that Theogony 992 is “catalectic in the Greek — that is, it is missing the first syllable” (91). They apparently believe the line is acephalous (catalexis is the loss of a final syllable), but it is not.

A glossary of names and places rounds out the volume. Included are guides for pronunciation as well as full line references to the occurrences of each name. This is a useful, but probably unnecessary addition to the book. One warning: the glossary is keyed to the translation, not the Greek, and so there is some discrepancy between the two.

This translation of Hesiod was presumably produced to attract two quite distinct audiences. The authors clearly wished the translation to appeal to those with enough learning in the Classics and English literature to appreciate Hesiod rendered in a meter novel for translations of his poetry. I think on this first account the book succeeds, though there are occasional shortcomings in the translation. The book was surely also designed with undergraduate teaching in mind, but whether the translation is useful in this regard is another matter. My own students in a classical civilization course gave it rather mixed reviews: some quite liked the translation, others found the rhythm and rhyme “distracting.” Perhaps this will be the final verdict on S.’s and W.’s translation.