Translating Strato: The importance of Translations in the study of Ancient Sexuality and Understanding Classical Erotica (1)


In the years after Dover and Foucault, research on ancient sexuality focussed on reconstructing the conventional norms—the rules of the game, so to speak—which differed from modern rules: in the case of pederasty, the assignment of active and passive roles to man and boy respectively, the age limits, and so on. But conventional rules are normative, not descriptive; and more recent studies, especially of Roman sexuality, have sought to fill out the picture with a more subtle appreciation of the broader realities of sexual life in the ancient world.(2)

Studies of Greek pederasty have emphasized the Archaic and Classical periods to the exclusion of the later literature which actually sup-plies most of our explicitly erotic material, such as Strato’s collection of pederastic epigrams, preserved as Book 12 of the Greek Anthology.(3) Because of this limited focus, Dover’s classic study dismissed Strato in a footnote (4); and his attitude seems to have prevailed over Buffière’s sensitive appreciation of this poet as a keen observer of the “detours” of sexual mores.(5)

Strato will be an important source for expanding and deepening our understanding of the extent to which the Greeks could appreciate the ironies and limitations of their own sexuality. At the end of his anthology (AP 12.258), he offers a revealing disclaimer: Don’t think all the sentiments expressed are my own, he says; “I tailor what I write to different boy-lovers in each case.” The poems bear this out. For example, the persona of 12.227 asserts that when one looks at a boy on the street, one should look at his face, but it is gauche to turn around for the rear view after passing. But the speaker in 12.223, who is too shy to look the boy in the eye, does exactly that. Again, some poems, like 12.248, suggest a desire to stretch the conventional pederastic age limits, while others, like 12.204, reassert them.

Some of these poems toy with aspects of the pederastic paradigm which perhaps seemed as arbitrary to late ancient pederasts as they do to modern researchers. For example, what about the assumption, found repeatedly in Strato, that boys dread the appearance of body hair, as if they do not want to mature and switch roles? How does this relate to the view that boys did not enjoy being passive, but did it as a favour? Is it just patronising sarcasm, or does it suggest that “pathic” desire was more common than society liked to admit? There is much worth studying in Strato. The poems with diverging points of view may have been inspired by the rhetorical technique of the Second Sophistic; but to be effective as erotic epigrams, they must have reflected social realities as well. So they might be relevant, e.g., to claims that there was something like a homosexual subculture. When Strato finally receives as much attention as Martial has received, students of ancient sexuality will scrutinize his poems—and their translations—in connection with such issues.

The recent appearance of Daryl Hine’s fresh and imaginative translation (6) may stimulate interest in Strato’s anthology. Hine himself is a poet. But precisely those qualities which make enjoyment of the poems more accessible for the general reader may cause difficulty when his book is consulted by people studying ancient sexuality. Whereas earlier translations used to distort erotic content for reasons of censorship, Hine makes brilliant adaptations to create amusing epigrams with erotic twists and sociocultural allusions to which a modern reader can relate. But sexual historians need an accurate conveyance of the original content.

There is a problem here, to which a concept current among professional translators may be pertinent. Professionals are expected to tailor their methods for their clients. Commercial and government offices, for example, often require that the translated version of a document read as if it were originally written in that language. The reader is not to be reminded that this is a translation, even if content must be altered. A simple, real example is chocolate bars labelled “made in Canada” and “fait au Québec.” The message is that the customer is supporting her domestic economy; but even federalist Quebecers tend to regard the province as their economic homeland. This is sometimes called “cultural translation,” and it is very relevant to erotic literature. But it would not suit lawyers, for example. They may even wish to cross-examine the translator to know exactly what was changed and why.

In the case of classical erotic epigrams, there is a similar tension between the needs of readers and researchers. But today the translator’s readership comprises a complicated spectrum between these two groups. Research on ancient sexuality has been published by philosophers and art historians, by professors of English and comparative literature, as well as by classicists. Even classicists consult translations for teaching purposes. On the other hand, many general readers are more aware of linguistic pluralism and the difficulties of translation than used to be the case.

Moreover, sexuality and humour are very time-bound and culture-bound phenomena. Even within the corpus of North American erotic poetry, there is a separate tradition of less known poets like Dennis Kelly, Harold Norse in his love poems, or Perry Brass, addressing gay readers, while other gay poets, like Tom Gunn, are better known because they composed for a general readership. If this lesser cultural barrier has obstructed effective communication between poets and readers representing different segments of our own society, how much wider a gap must be bridged to express Strato’s desires and wit!

Already before Dover’s study, a very competent uncensored translation of Strato had been published by the renowned French novelist Roger Peyrefitte. (7) It is revealing to compare this with Hine’s translation, because Peyrefitte’s approach is more conservative, so that one might initially expect it to be a more reliable historical source. My objectives in the present paper are, first, by comparing Hine’s translation with Peyrefitte’s, to reveal how much information of potential interest to researchers was sacrificed to craft effective poems; and second, to stimulate thought about translation methods which might alleviate this problem. Although critical observations are implicit in my discussion, I do not attempt to provide a balanced review of Hine’s work, much less a comparative review of both translations. I take Hine’s version of Strato to represent an imaginative, relatively free translation which is widely read, and I examine it only in order to illustrate the difficulties which arise when either type of translation is used as source material for the study of ancient sexuality

Sometimes the cultural gap is so wide that the poems are hardly translatable. AP 12.225 is a series of obscure astronomical and mythological puns. I shall not discuss them in detail, but some explanations may be found in Paton’s (8) and Peyrefitte’s notes.

Paton’s translation (in the Loeb series) is relatively literal, so that we may quote it for reference:

When the sunlight is rising at dawn, never should you join the blazing

Dog with the Bull lest one day, when Demeter, Mother of Grain, has

been given a soaking, you wet Heracles’ hairy wife.

Hine writes:

At cock crow there is never any need

To do it doggy style or milk the bull,

Or to besprinkle with your liquid seed

Your Ganymede’s pubescent patch of wool.

No astronomy and little mythology need be invoked to understand this. The meaning of these images is clear enough; but what is the point? Why not at dawn? In spite of Hine’s radical alteration of the content, the meaning of the poem remains obscure.

Peyrefitte offers footnotes: The constellations of the Dog and the Bull, he tells us, are plays on κὐνα (“dog”), which also means “le frein du prépuce,” and ταὐρῳ (“bull”) which can mean the perineum. As regards Hercules, he tells us, “La massue est un des noms grecs du membre viril.” The text, unfortunately, does not refer to Hercules’ club but to his wife. Although Peyrefitte’s notes are helpful, they are seldom adequate for researchers, who in this case would benefit from checking out the notes offered by Paton and other translators as well.

More casual readers, however, will probably find this poem obscure even with the explanations provided, and just move on. Perhaps that is why Peyrefitte’s translation was not received with due enthusiasm. A compromise between different readers’ needs does not work.

Possibly the effect of this poem could be mimicked by a series of astrological puns with sexual innuendos; but it is significant that both Paton and Peyrefitte resort to translator’s notes. No matter how a translator interprets such a poem, it is not directly translatable, and some explanation is needed.

The problem in 12.225 is insufficient understanding; but Hine’s version of 12.187 involves positive misinformation. The crux here lies in translating the enigmatic punch line at the end of this difficult poem. And it exemplifies how Hine and Peyrefitte, respectively, handle word plays. Hine usually substitutes a joke that works in English, whereas Peyrefitte explains the Greek joke in a footnote. Again, we may refer to Paton’s relatively literal translation:

How, Dionysius, shall you teach a boy to read when you do not even know how to make the transition from one note to another? You have passed so quickly from the highest note to a deep one, from the slightest rise to the most voluminous. Yet I bear you no grudge; only study, and striking both notes say Lambda and Alpha to the envious.

Paton adds a footnote on lambda and alpha: Probably, he says, they have “some sort of sexual meaning. There is double meaning in all the rest of the epigram, but it is somewhat obscure and had best remain so.”

With this touching expression of the scholarly devotion to knowledge which typified his age, Paton dismisses the epigram, leaving it quite untranslated as far as cross-cultural understanding is concerned.

Maxwell-Stuart and W.M. Clarke, (9) noticing a series of possible musical puns, (10) infer that the action is accompanied by instrumental music, and they elaborate fanciful interpretations of the action in each line based on this supposition. Significantly, however, their interpretations of the puns and action differ. Since ἀναγινώσκειν plainly means “to read,” I do not see any need to postulate instrumental music. Instead, I believe that the setting is a reading lesson and the tones in question are the polytonic accents of Greek being read aloud. Although polytonic accents may have been obsolescent in everyday speech at Strato’s time, they might still be observed in the schools. Aside from whatever additional layers of innuendo may be involved, at least some of the humour turns on the instructor’s flamboyant elocution. Hine appears to share this interpretation, and overall his translation expresses it fairly well:

How teach a boy that fundamental skill,

sight-reading, when your voice is changing still?

From shrill soprano to gruff bass you swoop

So quickly, from a whisper to a whoop.

But study harder, show the envious

Active and passive, Dionysius.

However, notice that, instead of explaining that Greek was polytonic and was read aloud, Hine has altered the scene of the poem to make it understandable to modern readers. There is no indication in the Greek that the instructor is a boy whose “voice is changing still.” This is no twelve-year-old teacher, but an effeminate grammaticus.

There is no consensus as to the meaning of “alpha and lambda” in the punch line. Peyrefitte suggests in a footnote that lambda is the first letter of the Greek word for “lick” and alpha the first letter of the word for “masturbate.” However, he does not mention other interpretations that are discussed by Maxwell-Stuart and Clarke. And an alert researcher may wish to know all of them, once he grasps the implications of Hine’s translation.

For, the translation “active and passive” would not be justified on most interpretations of lambda and alpha. “Licking,” for example, albeit perhaps beyond what was expected of the older, active partner and thus suggestive of lechery, would not imply full reciprocation.

Also the musical meaning of alpha and lambda, which represented high and low notes respectively—which is consistent with a polytonic reading lesson, as Greek used just two tones (the circumflex being transitional)—would not justify Hine’s translation. Neither does it seem to be Hine’s intent to express the original joke. Rather, this is a joke that fits the “reading lesson” setting in a way that is directly understandable—and amusing—to a modern reader. Unfortunately, it wrongly suggests a versatility of active and passive roles on the part of the speaker, while we have also been misled as to his age.

Given the obscurity of the original, a less specific innuendo, like “Show them all from A to Z,” might be better. Here again, however, precisely because the meaning of the poem is both obscure and disputed, some explanation is called for.

In 12.211, a man tries to seduce a slave boy. After all, he argues, you are not new to this. You gave it to your master, so why not give it to me? It won’t be so one-way with me, it will be more friendly and reciprocal. This poem touches a number of issues of interest to sexual historians: how men related to slave boys, their own and others’; to what extent the Archaic educational aspect of pederasty could still apply; and the issue of reciprocity.

The critical text for our purpose is line 4 in the Greek:

Why do you grudge giving it to another, and receiving the same?

In the Greek, the implication of ταὐτο λαβών (“receiving the same”) is clear. At this point in the poem, the boy can only understand this as an offer that if he puts out, he may screw his seducer. As the speech continues, however, this is watered down. He will have just as much fun, he is assured; but the only promise relating to who does what is that he will be asked, and not ordered. The implied offer to roll over for the boy would be a breach of the norm; and if it is dangled only to be withdrawn, the fact that a Greek reader would find this amusing is also significant. But Hine’s translation of ταὐτο λαβών misses this entirely (“Why not give someone else what you’ve got?”). And Peyrefitte—who writes “si la couche de ton maître t’a fait expert, pourquoi refuses-tu de donner à un autre, ayant reçu cela”—seems to refer ταὐτο λαβών to the boy’s instruction, rather than his penetration; but that is not “the same thing” that the boy will exchange with his seducer.

My comparison of Hine and Peyrefitte already suggests the approach that I would propose.

When Hine modifies a poem, we sometimes find more accurate background information in other translators’ footnotes. Some erotic translators have already felt compelled to resort occasionally to extensive notes. Hooper uses them in his translation of the Priapus poems, as did Barnstone in his Sappho. (11) I would take this farther. Translations of this kind of literature should be accompanied by an explicit analysis and commentary explaining the poem in its cultural context, and how the translation differs, and why—and perhaps also by a literal translation. An example of a commentary which is very close to what I have in mind is Reginald Gibbons’ notes on his translation of Luis Cernuda’s poem A un poeta muerto. (12) Gibbons describes the historical circumstances of the executions under Franco, discusses the different layers of meaning of a key Spanish word in the poem, and attempts to strike a balanced appreciation of the influence of Cernuda’s homosexuality on his feeling of alienation as an artist in this and other poems. However, I would place the commentary on the same page, so that the reader is invited, with equal convenience, either to read or to skip it.

Of course, a literal translation with a detailed commentary would not convey the “feel” of a poem. The best way to carry the thrust of a poem across a cultural gap is something poets have been doing for centuries: writing free adaptations inspired by their predecessors. A fully modern adaptation—a poem “after Strato”—would not, standing alone, convey historical content; but presented together with a literal translation and commentary, it can finally achieve a genuine cultural translation of the erotic and humorous thrust of the original.

As I have shown, Hine sometimes moves in this direction. His rendition of 12.233, for example, is not so much translation as adaptation. The original predicts how a proud young actor’s career will decline as he ages, playing on the titles of a series of plays by Menander. The boy regards his youth as a “Treasure,” but it will pass like a “Shade,” leaving him “Despised.” Hine substitutes famous movie titles: The boy will pass from “My Secret Garden” to the “Midnight Cowboy” when his beauty is “Gone with the Wind.” Another fine example of an adaptation which represents a cultural translation is J.D. McClatchy’s “Late Night Ode” after Horace, Carm. 4.1, (13) where, for example, the exemplary young advocate and lover Paulus Maximus is represented by “the blond boychick lawyer, entry level at eighty grand … [whose] answering machine always has room for one more.”

I have experimented with my proposal on 12.3.

A fairly literal translation might be:

Boys’ prongs, Diodorus, fall into three categories. Now learn their names:

Call the untouched one “lalu”; when it swells, call it “coco”; it’s a “liz-ard” when tossed in your hand. At the final stage, you know what it’s called.

The commentary which I would attach to my translation might read as follows:

The persona of this poem is instructing one Diodorus, who seems to be a neophyte in pederasty, on masturbating boys. Each of three stages from erection to orgasm is assigned a stereotyped babytalk term commonly applied to boys’ genitals. The babytalk is playful and suggests the youth of the quarry, as well as the apparent inexperience of Diodorus himself. At the same time, the sexual aspect is described vividly. The penis is “tossed” in the hand, where the word for “tossed” (σαλευομένην) is a vivid image for masturbation; defined by Liddell and Scott as “cause to rock, roll or vibrate … shake in measurement … roll, toss, move up and down,” the word is used, e.g., for the movement of ships in a storm. But the punch line, where the instructor notes cynically that Diodorus knows damned well what comes next, reveals that Diodorus is not so inexperienced after all.

In constructing a modern adaptation, babytalk will not work. It might suggest an inappropriate comparison with pre-teen pederasty, while its application to today’s street-wise teenagers would be silly.(14) Indeed, even the frank and playful attitude toward seducing adolescent males can hardly be expressed with an appropriately light tone in the discourse of the dominant (“straight”) culture. Translating for that culture would require bowdlerization. I would turn instead for inspiration to separate traditions of modern gay poetry and art which, regardless of their own differences from the Greek pederastic tradition, are better suited for reception of such epigrams, if only because of their more positive attitude toward same-sex relations, and indeed toward sex in general. To express the tone of this poem and the point of the punch line, we need a different set of stereotypes to replace the babytalk. I would use cliché lines from seduction scenes in pornographic videos, alternating with lines in a playful meter. And I would replace the enigmatic reference to a climactic name with a more familiar sequel in such videos. So my poem after Strato would read:

Now, Bruce, teenagers

come in three stages:

Learn how to make them

so you can take them.

When a boy’s erection

mounts up for inspection,

say …“Oh yeah …”

If he moans when your grip

slips his skin over the tip,

say … “Mmmm, you like that, don’t you …”

Next comes the best … but you know the rest;

Don’t talk with your mouth full!

However much this differs from the Greek epigram, both poems poke fun at familiar stereotypes and lead to an amusing revelation of the “neophyte”’s experienced status.

Looking briefly back at 12.211, it poses a difficult challenge. Apart from the aspects which I have already discussed, I do not think that modern readers can really relate to the slave situation. The very mention of a “master” may invoke an entirely different set of associations for modern readers which is not appropriate. I would be tempted, after a suitable commentary, to simply drop it and focus solely on the issue of reciprocity, which is still relevant for homosexuals today, and write something like this:

What are you afraid of?

You’ve been screwed before.

I know. You don’t like being treated as a whore; Taken for granted, left awake and hard.

Put out for me; I promise, you’ll enjoy it too.

We’ll romp and have a lively chat … with me on top of you.

I have chosen mainly passages relating to one aspect of the pederastic paradigm, viz., the issue of reciprocation. My discussion also applies, of course, to other issues. To cite one brief example, consider the question of the boys’ social status. The traditional view is that they were mainly nobility in the Archaic period, but slaves or prostitutes in Strato’s time. However, the beautiful youths in 12.195 are described as εὐγενέτας, “well born”—which Hine renders as “acclaimed.”

The approach of earlier generations to translating classical erotica combined untranslated passages for scholars with tedious literal renditions for the general reader. Newer versions like those by Hine and Peyrefitte mark great progress, but still do not serve well the varied needs of their modern readership. No translation can do everything for all readers, but I think we can do better. My intention in this paper has been to stimulate thought and discussion among translators and classicists about approaches which will better suit the different needs involved in the study of ancient sexuality, not to provide an instruction manual. Obviously, the right mix of analysis, translation and adaptation will vary for different poems and authors.

On the other hand, I shall venture to offer some very specific instructions for readers with a limited knowledge of Greek. You should do exactly as I have done in the present paper: consult at least two different translations. This simple precaution will reveal the extent of possible discrepancies, and confirm whether the nuance which is the core of your interest is present in the original or only in one translation. In the absence of a commentary by the translator, it may also be helpful to notice any indications of her or his own attitude on questions of interest, e.g., in other publications. And of course you should seriously consider better learning Greek.



(1) I am obliged to James Butrica and Beert Verstraete for reading draft versions of this paper. David Creese’s comments when I read it at the 2004 annual meeting of the Classical Association of Canada induced me to reconsider one of the passages discussed.

    (2) Most recently, John R. Clarke, Roman Sex (New York 2003); for a concise account of this development, see Beert Verstraete, “New pedagogy on ancient pederasty,” The Gay and Lesbian Review 11.3 (May-June 2004) 13–14.

    (3) E.g., William Armstrong Percy III, Pederasty and Pedagogy in ArchaicGreece (Urbana/Chicago 1996). 

    (4) K.J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge MA 1978) 15 n. 30. 


    (5) Felix Buffière, Eros adolescent (Paris 1980) 303–306.
(6) Daryl Hine, Puerilities (Princeton 2001).

(7) Roger Peyrefitte, La Muse garconnière (Paris 1973).

(8) W.R. Paton, trans., The Greek Anthology vol. IV (Cambridge MA 1971)


(9) P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, “Strato and the Musa Puerilis,” Hermes 100 (1972)

215–240 and W.M. Clarke, “Problems in Strato’s Paidike Mousa,” AJP 99 (1978) 433–441.

(10) For example, the phrase ὰπ' ἰσχνοτάτης εἰς τάσιν ὀγκοτάτην,

from the weakest to the strongest pitch,” may play on τάσιν = “tension,” i.e.,
with reference to an erection.

(11) Richard W. Hooper, The Priapus Poems (Urbana/Chicago 1999) and Willis Barnstone, Sappho (Garden City/New York 1965).

(12) Luis Cernuda, Selected Poems (New York 1999) 179–180.

(13) Michael Lassell and Elena Georgiou, The World in Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave (New York 2000) 195–196.

(14) Hine wisely avoids it. Yet his translation, though clever, does not really convey the situation: “Diodorus, boys’ things come in three shapes and sizes; learn them handily; when unstripped it’s a dick, but when stiff it’s a prick: wanked, you know what its nickname must be.” Why, the reader may ask, should the unstripped penis be called a dick, and the erect one a prick? What is the point? And indeed, what is its name when it climaxes? Culturally, this is not fully translated.


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