Monday, October 04, 2010

Peguins on Parade! Herodotus and Suetonius!

Some Penguin Classics become classics in their own right – a remarkable thing to happen to what is, at heart, a workmanlike series of trots. Ordinarily, in such a series, the works stay the same but the translations come and go – they get supplanted regularly as scholarship advances and copyrights expire. Those of us who live and breathe the classics of ancient Greece and Rome have not only made peace with this endless procession but come to relish it – watching to see what new versions of our old friends each publishing season will bring. And each time a new and truly superb translation comes along, we wonder the same thing: not 'can this ever be topped' since there is no single pinnacle, but rather, 'will we see another translation of this work this good in this generation?'

Those who thought the Rawlinson Herodotus unsurpassable, for instance, learned their folly in 1954 when Aubrey de Selincourt produced his epochal translation, which had less of the rhetorical power of Rawlinson but a good deal more of the stylistic fun of Herodotus himself. The de Selincourt Herodotus became the Penguin Herodotus, and it stayed that way for decades, delighting amateurs and instructing countless students in the ways of the first and most enjoyable of historians. In its wit and sparkle, it too seemed unsurpassable – and Penguin Classics wisely decided not to try to surpass it.

But even the most beautiful mansions need the occasional facelift, and in 1996 Penguin enlisted John Marincola to provide just that for the de Selincourt translation. Marincola added or updated many of the appurtenances modern editors are expected to provide – a glossary, a bibliography, a new introduction conversant in the latest scholarship, etc. - and he had the courage to put a toe on the stage with de Selincourt himself: “Although I have made several hundred minor revisions to Aubrey de Selincourt's translation,” he tells us, “I have attempted to retain its distinctive character and readability.” Any reader dismayed by the sound of those 'several hundred minor revisions' might not like what follows any better:
Where I felt the translation had the wrong tone, I have made minor alterations. This, naturally, is more subjective, but I hope the effect will be to underline the seriousness of Herodotus' purpose without taking anything away from the delightfulness of his narrative.

But the proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes, and no reader familiar with de Selincourt's version (or over-familiar, as some of us perhaps are) will find its spirit violated anywhere here. Not only does the earlier translator's perfect expression of the historian's earnest attempts at accountability (a new idea, pioneered by Herodotus) remain:
Up to this point I have confined what I have written to the results of my own direct observations and research, and the views I have formed from them; but from now on the basis of my story will be the accounts given to me by the Egyptians themselves – though here, too, I shall put in one or two things which I have seen with my own eyes.

… but so do all the characteristic Herodotean moments in which our historian can't help himself and simply must express his personal curiosity over some detail in the narratives he's found in his research or been told by witnesses, as in this little detail on the march of Xerxes mighty army:
It was during this march that his pack-camels were attacked by lions, which came down from their haunts at night and never attacked either the men or any of the other animals, but only the camels. I marvel at what it could have been that made the lions ignore every other living creature and set only upon the camels – beasts which they had never seen, or had any experience of, before.

Around the same time de Selincourt was providing the reading world with his landmark translation of Herodotus – in the year 1957 – Robert Graves was doing likewise with the Roman biographer Suetonius, in a fluid and loquacious version that again would leave readers wondering what could ever rival it (indeed, in terms of sales figures, Graves himself provided the only rival on the playing field, with his own heavily Suetonian I,Claudius and Claudius the God). Graves grappled with the notorious difficulties of Suetonius and produced a version for the ages.

So why, then, asks acerbic classicist Michael Grant decades later in 1979, was he asked to edit it? Where another expert might have made the usual pro forma humble remarks (perhaps using the tried-and-true metaphor of a mansion needing a facelift), Grant decided to explain himself in terms arch enough to win the approval of Livia herself:
Because Robert Graves (who explicitly refrained from catering for students) did not aim at producing a precise translation – introducing, as he himself points out, sentences of explanation, omitting passages which did not seem to help the sense, and 'turning sentences, and sometimes, even groups of sentences, inside-out'. But I feel that Mr Graves has been much too modest in this willingness to exclude from his readership those who want greater verbal exactitude …

(Grant does himself no great credit when, elsewhere in his introduction, he praises Suetonius for his dispassionate objectivity – even Graves, the novelist/interpolator, wasn't willing to go quite that far)

This explanation scores borderline-nasty points, but it does so at the expense of accuracy – Suetonius is a small, localized nightmare to translate; cracking apart his flaccid prose and making it sensible in English often requires just the kind of wholesale re-alignment Graves took it upon himself to do. In cases like this, the results must speak for themselves with slightly louder a voice than, say, the translation into English of a novel written last month in crystal-clear French.

Luckily, Graves and Grant make a good team – good enough, in any case, so the welding job doesn't show at all. Suetonius will often come up with sentences that snake here and there in apparent chaos only to deliver a sting at the end, and in all cases, the Graves/Grant combination works to preserve the particular little jolt of pleasure that comes when reading such monstrosities, as in this little gem about Mutina, scene of one of Octavian's victories:
When Augustus heard that Mark Antony had been taken under Lepidus' protection and that the other military commanders, supported by their troops, were coming to terms with these two, he at once deserted the senatorial party. His excuse was that some of them had contemptuously called him 'the boy', while others had not concealed their view that, once publicly honored, he should be got rid of – to avoid having to pay his veterans and himself what they expected. Augustus showed regret for his former allegiance by imposing a heavier fine on the people of Nursia than they could possibly meet, and then exiling them from their city; they had offended him by erecting a monument to fellow citizens killed at Mutina, with the inscription: 'Fallen in the cause of freedom!'

In both these cases, Penguin Classics chose the exact right route to take with these monuments to the art of translation (a route not often taken in an age in which 'new' has increasingly been characterized as a synonym for 'better'): preserve them, but tastefully update them for new generations of readers. Those of us who've loved these versions for years can't help but be grateful, even as we scan the horizon for the next great successors. Which will, in their turn, be Penguin Classics.

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