BMCR 2020.07.05

Xenophon: the shorter writings

Gregory A. McBrayer, Xenophon: the shorter writings. Agora editions. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2018. vi, 404 p.. ISBN 9781501718502 $24.95 (pb).

[Authors, translators and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In 1857, the Rev. John Selby Watson (1804-1884), a pious clergyman and Headmaster of Stockwell Grammar School in South London, published a volume of Xenopho’s Minor Works, comprising the Agesilaus, Hiero, Oeconomicus, Banquet, Apology of Socrates, the treatises on the Lacedaemonian and Athenian governments, On revenues of Athens, On horsemanship, On the duties of a cavalry officer, and On hunting, literally translated from the Greek, with notes and illustration. The translation survived Watson who killed his wife in 1872 in a bout of insanity and was sentenced first to death, then, after a public outcry, to life imprisonment (his case is the subject of a celebrated novel by Beryl Bainbridge, Watson’s Apology, 1984); indeed, his literal translation was repeatedly reprinted in Bohn’s Classical Library well into the 20th century. The present volume, which also promises “literal translations” (p. 1), selects eight of the eleven works presented by Watson, and thus does not cover “The” Shorter Works as promised in the title. While it is debatable whether all eight are simply “political writings” as claimed on p. 7, and while the omission of the shorter philosophical works should have been made clear in the volume’s title, the one thing these eight writings do have in common is that they are “shorter” than Xenophon’s Opera Maiora. Presented are (in the OCD‘s titles and abbreviations) Hiero (Hier.), Agesilaus(Ages.), Respublica Lacedaemoniorum (Lac.), Respublica Atheniensium (Ath. pol.), De vectigalibus (vect.), De equitum magistro (Eq. mag.), De equitandi ratione (Eq.), and Cynegeticus (Cyn.), but not Apologia Socratis (Ap.), Oeconomicus(Oec.), and Symposium (Symp.).

Literally translating Greek classics into English, fashionable in pious 19th century England, has not enjoyed the same attraction later. Eight of Watson’s eleven works are accessible in the Loeb translation by the editor of the 1920 OCT, Edgar Cardew Marchant (1923, revised and expanded to include Ath. pol. by Glen W. Bowersock in 1968) while the three shorter Socratic works (Ap., Oec., and Symp.) appear in the Loeb volume of the Memorabilia, but not in the Agora edition of that work (A. L. Bonnette, 1994). Six of Watson’s eleven works (without the three Socratic ones and the two “Constitutions”) are also readily available in Robin Waterfield’s Penguin translation of 1997 (repr. 2006). In addition, several of the Opera Minora have seen individual bilingual editions, for instance Cyn. by Arthur A. Phillips and Malcolm M. Willcock (Xenophon & Arrian on Hunting, 1999). The present volume does not mention this and some other translations, but boldly claims about “other collections” that “each has its shortcomings” (p. 1), while the new translations presented her are expected to “help all those interested in Xenophon understand better the core of his thought, political as well as philosophical” (p. 7). The most useful parts of the present volume are its interpretative essays aimed at new readers, and modern translations of Xenophon’s works are always welcome.

The volume’s translations claim that they are “faithful” (p. 4); specifically, they almost always use exactly one English word for one Greek word across the translations, whatever the context. Thus ὑβριστικός is consistently, but awkwardly translated as “hubristic” (using a rather rarefied word in English, first attested in the OED only for Watson’s time). Where more common English words are used, not all translators appear to be entirely happy with the faith’s creed, however, so we hear that only “despite some awkwardness, ‘erotic’ has always been used to translate Greek words with the root erôs. The root refers primarily to erotic love, but as this passage [Hier. 1.21] shows, it can be extended to cover anything that might be done or pursued ‘with passion'” (p. 353 n. 10). Consequently, ἐρᾶν is consistently translated as “to have an erotic interest”, however awkward that may be in the context. There are a few exceptions: Words with the Greek root καλ- “are notoriously hard to translate consistently” (p. 353 n. 13), so καλός is sometimes translated as “noble” and sometimes as “beautiful”, obfuscating the fact the Greek does not make this difference. It would be easier to commiserate the translators had not the editor chosen to censure the translators’ predecessors harshly. Robin Waterfield, for instance, is attacked because of “a certain carelessness in translation” as he chooses to translate ἀρετή not consistently as “virtue”, but, depending on the context, also sometimes as “quality”, “bravery”, “courage”, et al. (p. 3) – note that “excellence”, the etymologically sound “general” translation in LSJ (where a host of possible other translations are listed, depending on context), is eschewed by all “faithful” translators.

Any translation should always make it clear which text is translated. The present volume is surprisingly vague on this. ForHier., we are told that the translator “has simply relied on E. C. Marchant’s OCT edition (1900), supplemented by the helpful report of the manuscripts in Ralph E. Doty’s edition and translation (2003)”, thus not only getting the year of the OCT (1920) wrong, but also not explaining the consequences this supplement has had for the translation, especially when the textual transmission is referred to as “convoluted” (p. 352). For Lac., the OCT is “used”, but “we consulted in addition” other editions, again not making it clear what the consequences of these consultations were for the text to be translated (p. 361). The translation of Ath. pol. uses “the Greek text edited by Vivienne J. Gray”, but has also “consulted” Marchant (p. 371), for Eq. only Delebeque’s text is “used” while Marchant appears only as the author of one of the translations “consulted” in the Loeb volume (p. 385). For Cyn. “we have used the texts” of Delebecque “and” of Marchant (p. 393), whatever the “and” may hide; the bilingual edition of 1999 (see above) is completely ignored. Also in Cyn., “the first chapter of the work has come down to us in two substantially different versions, and we have chosen to follow MS Sigma” (p. 393). No explanation is given for what hides behind the enigmatic “MS Sigma” (which is not a siglum used in Marchant’s OCT), and for the reason of only presenting this reading. This is especially surprising as another translator is attacked elsewhere for relocating a chapter (Lac. 14) considered by him to be a “later addition” to the end of his translation, a procedure censured as “hampering the ability of new readers to form their own judgement about the text” (p. 4). In Cyn. 1, however, the Agora translator has chosen not to translate the “substantially different” version at all, thus not only hampering, but completely refusing new readers the chance to form their own judgement.

A literal translation should explain the rationale behind the unusual titles chosen for Xenophon’s writings. The editor claims that Waterfield translates the title of Cyn. “inaccurately” (p. 3) as “On Hunting” when the literal translation chosen in the present volume, “The One Skilled at Hunting with Dogs”, is not only awkward, but ignores the etymology considered as so important for ἐρᾶν and καλός. Why is κυνηγεῖν, from κύων and ἄγω, and thus etymologically “to lead dogs”, not “to hunt with dogs”, not translated as such? The title also implies that the adjective κυνηγετικός is used as a noun, when ancient audiences more probably supplied the noun λόγος (as in Onasander, Praef. 1: ἱππικῶν μὲν λόγων ἢ κυνηγετικῶν ἢ ἁλιευτικῶν, not referred to in the volume), as in Eq. (περὶ ἱππικῆς), translated as “On Horsemanship”, thus apparently implying the addition of τέχνης. Similarly, the second title of Hier., τυραννικός, is translated as “The Skilled Tyrant”, and Eq. mag. ἱππαρχικός as “The Skilled Cavalry Commander” (inconsistently, unlike Cyn., not as “The One Skilled at Commanding a Cavalry”), leaving unexplained which Greek word is translated as “skilled”, and why supplying λόγος is eschewed in these cases as well.

Most of all a literal translation should be correct. A random sample, taken from Eq. mag. 1 as translated on the double spread pp. 212–213 (which claims to translate the text “as presented” in Marchant’s OCT “unless otherwise noted”, p. 381) may suffice. In Eq. mag. 1.5 Marchant’s text reads πόλεμοι (“wars”), but this is translated as “enemies” as if the variant reading πολέμιοι had been adopted; no explanation is given in the notes. In Eq. mag. 1.8 speakers “might make the Council gentle, if it should turn harsh on the wrong occasion” is given as the translation of καταπραΰνωσί τε τὴν βουλήν, ἤν τι παρὰ καιρὸν χαλεπαίνῃ, ignoring the τι. And in Eq. mag. 1.14 πωλεύειν (“break in a young horse”) is printed by Marchant but translated here as “sell” as if Marchant’s text reads πωλεῖν, again without any explanation in the notes. A “faithful” translation might justifiably be expected to be more precise.

Like the Rev. Watson in the pious 19th century, the volume promises “literal” translations (p. 1), now “faithful to the spirit guiding the other translations of Xenophon in the Agora series” (p. 4). As there is no preface to the series, this “spirit” is assumed to be familiar to the readers. Apparently they are expected to understand the “Straussian” approach adopted here by looking at the names of the founder of the series, Allan Bloom (1930-1992), and the current editor, Thomas L. Pangle (*1944), who were students of Leo Strauss (1899-1973). The consequences are manifold: Unlike ὑβριστικός (“hubristic”), the term πόλις is not allowed to stand, but rendered as “city” (completely ignoring the anachronistic modern connotations of this term), and πολιτεία is translated as “regime” (obfuscating the link between polis and politeia altogether). Indeed, an earlier translator who is attacked just for relocating a passage because such procedure “unjustifiably inserts his interpretation of the text into the translation” (p. 4), is also censured because he, like Watson (p. 1), translates πόλις as “state” thus “importing the foreign distinction between state and civil society characteristic of modern liberalism” (p. 3). We cannot help but wonder why the “spirit” of Straussian anti-liberalism to which these translations claim to be “faithful” must even shape seemingly objective translations. Unsurprisingly, then, the number of entries for Leo Strauss in the index is only topped by those for Socrates.

Translators and Titles

Gregory A. McBrayer: Editors Introduction (pp.1-7)
David K. O’Connor: Hiero, or The Skilled Tyrant (pp. 9-28)
David Levy: An Introduction to the Hiero (pp. 29-50)
Robert C. Bartlett: Agesilaus (pp. 51-78)
Robert C. Bartlett: An Introduction to the Agesilaus (pp. 79-105)
Catherine S. Kuiper and Susan D. Collins: Regime of the Lacedaemonians (pp. 107-125)
Susan D. Collins: An Introduction to the Regime of the Lacedaemonians (pp. 126-147)
Gregoy A. McBrayer: Regime of the Athenians (pp. 149-159)
Gregoy A. McBrayer: An Introduction to the Regime of the Athenians (pp. 160-174)
Wayne Amler: Ways and Means, or On Revenues (pp. 175-188)
Abram N.Shulsky: An Introduction to the Ways and Means (pp. 189-209)
Wayne Ambler: The Skilled Cavalry Commander (pp. 211-231)
Wayne Ambler: An Introduction to The Skilled Cavalry Commander (pp. 232-252)
Amy L. Bonnette: On Horsemanship (pp. 253-276)
Amy L. Bonnette: An Introduction to On Horsemanship (pp. 277-293)
Michael Ehrmantraut and Gregory A. McBrayer: The One Skilled at Hunting with Dogs (pp. 295-325)
Michael Ehrmantraut: An Introduction to The One Skilled at Hunting with Dogs (pp. 326-350)
Notes (pp. 351-399)
Index (pp. 401-404)