Credit: Harvard University Press Blog
Everything Old Is New Again
Returning Translations to Their Original Meanings
By Olivia Wells
Have you ever wondered what’s lost in translation? Now, I could mean this literally or figuratively – here, I ask it literally, in a Classical sense. Is there a straight path from Ancient Greek or Latin to English? Does the context or background of a translator matter? How much faith should we put into a particular translator’s work? In especially controversial texts, whom should we trust to tell us the real meaning? Today, we’ll travel from antiquity and Victorian times to 1973 and 2021 to explore these questions, beginning with a look at the Loeb Classical Library.
The Loeb Classical Library is a series of books that provides original Greek and Latin texts with English translation on the opposing page. When James Loeb founded the Loeb Classical Library in 1911, he intended it to be a way of making the classics more accessible to the general public. By providing the classics in English translation, he hoped to share the “wisdom of the ancients” with those who did not know Greek or Latin. From its founding until the 1970s, Loeb’s translations routinely altered or omitted passages that would be viewed as unacceptable in polite society. When George P. Goold became editor of Loeb Classical Library in 1973, this practice had come to be seen as “shabby scholarship.” A new style of Loeb translations began. Unlike the former practice of ignoring anything that could give offense (usually references to sex or homosexuality) under Goold’s influence, Loeb’s translations became modernized and debowdlerized. Goold’s quest to return the translations to the original meaning has boosted Loeb’s status in academia as well as better preserving the “spirit and meaning of the original texts.”
Let’s look at Catullus 15, pre- and post-Goold. The original Loeb translation was as follows: “Tis you I fear, you and your passions, so fatal to the young, both good and bad alike.” Goold’s new translation followed more faithfully to the original Latin text, being translated as: “Tis you I fear, you and your penis, so ready to molest good boys and bad alike.”
Goold was not the first to return to the lascivious. More accurate and faithful English translations from other publishers were available long before Goold’s transition of Loeb. The French were providing accurate translations as early as the 1920s. As a New York Times article states, “the tidy Loeb volumes were the last bastion of Anglo-American restraint, and their conversion represents how the definition of what is mainstream has changed.”
During the Victorian era, there emerged a wild obsession with all things Greek and Roman. In speeches, Members of Parliament would recite long quotes of Virgil and Homer from memory in the original language. Those who could not understand were sneered upon. These quotations were used to attack, to defend, and to adorn their speeches. Greek and Latin translations for the general public were also especially popular during this era. When we look at Victorian translations of Catullus, our favorite X-rated author, what we find is disappointingly tame. In the context of the Victorian era, allusions to taboo topics like sex or homosexuality were translated with what was comfortable in polite conversation of the time. Catullus 93 has been called a “famous and cryptic invective against Julius Caesar.” It concludes with the pointed remark: Nil nimium studeo, Caesar, tibi velle placere nec scire utrum sis albus an ater homo. Three Victorian commentaries and translations are as follows. The first is from 1893 and notes that the word ater means dark complexioned. The second, from 1894, provides the translation “Study I not o’ermuch to please thee (Caesar!) and court thee, Nor do I care e’en to know an thou be white or be black.” The third, also from 1894, is “I am not over anxious, Caesar, to please you greatly, or to know whether you are a white or a black man.” If one were to read only these translations today, one would think Catullus 93 was literally about Caesar’s skin tone.
However, more modern translations and Catullan commentary reveal the underlying nuances of the Latin. As Professor Jonathan M. Hall reminds us, what mattered in ancient contexts were social groups–not racial, linguistic, religious, cultural, or biological distinctions. Although race would have been a perfectly comfortable subject to discuss in the Victorian era, we must remember that if there was a concept of race or ethnicity in the ancient world, it would certainly be different from our definition today. Further, Professor Denise McCoskey explains that the Greeks and Romans “did not promote any fundamental racial opposition between ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness.’” Indeed, they apparently did not consider themselves “white.” Given this point, modern translations of Catullus 93 have veered away from race and have begun to discuss themes below the literal surface of the text. A 1998 translation states “I am not really keen, Caesar, to wish to pander to you, Nor to know whether you are a hero or a villain.” Instead of translating albus and ater as white and black as in skin color, the translator chooses “hero” and “villain” to stand in opposition. Another modern translation from 2018 agrees with the race statement, but alludes to underlying messages. It states “I am not concentrating, Caesar, on wishing to please you and to not know whether you are a white or a black man.”Although this seems to be literally a statement about race, the translator explains that Catullus is referencing Caesar’s sexuality. In previous instances of Catullus discussing Caesar, he dubbed him cinaedus (“queen”) and with albus and ater, Catullus uses the obscene connotations of albus to mean the penetrated male and ater to mean the penetrating male, implying that it makes no difference to Catullus whether Caesar “prefers to take the passive or the active role during homosexual intercourse.” Clearly a far cry from Victorian translations of Catullus 93. Much like Loeb Classical Library’s transition from censored to explicit, Catullus 93’s more nuanced modern translations demonstrate both a deeper understanding of ancient contexts as well as a measurement of how what is comfortable in mainstream society has changed.
While it might’ve been acceptable in Victorian times to ignore the sexual connotations of Catullus 93, Loeb and other modern translators’ more explicit work preserves the spirit and meaning of the original text. This also demonstrates how modern society is more comfortable with the broad-minded attitudes about sexual behavior in antiquity. It’s somewhat of a paradox that in using a more “modern” vocabulary to translate the classics, scholars today are illuminating facts about lifestyles in Greece and Rome and thus are returning the texts to their original meanings. In fact, the bulk of modern and postmodern work on sex, gender, and sexuality occured during the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the women’s and gay rights movements. As modern society grew to be less constrained and censored, the change was evident in research and in translation.
We can see another modern metamorphosis in translation with Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, published in 2017. Although the Odyssey is an epic and not intended to be particularly bawdy or controversial, the history of translation for this famous epic has varied greatly. A specific example of this variance is seen in a New Yorker article from 2017 in which Wilson writes about the hanging of the slave women in Book 22. She explains that previous translators have written about Telemachus’ slaughter of these women as being “quite ordinary, and entirely justified,” using words to describe them like “sluts” and “whores,” whereas the original Greek uses the feminine article hai, simply meaning “those female people.” Wilson translates hai as “these girls.” For whatever reason, throughout other translations, translators chose to add sexual connotations and ideas of disloyalty of the enslaved women to Odysseus that did not exist in the original Greek. Wilson’s distinctly modern translation of the Odyssey remains true to the text by sticking to the original meaning.
Professor Jeffrey Henderson, the current editor of the Loeb Classical Library, reminds us that when thinking about the classical world, we must understand the contexts of the time and the purpose of the writing. Aristophanes’ famously lascivious plays were meant to be performed as comedy at festivals for Dionysus. Dr. Henderson explained that “the point of the comedy was to shake people up. To expose what was normally hidden, to make fun of it, to take the important people down a peg or two and speak up for the ordinary man.” If we return to that original purpose, what good is there in dulling down the translation? Loeb Classical Library has published over 500 editions of the classics in translation. Its continued popularity, even in the 21st century, remains true to James Loeb’s intention of bringing the classics to the modern everyman, while also manifesting a return to the original spirit and meaning of the text. I certainly look forward to seeing how scholarship and translation continue to change and is shaped by our modern contexts, hopefully while still preserving the ancient purpose and meaning.
 “History of the Loeb Classical Library,” Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, accessed December 14, 2020, https://www.hup.harvard.edu/features/loeb/history.html
 “History of the Loeb Classical Library.”
 “The New Translation,” Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, accessed December 14, 2020, https://www.hup.harvard.edu/features/loeb/translations.html
 Julie Flaherty, “ARTS IN AMERICA; O Profligate Youth of Rome, Ye #*!, Ye @#! (See Footnote).” New York Times, September 28, 2000.
 Joseph S. Meisel, Public Speech and the Culture of Public Life in the Age of Gladstone (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 98.
 James H. Dee, “Black Odysseus, White Caesar: When Did ‘White People’ Become ‘White?”’ The Classical Journal 99, no. 2 (Dec. 2003-Jan. 2004): 157.
 E.T. Merrill, Commentary on Catullus, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1893).
 Sir Richard Francis Burton, C. Valerius Catullus, Carmina, London: For translator’s private use, 1894).
 Leonard C. Smithers, C. Valerius Catullus, Carmina, (London, 1894).
 Jonathan M. Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.)
 Denise McCoskey, Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 24.
 David Kimel, Carmen 93 (1998)
 Niklas Holzberg, “Catullus as Epigrammatist,” in A Companion to Ancient Epigram, edited by Christer Henriksén, (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2018) 449.
 Holzberg, “Catullus as Epigrammatist,” 449.
 Mark Masterson, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and James Robson, “Sex in Antiquity,” Routledge Handbooks Online, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014) 2.
 Emily Wilson, “A Translator’s Reckoning With the Women of the Odyssey” The New Yorker, December 8, 2017.
 Flaherty, “ARTS IN AMERICA.”
- Burton, Sir Richard Francis. C. Valerius Catullus, Carmina. London: For translator for private use, 1894. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0005%3Apoem%3D93
- Dee, James H. “Black Odysseus, White Caesar: When Did ‘White People’ Become ‘White?”’ The Classical Journal 99, no. 2 (Dec. 2003-Jan. 2004) 157-167.
- Flaherty, Julie, “ARTS IN AMERICA; O Profligate Youth of Rome, Ye #*!, Ye @#! (See Footnote).” New York Times, September 28, 2000. https://www.nytimes.com/2000/09/28/books/arts-in-america-o-profligate-youth-of-rome-ye-ye-see-footnote.html
- Hall, Jonathan M. Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- “History of the Loeb Classical Library,” Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, accessed December 14, 2020, https://www.hup.harvard.edu/features/loeb/history.html
- Holzberg, Niklas. “Catullus as Epigrammatist.” In A Companion to Ancient Epigram, edited by Christer Henriksén, 441-457. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2018.
- Kimel, David. Carmen 93, 1998. http://rudy.negenborn.net/catullus/text2/e93.htm
- Masterson, Mark, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and James Robson, “Sex in Antiquity,” Routledge Handbooks Online (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014).
- McCoskey, Denise. Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Meisel, Joseph S. Public Speech and the Culture of Public Life in the Age of Gladstone. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
- Merrill, E.T. Commentary on Catullus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1893. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0004%3Atext%3Dcomm%3Apoem%3D93
- Smithers, Leonard C. C. Valerius Catullus, Carmina. London, 1894. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0006%3Apoem%3D93
- “The New Translation,” Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, accessed December 14, 2020, https://www.hup.harvard.edu/features/loeb/translations.html
- Wilson, Emily, “A Translator’s Reckoning With the Women of the Odyssey.” The New Yorker, December 8, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-translators-reckoning-with-the-women-of-the-odyssey
Olivia Wells (College ’22) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies (Mediterranean Archaeology) and and minoring in History and French.