BMCR 2021.06.20

The Loeb Classical Library and its progeny

, , The Loeb Classical Library and its progeny: proceedings of the First James Loeb Biennial Conference, Munich and Murnau, 18–20 May 2017. Loeb Classical Monographs. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020. Pp. 456. ISBN 9780674248717 $30.00.

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

In the field of classical studies, James Loeb (1867–1933) is best remembered for lending his name to the bilingual book series the Loeb Classical Library (1911­–).[1] It is because he was willing to put his time, effort, and money into the creation and success of this enterprise during his life, and because he left the series together with a substantial endowment to Harvard University when he died, that the red and green volumes are still an indispensable item on the shelves of many a classicist. Loeb, however, also made major (financial) contributions to the fields of archaeology, psychology, and music. It has therefore become a shared goal of the Loeb Classical Library Foundation (Harvard), the James Loeb Society (Munich/Murnau), and the Harvard Club of Munich ‘to bring the enormous achievements of Loeb into the prominence they deserve’ (xiii). Four conferences are planned, each of which will focus on a theme related to one of Loeb’s philanthropic specialties. The inaugural conference was dedicated to the legacy of the Loeb Classical Library and took place in 2017, the 150th birth anniversary of the series’ patron. The collective volume under review contains its proceedings.

The volume is dedicated to the Loeb Classical Library and its so-called ‘progeny’, the three other bilingual book series published by Harvard University Press: the I Tatti Renaissance Library, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, and the Murty Classical Library of India.[2] Edited by Jeffrey Henderson and Richard Thomas, the general editor and executive trustee of the Loeb Classical Library respectively, the volume not only reflects upon the creation and success of these bilingual publications, it also explores the theme of translating ‘classical’ texts through the ages. As the preface explains, the general editors of the four series invited contributors to reflect on this theme. The result is a thought-provoking mix of papers on the multiple bilingual book series, the experience of using these editions, and on (differing) editorial and translation practices, not only in a variety of regions and time periods, but also within different academic disciplines.

The volume opens with Glenn W. Most’s personal account of ‘Loebing’, in which he reflects on the shift the Loeb series has made in improving its scholarly reputation since he was a student in the seventies, and on his own role in it. As one of the most prolific contributors to the Loeb series by revising and expanding the Hesiod volume, originally published in 1915, and co-editing the monumental nine-volume Early Greek Philosophy, he contemplates how it would have been unimaginable for him as a student that he would contribute to such ‘fun’ projects one day.

The most revealing part of the volume are the four contributions by the general editors of each of the Harvard bilingual series. Jeffrey Henderson (Loeb Classical Library), James Hankins (the I Tatti Renaissance Library), Jan M. Ziolkowski (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library), and Sheldon Pollock (Murty Classical Library of India) reflect on the creation, mission and development of ‘their’ Library and the challenges they face in managing it.[3] By comparing their own practices with those of the editors of the other projects, they provide a fascinating insight into the differences between the four series which appear to be so alike at first sight.

Henderson kicks off by describing the distinctive nature of the Loeb Classical Library, and how the series’ scope and editorial practices have changed over the years. He recounts how the series underwent a large process of renewal in the last decades, and how adjustments to James Loeb’s original plan, such as the advent of the online Library, are arguably still in line with his original vision.  Hankins’ account of the creation and development of the I Tatti Renaissance Library starts off positively, revealing that the initial sales were surprisingly good, but he ends on an ominous note: the continuance of the series is by no means assured, owing to expiring financial resources. The addition of an appendix with a list of published, commissioned, and planned titles makes the project strikingly finite. Ziolkowski’s report, on the contrary, shows how the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, strongly grounded in the finances of the eponymous research institute in Washington, D.C., has in ten years grown to cover the fields of Byzantine Greek, Medieval Latin, and Old English, and is even considering the enlargement of its linguistic scope. Pollock’s essay, tellingly titled ‘What Should a Library of India be?’, describes how the Murty Classical Library of India has constantly been challenged to define and defend the terms in its title, since the labels Classical, Library, and India are open to contestation.

A recurrent theme throughout these contributions is that the academic reputation of a prospective contributor does not always qualify him/her as a translator. Moreover, the challenges which the three editors of the ‘recent’ bilingual series faced or still face in creating and sustaining their large-scale projects, such as deciding on the size of the volumes, finding the right people to edit and/or translate titles on the wish list, and maintaining funding, only illustrate the questions and difficulties the original creators of the Loeb Classical Library must have encountered when they planned the book series at the start of the twentieth century. If there is one thing to be learned, it is that the existence and endurance of these publications should not be taken for granted, but depend on multiple factors, such as the availability of funding and a continuous effort by the people involved to keep the projects going.[4]

The twelve remaining contributions that follow showcase the wide range of the areas which the bilingual Libraries cover and offer ample opportunity to reflect on past and present translation practices. Charles Hallisey’s contribution elaborates on the vision of the Murty Classical Library of India, observing what the first five volumes in the Library represent not only individually but also collectively. Starting with the editorial statement by the series’ patron, Rohan Narayana Murty, Hallisey provides an overview of translation practices in Buddhist Asia, and reflects on the definition of ‘Indian’ for the series in terms of languages, religion, culture, and chronology.

Several contributors discuss the challenges they experienced in their own projects. Alexander Fidora relates the difficulties of editing the thirteenth-century Extractiones de Talmud, which is itself a Latin translation of a selection of the Babylonian Talmud. Stuart Gillespie describes how his own interest in translation of Greek and Latin poetry gradually shifted from printed works to unpublished translations, resulting in the publication of over 300 ‘newly recovered English classical translations’ dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Emily Wilson reflects on the process of creating her verse translation of the Odyssey, while drawing attention to the many responsibilities that a translator faces, and to the perception that a translation can never be neutral. Christopher Shackle, too, provides insight into the many difficulties he encountered while editing and translating the Sufi poetry of Bullhe Shah and Shah Adbul Latif for the Murty Classical Library of India.

Other contributors focus on the potential of translations. Both Christopher S. Celenza and Niels Gaul, for example, discuss the power dynamics involved in the process of translation. Celenza examines how Lorenzo Valla’s Annotations on the New Testament, in which he questioned Saint Jerome’s authoritative Latin version of the Bible by checking the Latin against the original Greek, planted the seeds for the reformation. Gaul, on the other hand, discloses how Byzantine rhetors were not only teaching classical texts by commenting on ancient texts in the margins, but were also negotiating their own scholarly authority in multiple ways. James Hankins illustrates how novel translations from the Greek into Latin in fifteenth-century Italy enabled and validated new contemporary constitutional theories. Elizabeth M. Tyler shows that in eleventh-century Britain the translation of Latin texts into vernacular Old English does not necessarily imply that the texts were intended to become widely available; rather, she argues that the Old English Boethius, Orosius, Letter of Alexander, and Apollonius were part of a shared European elite literary culture, and functioned on the same level as contemporary continental Latin literature. Indira Viswanathan Peterson traces the reception and translation history of Aesop’s Fables and of the Pañcatranta / Hitopadeśa, and demonstrates how these texts became mirror- and shadow-texts in new ways in colonial India.

Finally, both Julia Haig Gaisser and Jennifer Ingleheart focus on the reception of Catullus in translation, albeit in a different context. Whereas Gaisser shows the liberties a translator can take by comparing Catullus’ poems to seventeenth-century French and eighteenth-century English reworkings of his poetry, Ingleheart studies the intimate relationship between translation and the history of sexuality by re-examining Sir Richard Burton and Leonard Smithers’ late nineteenth-century translation of Catullus.

All in all, the volume illustrates how much the ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and South Asian ‘classics’ have to offer us, either in the original or in translation. Some contributions are self-contained, whereas others explicitly connect their own subject to bilingual publications. Wilson, for example, reflects on how her translation of the Odyssey might have looked different if she had translated it for the Loeb series, and both Hallisey and Shackle consider how the bilingual format of the Murty Classical Library of India influences editorial choices. Peterson, too, includes in her essay a section on Charles Hoole, who promoted language teaching through Latin-English facing page textbooks in the seventeenth century. Such excursions are appropriate to the larger theme of the possible benefit of bilingual editions.

This volume is not just a promotion of the four Harvard bilingual series; the bilingual format itself and the accessibility of a text through the vernacular are now and then challenged (Wilson, Tyler). The publication is more broadly relevant for understanding the ways in which the act of translating ‘classical’ texts has functioned in the past and functions in the present, and it exemplifies that the study of translation transcends disciplinary borders. The illuminating chapters on the four Libraries provide a major contribution to the field of classical publications and demonstrate that bilingual editions are a promising topic within the study of translations. I can recommend the book to anyone interested in the Harvard bilingual series and their editorial practices, or more generally in the practice of translation through the ages.

Table of Contents

Notes on Contributors
Preface – Jeffrey Henderson and Richard Thomas
Loebing: A Personal Account – Glenn W. Most

I. The Harvard Bilingual Libraries
The Loeb Classical Library and the Process of Translation – Jeffrey Henderson
The I Tatti Renaissance Library: A Personal Retrospect and Prospect – James Hankins
The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library – Jan M. Ziolkowski
What Should a Classical Library of India Be? – Sheldon Pollock

II. The Sacred Translated
Transmitting Texts, Changing the World, Moving Hearts: Translation in Buddhist Asia – Charles Hallisey
The Challenges of Editing a Polemical Translation from the Thirteenth Century: The Extractiones de Talmud – Alexander Fidora
Philology Goes Everywhere: Lorenzo Valla and the New Testament – Christopher S. Celenza

III. The Challenges of Premodern Translation
Reading Classical Antiquity in Old English – Elizabeth M. Tyler
Les amours de Catulle and The Adventures of Catullus – Julia Haig Gaisser
Amateur Translators of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries – Stuart Gillespie

IV. The Challenges of Contemporary Translation
Translating the Odyssey: The Ethics of Translation – Emily Wilson
Greek Constitutional Theory in the Italian Renaissance – James Hankins
Translating Two Sufi Classics from South Asia – Christopher Shackle

V. Texts and Social Texts Across Time and Space
Classics in the Vernacular World: The Pañcatranta and Aesop in Translation in Colonial India – Indira Viswanathan Peterson
Fringe Encounters: Translations of Antiquity and Negotiations of Scholarly Authority in the Margins of Byzantine Manuscripts of Ioannes Tzetzes and Manuel Moschopoulos – Niels Gaul
Translation, Identity, and the History of Sexuality: Explorations in Burton and Smithers’ Catullus – Jennifer Ingleheart


[1] The reviewer’s research has benefitted from support by the Loeb Classical Library Foundation, and she attended the conference.

[2] A call for translators for the bilingual Hackmey Hebrew Classical Library was circulated in 2012, but the series has not started so far.

[3] Daniel Donoghue recently succeeded Ziolkowski as general editor of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library.

[4] On this awareness, see Christopher Stray, ‘Introduction: A Neglected Genre’, in Classical Books, ed Christopher Stray (London, 2007), 1-5. (Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy in BMCR 2008.07.38.)