Mary Beard and translational ethics

Scholars commonly translate Greek and Latin texts in a way that favours their own interpretation of the author—and criticize corresponding maneuvers by rival interpreters. These tendentious translations are not incorrect, but they do evade equally possible alternative versions. This practise can foster fruitful discussion among scholars who know the original languages. Essays addressed to a wider public should perhaps elicit greater responsibility. For example, if tendentious translations are proposed, one should also disclose the linguistic issues involved. Today, with the growing importance of popularizing Classics, there should be some concern for what I would propose to call standards of translational ethics’.

What better source of examples could we desire than a work by the leading British popularizer Mary Beard? Her book Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations (Liveright 2013) is itself a brilliant innovation. Each chapter is based on reviews of one or more books on a particular topic, with background information for general readers and further discussion of Beard’s assessment of the topic as well as of the book(s). The result is engaging reading for classicists and general readers alike. (The only caveat that I shall add is that even this “first American edition” is rather anglocentric. German scholars draw Beard’s attention especially as they relate to English academe. Americans receive a nod when they have committed errors. And Canadians do not seem to exist.)

Beard’s criticism of others’ translations is proficient and sometimes amusing. Her chapter on Thucydides deconstructs famous bons mots of political philosophy ascribed to him, arguing that they actually arose from creative translations and that Thucydides’ intended point was more mundane. Creative translation is necessary for poetry or texts like Asterix, which, as Beard argues, became popular outside of France only thanks to translators’ revisions. But historical writing is another matter. Beard does explain some of the underlying ambiguities of the Greek. Yet I had an uneasy feeling about this procedure: Specialists comparing different translations can verify and evaluate the argument by referring to the Greek. General readers are totally dependent on Beard as their guide. The only benefit for them as independent thinkers is a hint of the difficulties of translation and the rewards of learning Greek.

Overall, Beard’s guidance is reliable; but she too can be surprisingly tendentious. Beard believes that Tacitus wrote his Annals with an implicit message which has been missed, although it is suggested by the very first sentence—viz., Rome was actually prone to monarchy throughout her history. That first sentence reads: Urbem Romam a principio reges habuere. Beard translates: The city of Rome has been the possession of kings from the beginning (p. 115).” There are three tendentious maneuvers here. One exploits the ambiguity of a principio, which can mean ‘in the beginning’ or ‘from the beginning’. Beard admits this later in the book (p. 164); she believes that Tacitus’ ambivalence is intentional. But there are two further maneuvers which she does not disclose: (1) Latin does not differentiate the perfect tense from the aorist; ‘has been the possession’ could simply mean ‘was the possession’. And (2) the context suggests the aorist. The second sentence is libertatem et consulatum L. Brutus instituit. ‘Freedom and the consulship were introduced by L. Brutus.’ Libertas may relate only to the senatorial class, but however we take it, it is opposed to ‘kings’, especially in its emphatic position at the beginning of the clause. And the one-year tenure of dual consular governors functioned precisely to exclude absolutism. However one evaluates Beard’s overall interpretation of the Annals, the point of the opening sentence is more mundane.

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