BMCR 2023.05.25

Tales of Dionysus: the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis

, , Tales of Dionysus: the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2022. Pp. xvi, 792. ISBN 9780472133116.



Nonnus of Panopolis (5th c. AD, whereabouts in the century depending on who you talk to) got lucky in the 1970s. Francis Vian started editing, translating, and commenting on his Dionysiaca in the Belles Lettres series of the Collection des Universités de France. When he died in 2008 he left behind a full edition in 19 books, some by himself and some others produced under his supervision. He could also read an Italian bilingual edition furnished with introductions and commentaries, supervised by Daria Gigli Piccardi for the Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli (4 volumes, 2003-4). What was missing was a new English translation, based on Vian’s sound text, to supersede the Loeb translation by W. H. D. Rouse (3 volumes, published in 1940), something scholars could cite and new readers be attracted to. This is not an easy task: the Dionysiaca is made of 48 books, written in a convoluted and constantly changing style, supercharged with long compound adjectives, most of which have no obvious equivalent in modern languages.

Tales of Dionysus is therefore a welcome addition to our libraries, and an original one. William Levitan and Stanley Lombardo recruited 38 translators to complete the work initiated in the late 1960s by Douglass Parker, Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, who offered innovative courses on the Dionysiaca. He never published on Nonnus, but his translation of book 1 and part of book 2 circulated among his students, colleagues and friends. Most of the other 41 collaborators of this volume had a connection with Parker, and on recruiting them for this project the editors sought “[xiii] to offer a sense of the wide spectrum of possibilities open to the contemporary practice of classical translation”. There are academic classicists, academics from different fields, PhD students, creative writers (with or without experience in Classical topics) and journalists. Knowledge of Greek was not a requirement, and those without it relied heavily on Rouse’s translation, dictionaries, and specialist help.

No stylistic guidelines were given and no uniformity of style required, which means that in each book a different approach is taken: Frederick Ahl and Cyrus Console keep hexameters; Joseph Harrington attempts something similar (“[738] not exactly hexameter, but rather a loosey-goosey accentual meter with kinda-sorta six stresses per line, depending on how you read”); Adrienne Atkins and Rob Turner opt for free-verse translation; Gordon Braden choses ottava rima alternating masculine and feminine rhymes in the first six lines of the stanza (like Byron), which generates a comic effect; John L. Gronbeck-Tedesco and Rachel Hadas rely on forteeners; Joseph Harrington attempts trochaic tetrameters for book 32; Wiliam Levitan starts with short lines and lapses into prose; Jonathan Mayhew develops a variation of William Carlos Williams’ indented tripartite line.

Some of the translators reflect on their choices in a section “On translating Nonnus” (pp. 725-752), where they explain why they have taken the liberty of inserting elements not found in the original (Catherine Anderson “[727] ones I thought were implied by the text… offset in italics, implying a quiet, embedded speaker”; Gordon Braden “[730] to impart what seems to me a relevant spin to the action”; Melina McClure “[748] where I have decided that a modern reader would benefit from further context, but, perhaps more often… upon my own poetic kick”; Judith Roitman “[749] In places I throw in bracketed remarks, to inform the reader about things Nonnus assumed his readers would know, or because I can’t resist making (at times snarky) editorial comments”), or tweaking the tone (Adrienne Atkins “[729] I often manipulated the tone of speeches to convey the personalities I saw represented”; Maryrose Larkin “[742] Nonnus wrote a glorification of battle, and I translated a critique of the same”; Rob Turner “[752] to amplify the muted echoes and dissonances that run through the original”), supplementing Nonnus’ literary allusions with more recent quotations (Gordon Braden “[730] readers who think they detect the presence of Leonard Cohen, Frank Sinatra… and Walter Cronkite… will not be mistaken”) or omissions (Denise Low and Eileen R. Tabios for book 28, p. 744-6).

With such a variety of approaches it is difficult to give a fair overview of this project. In some cases (e.g. books 28, 35) it would probably be more accurate to talk of a creative response or reaction to a particular book of the Dionysiaca than of a translation. This is only a problem if you expect a literal translation of the Greek text, not missing a single compound adjective. Long epithets in fact are the first casualty in any attempt to sound closer to contemporary aesthetic paradigms. Instead, this book calls for the reader to enjoy different creative takes on an ancient text for their own sake. The rest of this review will therefore gloss over a number of felicitous renderings, at least to the eyes of this humble reader, who is of course aware that agreement on tastes is rarely reached and probably unnecessary.

If you are after original translation techniques, in his translation of books 1 and 2 Douglass Parker experimented with letter sizes, split lines, variation of fonts and capital letters; William Levitan’s part of book 2 has short phrases and no punctuation, except for the ‘technical-sounding’ prose on the action of the thunderbolt (p. 83); Joseph Harrington’s book 3 ‘exhumes’ passages of a fictional 18th c. English poet, Scilly Cobber (biography developed in a footnote); book 4, by Judith Roitman, does catalogues as bullet-points (pp. 114-116); book 14 (by Michael B. Lippman) shows how translating Aristophanes can hone your skills – the catalogue of Satyrs in lines 107-112 is memorable; you can find a catalogue in two columns in book 15 (John L. Bronbeck- Tedesco), p. 267; the neat and limpid lines of  book 28, by Denise Low and Eileen R. Tabios, are commendable; split lines for Dionysus driven mad in book 32, pp. 483-6 (John Harrington); Denise Low marks the chaos of the constellations typographically (book 36, pp. 570-1).

Accomplished passages for their beauty and / or successful use of a different register:

[1] 3.92b-94, p. 93 (Joseph Harrington), a talking crow to Cadmus
… Hot Eros beckons, bro,
so why are you dragging your heels? Some Adonis you are!
You wouldn’t know what to do with the babes of Byblos.

[2] 7.76-8, p. 162 (Christian Teresi)
Nectar is for Gods, but I will give mankind a defense for grief
Whose taste flows sweetly, but it is more suitable
For drinking and speaking and existing on earth.

[3] 8.286-9, p. 180 (Frederick Ahl)
Semele’s heart, shackled now by her sense by new and personal grievance,
Lusted for lightning now, kept begging her bedmate for blazing
Cherubs to serve her as bridesmaids. Her tone was direct and acerbic.
Hera’s bed was the model she wanted; with pillows of fire.

[4] 13.8-13, p. 235 (Mike Lala):
Iris rowed with winds’ wings, entering
the echoes of lions’ den noiselessly,
pressing pantone finger to magenta lips
pliantly, spine curving slave-like
from an l to r, or even c, as Rhea
stuck her foot out, waiting to be kissed.

[5] 15.13-14, p. 265  (John L. Gronbeck-Tedesco), on the drunken Indians
Krunked, libated, pished, schnokered, quadled, poonted, right-rack-ripped, shellacked, blast, hammered – drunk:
the whole wine-basted brood saw rock, rill and river in twos, doubling their pleasure and venom

[6] 18.73-86, p. 302: Tessa Cavagnero captures the bling of Staphylus’ palace

[7] 24.41-8, p. 381 (Gordon Braden)
“Remember Typhon (from Books One and Two)?
He challenged Zeus. But if, in his defiance,
He’d bent the knee and said that he was through,
I’m sure the big guy would’ve told his clients,
‘We can work with this’ – and he’d mean it, too.
I mean, it’s not exactly rocket science:
When someone wins, he wins. No hows or whys.
No fireworks, back to work, nobody dies.”

[8] 27.162-6, p. 429 (Melina McClure)
I will encircle the Bacchants in the swollen river,
to the height of their ankles, a splash to their knees,
to the dimples in their thighs, a slosh, a trudge,
to their nipples, panic, up their noses
and over their heads choking choking choking…

[9] 29.327-60 (pp. 454-5): Adrienne Atkins’ rendition of the mockery of Rhea’s speech to Ares.

[10] 46.243-63, p. 674 (Melinda McClure): violence in Agaue and the Bacchantes’ attack on Pentheus.

[11] 48.240-1, p. 689 (Cyrus Console)
Perseus airborne unshackled Andromeda, and for a bridal
Token offhandedly managed to execute Cetus in marble.

There are also numerous spot-on adaptations of particular turns of phrase, of which I offer a selection: 2.3 “make-believe gaucho” (Douglass Parker, for Nonnus D. 2.3 νόθος αἰπόλος); 17.7-8 pinecone / spear (Catherine Anderson, for Nonnus D. 17.4 θύρσον; 23.17 “Nereus’ hydrotherapeutic home” (Anne Carson, for Nonn. D. 23.26 δώματι κυμαίνοντι); 23.51 “Father, you drown your own demographic, why?” (Anne Carson for Nonnus D. 23.79 Καὶ σύ, πάτερ, προχοῇσι πόθεν σέο τέκνα καλύπτεις;); 27.117 “cocksure Aeacus” (Melina McClure, for Nonn. D. 27.75-6 θρασύν… Αἰακόν); 30.50 “Ninny Morrheus” (Alison R. Parker, for Nonn. D. 30.41 νήπιε Μορρεύς); 32.50 “those supercillious Indians” (John Harrington, for Nonn. D. 32.45 Ἰνδοῖσιν ὑπερφιάλοισιν); 34.227 “into the beetling city on the ridge” (Anna Mayersohn, for Nonn. D. 34.251 εἰς πόλιν ὀφυόεσσαν).



Editors’ Preface: William Levitan and Stanley Lombardo
Introduction: Gordon Braden
Summary of the Poem
The Poem

Book 1: Douglass Parker
Book 2: Douglass Parker
Book 2 (continued): William Levitan
Book 3: Joseph Harrington
Book 4: Judith Roitman
Book 5: Rob Turner
Book 6: Brian Walters
Book 7: Christian Teresi
Book 8: Frederick Ahl
Book 9: Anne Shaw
Book 10: Michael Shaw
Book 11: Darwin Michener-Rutledge
Book 12: John L. Gronbeck-Tedesco
Book 13: Mike Lala
Book 14: Michael B. Lippman
Book 15: John L. Gronbeck-Tedesco
Book 16: Rachel Hadas
Book 17: Catherine Anderson
Book 18: Tessa Cavagnero
Book 19: Sheila H. Murnaghan
Book 20: Andrew W. Barrett
Book 21: Zachary Puckett
Book 22: Richard Jenkyns
Book 23: Anne Carson
Book 24: Gordon Braden
Book 25: Alex Dressler
Book 26: Darwin Michener-Rutledge
Book 27: Melina McClure
Book 28: Denise Low and Eileen R. Tabios
Book 29: Adrienne Atkins
Book 30: Alison R. Parker
Book 31: David Fredrick and Rachel Murray
Book 32: Joseph Harrington
Book 33: Adrienne Atkins
Book 34: Anna Mayersohn
Book 35: Maryrose Larkin
Book 36: Rebekah Curry
Book 37: Jonathan Mayhew
Book 38: Denise Low
Book 39: Anthony Corbeill
Book 40: Deborah H. Roberts
Book 41: Diane Arnson Svarlien
Book 42: Charles-Elizabeth Boyles
Book 43: Bethany Christiansen
Book 44: Tessa Cavagnero
Book 45: Anna Mayersohn
Book 46: Melina McClure
Book 47: Cyrus Console
Book 48: Stanley Lombardo

On Translating Nonnus
Notes on Contributors
Suggestions for Further Reading
Glossary of Personal Names