Some Penguin Classics ain’t what they used to be! Take for example Rex Warner’s sturdy, chatty 1958 translation of six very famous mini-biographies from Plutarch’s epic series of Parallel Lives. Penguin decided early on that bringing out a fat Classic of the whole of Plutarch probably wouldn’t be commercially viable – or aesthetically either, since in Plutarch’s long pairing of Greek and Roman lives, several of the Greek figures suffer a great deal from the murky obscurity into which their names have fallen in the two thousand years since the the author dropped off the twig. But that’s not a worry with Warner’s volume, since it collects the lives of six of the most famous Romans of them all: Crassus, Cicero, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar. Writing those lives, Plutarch the master dramatist is on the surest of all possible terrain.
Something of that discursive certainty carries through wonderfully in Warner’s translation, but times, it seems, change. Under the strong impression that Warner’s translation was showing its age, Penguin in 2005 got Classics scholar and Pompey biographer Robin Seager to revise his own earlier revision of Warner’s version, and he set to his task with a vengeance. This spiffy improved Penguin volume has greatly expanded end notes, and it for the first time includes translations of the special essays Plutarch wrote explicitly comparing the Greek life and Roman life he’d just chronicled.
The resulting volume is an intensely valuable mini-education in some of the best Plutarch has to offer his readers – but it sure is hard on poor departed Rex Warner! This is an example of Seager trying to be nice:
I have completely revised Rex Warner’s translations of the six lives which make up the volume. More specifically I have corrected his very occasional errors and omissions, rephrased passages where it seemed to me possible to get closer to Plutarch’s exact meaning, and, for the benefit of students of Roman history, rendered more precisely certain Roman social, political, and military terms. I have not, however, made any attempt to alter the somewhat free and strikingly individual manner in which Warner handled Plutarch’s syntactical and grammatical structures, except in those rare cases where I judged it to have misrepresented or obscured Plutarch’s meaning.
Why Seager didn’t go the extra half-step and simply do a wholesale new translation of his own I do not know. But as good and useful as this new edition is, I can tell you one thing for sure: Rex Warner’s original translation wasn’t as bad as all that.