Alexandra Lianeri & Vanda Zajko (Edd.), Translation and the Classic. Identity as Change in the History of Culture

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Alexandra Lianeri & Vanda Zajko (edd.), Translation and the Classic. Identity as Change in the History of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008. Pp. xii + 435. 70.00[pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-0-19-928807-6.

At the heart of this volume, Translation and the Classic, lies a paradox. The word 'classic' suggests permanence, persistence through time, universality, enduring value. Yet 'translation' conjures up notions of adapting, transforming and reinterpreting a text to meet the demands of a specific target language and of readers situated in a particular place at a particular time. By virtue of its classic status a text would seem to resist translation. And yet it is precisely the classics that are most widely and most often translated--indeed, 'translatability' would seem to be almost a defining characteristic of the classic. How translators, each in their own way grapple with the paradox just outlined, forms the subject of this stimulating and thought-provoking book.

Most of the eighteen contributions deal with the poetic classics of ancient Greece and Rome as translated into major European languages, especially English. But there is discussion also of wider theoretical issues by, among others, the doyen of translation studies, Lawrence Venuti, as well as treatment of such topics as Godard's film, Le Mepris (Contempt), Graeco-Arabic translation, and J.M. Coetzee's revision of T.S. Eliot's notion of the classic. In the final chapter of the volume, Coetzee himself discusses several passages from his novels that have created difficulties for translators. He concludes (rightly in my view, but perhaps discouragingly for some of the contributors), 'I doubt very much that there is or can be such a thing as a theory of translation ... Translation seems to me a craft in a way that cabinetmaking is a craft' (p. 419).

There is not the space here to review in detail each chapter of the book. I shall focus instead on those contributions which, in my judgement, are most likely to be of interest to fellow classicists. In an outstanding piece, 'Dryden's Ovid: aesthetic translation and the idea of the Classic' (83-109), Charles Martindale argues that the translation of a classic is an independent work which has the potential itself to become a classic. Using a framework of judgement derived from Kant and Walter Pater, Martindale--though no reactionary--is refreshingly willing to talk of such things as 'taste' and 'beauty' in literary matters: '[T]here can be no rules for making beautiful translations, only retrospective judgements as to whether beauty has been achieved in any particular instance' (p. 89).

Two chapters, by J. Michael Walton and Edith Hall respectively, provide historical surveys of the translation of the classics into English. Concentrating on versions of Greek and Latin drama, Walton draws attention to the particular demands that dramatic (as opposed to other kinds of classic) texts make on the translator. Hall, in an important contribution, emphasizes the central role that translation has always played in making the classics widely available, especially to groups marginalized in the past, such as working-class readers and women. She argues that the availability of translations strongly influences the content of university syllabuses; and she makes the valid point that 'in the third millennium many people's first contact with ancient texts is via much older translations, which are out of copyright and therefore can be made available freely online' (p. 315).

Several contributors focus on specific texts or genres. Richard H. Armstrong argues that the translation of epic poetry--earlier from Greek into Latin, later from Greek into English--involves more than just a source and a target text. Rather, translations and the evolving epic tradition within a culture cross-fertilize each other. Thus in Latin the translations of Homer by Livius Andronicus and Naevius interact in complex ways with the epic of Ennius, while the Latin epic tradition in turn feeds into classic English translations of Homeric epic. …