BMCR 2012.07.17

Complicating the History of Western Translation: The Ancient Mediterranean in Perspective

, , Complicating the History of Western Translation: The Ancient Mediterranean in Perspective. Manchester; Kinderhook, NY: St. Jerome Publishing, 2011. 229. ISBN 9781905763306. £25.00 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Despite the fact that most modern histories of translation in the West take their beginnings from the Classical period, especially Cicero, Horace, and Quintilian,1 and that Classicists engage continuously with their own translations of the ancients, who themselves inhabited a pervasively multilingual world, the fields of Translation Studies and Classics have been slow to interact with one another. Recent years, however, have seen rewarding attempts to bridge the divide.2 This volume, stemming from a panel organized by McElduff and Sciarrino at the 2008 APA meeting, aims to further this fledgling cross-disciplinary contact, “to point out to scholars of the ancient Mediterranean the value of translation as a category to be taken seriously” and “to encourage a dialogue between the discipline of Translation Studies and the fields of research represented by this collection” (189). In many respects it attains these two lofty goals, and the variety of topics and methodologies it showcases should encourage both fields to stretch beyond their boundaries. As with many such volumes, the individual papers do not share the same level of care, quality, or interdisciplinary engagement, but the collection as a whole will be valuable to anyone interested in contact between languages and cultures in antiquity and should serve as a stepping-stone for further work on ancient translation.

The volume begins with an introduction by McElduff and Sciarrino that sets out briefly (1) what studying translation in the ancient Mediterranean can contribute to Translation Studies, as well as some of the unique problems that ancient translation poses, and (2) what scholars of the ancient Mediterranean can gain from Translation Studies. More attention is given to the former, and the insightful attempts to problematize assumptions about and categorizations of antiquity (e.g., east vs. west, canonicity, etc) give the impression that the volume’s primary audience is Translation Studies scholars. The editors nicely situate the subsequent papers within broader methodological concerns and engage well with recent Translation Studies scholarship, with which they demonstrate excellent familiarity. They reiterate these connections to larger issues in short prefaces before sets of papers, which are grouped thematically rather than by culture or approach, highlighting their aim to complicate traditional categories. These prefaces also explore how the papers complement one another and contribute to the overall aims of the volume.

Kristopher Fletcher’s paper explores Parthenius of Nicaea’s Erotica Pathemata. Fletcher argues that Parthenius chose myths he thought would be understandable to Romans and omitted those he judged untranslatable, like aetiologies, which Fletcher says are too culturally specific to be useful to outsiders. His observation that Parthenius actively mediates this transaction is astute, but his efforts to identify Parthenius’ motives rely too much on arguments from silence to be persuasive. Also, universal accessibility seems an unlikely criterion, given Latin poets’ penchant for obscure aetia, and tying his selection to the tired binary of translatable/untranslatable oversimplifies Parthenius’ work. Fletcher nods at some tantalizing details that might complicate the picture, noting that four myths center on Parthenius’ homeland of Asia Minor and five on Italy, but leaves these largely untapped; elaboration here would have been valuable, particularly for his analysis of Parthenius’ paradoxical status as master of his native literature and ex-slave under Roman power. Unfortunately, Fletcher ignores Translation Studies scholarship central to his discussion, especially work on polysystems and postcolonial theories of translation.3

Elizabeth Marie Young’s paper argues that Romans viewed translation as a dangerous activity in which the translator could become “infected” by intimate contact with Greek sources. She analyzes Cato the Elder’s prohibitions against excessive familiarity with Greek literature, drawing on George Steiner’s After Babel to show how Cato’s warning acts as a set of instructions for ingesting Hellenism safely. She then examines how Catullus’ translation of Sappho (poem 51), together with the preceding poem in the collection, plays with this notion of infective translation. Young’s metapoetic reading of these poems is stimulating, especially in reversing the reading sequence by examining poem 50 in light of poem 51. Her suggestion that Cato and Catullus share the same approach to translation is not, however, convincing, and her argument that Catullus tries to check Greek infection seems forced. She ends by proposing that Catullus’ translational impersonation of Sappho spurred the development of the elegiac amator – a provocative idea, especially considering Catullus 16’s nod at persona theory, but Catullus’ translation of Greek lyric is less revolutionary than Young suggests and she too quickly dismisses or overlooks the contributions of pre-Catullan literature, especially Terence and Valerius Aedituus, who anticipate (and inform) Catullus’ translation of Sappho fr.31.4

Han Baltussen’s paper examines Cicero’s adaptation of Greek thought in his philosophical work in light of his personal circumstances, particularly the loss of his daughter and political isolation near the end of his career. Baltussen’s overview of Cicero’s interests in translation and Roman aemulatio with Greek generally is clear and accessible. His discussion of translation as a form of consolatio is brief but interesting, and his focus on the translator’s humanity and personal milieu is refreshing.

Jennifer Larson’s and Sophia Papaioannou’s papers are real gems in the volume. Larson offers an overview of multilingual inscriptions, focusing on the Bisitun inscription, the Rosetta Stone, and the Res Gestae, and argues that instead of precise equivalence each aims to address the localized needs of their target audiences. Papaioannou examines the Latin and Greek versions of the Res Gestae in depth and argues that non- obligatory differences between the two reveal a complex negotiation of political representations aimed at different populations. Larson draws upon functionalist translation theories, whereas Papaioannou uses discourse analysis, but their papers share many conclusions and complement each other nicely.

Dries De Crom’s paper questions the traditional notion that translation moves across a linguistic divide in one direction from source to target text or culture, especially in societies in which more than one language is in operation simultaneously. He focuses on the Jewish Diaspora in antiquity and the complex relationship between Hebrew and Greek in these communities, but his insightful conclusions apply to the ancient Mediterranean broadly. His analysis of how the Greek Ben Sira and Letter of Aristeas construct authority highlights well his point that language prestige is a major factor in the production and reception of translations in multilingual contexts.

Edith Foster’s paper details alterations that Lucretius makes to the source text in his translation of Thucydides’ plague narrative and argues that these changes are designed with a political aim in mind, namely to keep contemporary Epicureans from becoming involved in the coming civil war. Her comparison nicely details Lucretius’ major changes and builds on Monica Gale’s idea that the plague represents the psychological sickness of those ignorant of Epicurean philosophy. Foster perhaps restricts Lucretius’ target audience here too much, but her analysis balances his philosophical and political concerns in attractive ways.

Diana Spencer’s paper returns to some of the questions of lyric and persona that Young’s paper brings up, expanding into broader cultural and intertextual areas by exploring how Horace’s Odes appropriate Greek lyric for new Roman concerns. Spencer argues that Horace’s translation of genre, culture, and specific elements from his Greek predecessors depends on his audience’s precise knowledge of those predecessors and an awareness of how he modifies and modulates them through Roman traditions and prior Latin literature. Her paper is clear and well argued, drawing upon many disparate but complementary issues (performativity and textuality, metrical, lexical, and topical allusion, etc) that reveal the complexity of Horace’s contemporary reception.

Jan Stronk’s paper discusses the histories of Herodotus and Ctesias of Cnidus as works involving translation of several types, including interlingual, cross-cultural, and from oral accounts to their fledgling new genre. He covers well-trod ground, though his argument that the different cultural contexts informed their approaches to selection and presentation is interesting.

Daniel Richter’s paper analyzes Lucian’s Concilium Deorum and De Dea Syria, arguing that both satirically lampoon interpretatio graeca and Hellenizing ethnography. Richter’s discussion is perceptive, demonstrating how Lucian’s texts problematize cultural and religious syncretism and complicate relationships between names and the things they are used to describe.

Bradley Buszard’s paper examines Plutarch’s etymologies in his biographies of Romulus and Numa, arguing that Plutarch rejects supposed etymological connections between Roman and Greek vocabulary in order to resist further Roman appropriation of Greek identity. He persuasively demonstrates Plutarch’s unique reversal of the usual Greek attempts to make Latin ultimately Hellenic in origin and connects these skeptical etymologies to his doubts about another connection between Greece and Rome, that between Numa and Pythagoras.

Dennis Campbell’s paper offers an overview of Hittite multilingualism and analyzes translation technique in a range of texts, including bilingual, mythographic, and omen texts. His discussion outlines many of the difficulties that Hittite poses for translation scholars, including the near total loss of information about the context and purpose of the extant translations. It is rewarding to see an Anatolian contribution alongside Greek and Roman ones, and Campbell’s paper highlights how central translation was to the Mediterranean long before Classical antiquity.

Thomas Schneider’s paper sketches the baffling variety of ways in which translation within and about Egypt functions, from the earliest period to modernity and in terms of intra/interlingual transfer, cultural reception, and Egyptological scholarship. Schneider’s display of knowledge is imposing, but the number and range of topics, texts, and bibliographic references obscures any clear direction (which perhaps is the point, since he shows well what a chimera and behemoth the study of Egyptian translation can be).

Typographical errors occur more frequently than one would like, but these are a small annoyance rather than a hindrance to understanding (though the biographies of poor Drs. Fletcher and Foster have dropped out entirely!).

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Sea of Languages: Complicating the History of Western Translation
Siobhán McElduff and Enrica Sciarrino
1. A Handbook for the Translation of Greek Myth into Latin: Parthenius, Gallus, and the Erotica Pathemata
Kristopher Fletcher
2. Sappho Under My Skin: Catullus and the Translation of Erotic Lyric at Rome
Elizabeth Marie Young
3. Cicero’s Translation of Greek Philosophy: Personal Mission or Public Service?
Han Baltussen
4. Bilingual Inscriptions and Translation in the Ancient Mediterranean World
Jennifer Larson
5. The Translation Politics of a Political Translation: The Case of Augustus’ Res Gestae
Sophia Papaioannou
6. Translation and Directionality in the Hebrew-Greek Tradition
Dries De Crom
7. The Political Aims of Lucretius’ Translation of Thucydides
Edith Foster
8. Horace and the Con/straints of Translation
Diana Spencer
9. Herodotus and Ctesias: Translators of the Oriental Past
Jan P. Stronk
10. How Not to Translate: Lucian’s Games with the Name(s) of the Syrian Goddess
Daniel Richter
11. Translating Rome: Plutarch’s Skeptical Etymology in Romulus and Numa
Bradley Buszard
12. Translation among the Hittites
Dennis Campbell
13. Three Histories of Translation: Translating in Egypt, Translating Egypt, Translating Egyptian
Thomas Schneider
Contributor Biographies


1. Kelly, L. The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West. Oxford. Rener, F. Interpretatio: Language and Translation from Cicero to Tytler. Amsterdam. Munday, J. 2008. Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. New York.

2. Copeland, R. 1991. Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages: Academic Traditions and Vernacular Texts. Cambridge. Possanza, M. 2004. Translating the Heavens: Aratus, Germanicus, and the Poetics of Latin Translation. New York.

3. Excellent surveys in: Hermans, T. 1999. Translation in Systems. Manchester. Robinson, D. 1997. Translation and Empire. Manchester. Cf. also Lefevere, A. 1992. Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. New York.

4. Sharrock, A. 2009. Reading Roman Comedy: Poetics and Playfulness in Plautus and Terence. Cambridge. 229-232. Courtney, E. 1993. The Fragmentary Latin Poets. Oxford. 72-74.