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Translating the Untranslatable

Liz Sawyer

The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians
Edited by Jeremy Mynott
Cambridge, 2013
690 pages
ISBN 978-05216152586


If you visit the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Green Park, you will find, among the quotations by Churchill engraved on it, one attributed to Pericles: “Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.” The sentiment rings out proudly with the ideals of self-sacrifice, bravery, and staunch defence of democracy that the memorial was intended to praise, and its rhetorical power to inspire and console is undeniable.

Yet it corresponds to a mere five words in a much longer sentence from the Athenian general Pericles’s Funeral Oration for the Athenian war dead in 430BC, as reproduced by Thucydides, historian of the war between Athens and Sparta in which both he and Pericles took part. Jeremy Mynott translates the entire sentence: “These are the men you must now emulate: see that happiness depends on freedom and freedom on courage, and do not stand aside from the dangers of war.” (Thucydides, Book 2.43.4) Thucydides’s succinct τὸ δ’ ἐλεύθερον τὸ εὔψυχον κρίναντες (literally, “having judged freedom courage”) has been expanded in the commemorative version into a rhetorical flourish that has been carved into soldiers’ memorials the world over since the end of the First World War, and today is emblazoned across their societies’ websites and email signatures. But even though it is so different from the Greek, is it not a valid enterprise, given that the sentiment originates from a speech designed to be especially rhetorically powerful, to aim to produce a translation in equally rhetorically effective English?

Mynott might disagree, since his aim is to re-introduce Thucydides to the reader in his “proper cultural and historical context”, and to strip back the “anachronistic concepts derived from later developments and theories”. Hence the name of the book: The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, not, as it is usually called today, The Peloponnesian War. But what is in a name? In this case, a great deal, since it contains Mynott’s mission statement in miniature. He has dropped the conventional name for the work, for which he correctly says there is no evidence from antiquity, in favour of a less one-sided title derived from Thucydides’s opening sentence. This is just one example of the accretions which Mynott’s edition aims to remove, so that the reader can come closer to being able to appreciate Thucydides’s work as it might have been received in classical Greece.

This decision confronts every translator: should the translated work be assimilated entirely into its new context, made familiar, relevant, and accessible. Or should it “foreignise”: emphasise the differences, the otherness of the original language and culture? This choice is compounded by additional difficulties when the work under scrutiny was composed far off in the distant past. It can be dangerous in these circumstances even to consider “the original work” as one entity at all, given that the literature of the classical era reaches us via copies of copies of copies, incorporating the interpretations, amendments, errors, and omissions of hundreds of scribes and scholars over the centuries. By the time it reaches us, whose work is it anyway?

Even in addition to these problems of transmission, and the fact that his history is unfinished and partially revised, Thucydides has achieved notoriety as a particularly difficult author to translate. His style has lead one critic to comment:

The number of people who can understand the whole of Thucydides can easily be counted, and there are parts of it not even these can manage without a grammatical commentary.

This sounds like a reasonable assumption to make in the early 21st century, when an ever dwindling proportion of the British population experience the pleasure (and punishment) of learning Latin and ancient Greek. But this despairing comment was made by the Greek historian and teacher of rhetoric Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing in the 1st century BC, less than 400 years after Thucydides’s death. What chance do moderns, therefore, have of interpreting Thucydides’s complex and idiosyncratic writings with any degree of accuracy, whatever “accuracy” might mean in this context? Yet this has not deterred scholars from attempting to find new ways to translate Thucydides into English; in fact, it only seems to have encouraged them. Since Thomas Hobbes’s exquisite 1629 translation, there have been 11 translations published of the entirety of Thucydides’s history, not counting numerous revisions of translations and innumerable translations of such sections as the Funeral Oration or the Melian Dialogue.

In 1998, no less than three new full-length editions of Thucydides were published, of which two were brand new translations, by Steven Lattimore (the son of Richmond Lattimore, famous for his exceptional translations of Homer) and by Walter Blanco, an English professor at City University of New York. Blanco’s version replaced Thucydides’s compact and tortured style with a “colloquial” and “relaxed” vocabulary, but balanced this act of domestication with the inclusion of scholarly essays by later critics. At the other end of the spectrum, Lattimore aimed to present Thucydides “as an artist” and produced a more literal translation in the name of fidelity to the Greek, retaining the complexity of the original. Hence the sentence rendered by Blanco as “These men had human frailties, but it is only right that we emphasize their courage against the enemy in the defense of their fatherland. Their valor for the common good erased any harm done by their private faults”, was more accurately translated by Lattimore as “Even for those who were worse in other ways it is right that first place be given to valor against enemies on behalf of country; by effacing evil with good, they became public benefactors rather than individual malefactors.” (Th.2.42.2) The third edition of 1998 was a reprint of Richard Crawley’s 1866 text, edited by a retired businessman with a love for Greek history, Bob Strassler. It has extensive supporting materials including running headers on every page to orientate the reader graphically and temporally, maps every few pages to indicate the places pertinent to that section, notes, appendices, and a glossary. Out of the three versions, Strassler’s is undisputedly the most successful and popular, and has resulted in new versions of Herodotus, Xenophon, and Appian in exactly the same format. In the light of this, should we conclude that the subtleties of a particular translation are not in fact as important for the reader’s understanding of the text as simple background information, such as the location and year under discussion?

Mynott’s translation strikes an interesting balance between Lattimore’s and Blanco’s versions and approaches the problem solved by Strassler in a new way, by bringing the difficulties of context and translation into the foreground on every page of his book. He warns the reader about the inadequacy of contemporary English to convey ancient Greek concepts such as polis, demos, arete or logos and adds that “nor, in reverse, are there ancient Greek words that mean exactly what we mean by “conscience”, “religion”, “landscape”, “text”, and “human rights”.” This might lead the reader to expect a text littered with unhelpful transliterations, but in fact his prose is lucid and comprehensible. The transliterations are contained in plentiful footnotes, where he points out ambiguous and disputed passages, wordplay, thematic contrasts such as that between logos and ergon, and often specifies an important Greek word in the sentence and gives alternative English translations to the one he has chosen in that instance. The transliterated words are then explained in a detailed glossary which refers to the different translations given throughout the text. The result is a translation that is highly accessible but which also allows the Greekless reader some insight into the range of meanings of the Greek word used: for instance, a glance in the glossary reveals Mynott’s 18 different translations for logos.

Two final observations indicate the strengths and weaknesses of Mynott’s approach. Rather than including short essays on Greek history or Athenian democratic practices or Spartan institutions (as for instance Strassler’s edition does), Mynott includes by way of appendix a selection of well and lesser-known classical authors’ opinions about Thucydides. Laying aside the question of the translations selected for these authors, this method helps to situate Thucydides in the classical world and avoid Mynott’s bugbear of “over-translation”. On the other hand, Mynott departs from the traditional practice of arranging the history into eight books in favour of the method used by Thucydides himself, of dividing the war into summers and winters. This decision seems a somewhat less successful attempt to “return” to Thucydides’s own arrangement and has resulted in an unsatisfactory fusion of Thucydides’s own chronology with the Gregorian calendar. Running titles announcing the helpful “Winter 434-23” are followed by the ambiguous “Summer 423-22”. Thucydides’s own chronology is more accurately indicated by Strassler’s running titles which separate the Gregorian from the Thucydidean (“Book Four. 424/3. 8th Year/Winter.” and “Book Four. 423. 9th Year/Summer.”). In any case, Mynott has had to retain on every page the conventional book and chapter divisions, for ease of reference to other Greek and English editions.

This very minor point aside, however, Mynott’s work is an extremely useful edition for its re-situation of Thucydides in his own context, especially for the large numbers of readers of Thucydides in disciplines outside the classics. It is no small achievement to convey in modern English the literary qualities of this most political of ancient historians.

Liz Sawyer [1] is reading for a DPhil in Classics at Trinity College, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.