B. E. Lewis (tr.), Latin Literature for Contemporary Readers: An Anthology of Latin Prose and Verse Translated into English with an Introduction and Notes. Port Elizabeth: University of Port Elizabeth Press, 1992. Pp. xv + 159. ISBN 0-86988- 493-X. R22.50.
University of Natal, Durban
There cannot be many teachers of the Classics in translation who have not at some time wrestled with the problem of which texts to prescribe for their courses. In effect there are two solutions to the problem: the prescription (or loan) of long lists of translations or the prescription of a single anthology. The first alternative is transparently ineffective. Very few students are now able to afford to buy all the prescribed works that are needed, while the loan-and-photocopy system is fraught with frustration and borders on, if it does not actually transgress, the limits laid down by copyright legislation. In addition, few of these texts are suitable for rigorous analysis, since many do not contain the references used in the definitive editions and what little commentary is provided is generally rudimentary. The argument that prescription of a list of translations has the merit of inviting students to read beyond the minimum requirements, since individual editions typically include more material than can be effectively taught, is no more than special pleading. Consequently, the prescription of an anthology of readings has become the only feasible answer to the problem. It is greatly to the credit of Dr. Lewis to have recognised this and to have done something about it. Nevertheless there are difficulties. These can be reduced to two: what readings to select and how to translate them.
L. has chosen approximately one hundred short readings from the whole of Latin literature (from Livius Andronicus to Boethius). The range and extent of the passages selected from the works of the various authors is therefore extremely restricted, despite L’s claim to the contrary (p. xi). For example, L. prints only ninety-one lines of Plautus, eight paragraphs of Cicero (from On Friendship, On Duties and the Philippics), part of the preface to Livy’s history together with one short passage on how the geese saved Rome and so on. This is due to the fact that the anthology originated as a textbook for use in L.’s own classes (p. xi). However, as a result, the anthology does not provide enough variety to allow it to be used in courses that differ in structure and content from that of the University of Port Elizabeth. Of course, L. does include many passages of great interest in her collection but what is ideally required is a comprehensive selection of fairly lengthy readings along the lines of the Norton Anthology of English Poetry. Such an anthology would provide sufficient extensive readings to be used in a number of heterogeneous Classical Civilization courses. Alternatively, if the aim of presenting a comprehensive survey of Latin literature were abandoned (as it is L. has only given Cato, Varro, Seneca the Elder, Pliny the Elder, and Persius an honourable mention), it would be possible to explore the work of the major writers in greater depth.
A second reason for the relatively jejune readings provided in this book is that L. has translated all the passages herself on the grounds that existing translations are inadequate (pp. xii-xiii). Admittedly, dated and inaccurate translations abound but there are also many good translations available in print, some of them considerable literary achievements in their own right. Surely the first step in producing an anthology would have been to seek permission to reprint already existing translations that do meet the required standard? In general, L.’s translations are thorough and precise but all of them are rendered in prose. Inevitably this lays L. open to her own strictures on translations which do not resemble the original poetry (p. xii). Thus Horace, Odes 1.9.21-24 (nunc et latentis proditor intumo / gratus puellae risus ab angulo / pignusque dereptum lacertis / aut digito male pertinaci) is turned into `now too for the sweet laughter from a cosy corner which betrays the girl concealed, and the keepsake snatched from the arm or finger which feebly resists’. This is a difficult passage to translate, since in Latin Horace is able to exploit the tension between the semantics of the word order and the syntax of grammatical agreement to give a sense of the ambiguity of the girl’s attitude. The English prose translation is inevitably a flattened, two-dimensional representation of the verbal hologram Horace has created.
One of the most attractive features of L.’s work is undoubtedly the assistance which is provided in the text for students who do not share a knowledge of Classical Western mythology and history that is frequently assumed by those who teach them. For such students L. has included numerous brief notes and comments (twenty-four on Vergil’s fourth Eclogue — almost equal to the length of the text of the passage). L. also includes a useful, though sketchy, introduction to her anthology together with a table of important writers showing the genres in which they wrote and their approximate dates. Both the notes and the introduction should be expanded.
In conclusion, there is merit in this carefully produced and painstaking work. It will be necessary, however, to augment the number and length of the selected readings considerably, particularly in the case of the more important authors, if this textbook is to become more widely used.