Our book today is the mighty 1858 translation of Herodotus by George Rawlinson, and it brings to the forefront the whole subject of the translator’s art – how could it not, when critics the whole world over immediately hailed Rawlinson’s book as a masterpiece of that art? A masterpiece, yes, but a thoroughly supplanted one – even here on Stevereads, where the praises of Aubrey de Selincourt’s Penguin Classic translation have been sung endlessly but Rawlinson not ever mentioned.
Rawlinson worked on his epic translation alongside his brother Sir Henry, but it was mostly younger brother George who supplied the perfectly rounded phrasings, and although those phrasings are, in their essence, virtually the rhetorical opposite of Herodotus’ own style of writing, they have the grace, the power, and that effortless Ciceronian cascade effect that so much of the best Victorian prose always has. Sometimes that rolling, sonorous quality is the only thing that will answer for a mood or a patch of weather or a bout of illness. There’s such an unblinking certainty to it – the very quality that led later ages to despise it, but I’ve always thought the reaction was mostly vanity. No age has written per capita as mightily as the Victorians (even my beloved Elizabethans come in only second), and the Victorians knew it. Other ages knew it too, on some level, and that’s never an easy knowledge.
Ordinarily, I’d feel some sympathy. But there are days when I reach for my battered Rawlinson without any thought for de Selincourt or any of the more modern translators. Listen to the delegate from Corinth, for instance, rebuffing the offers of strong government from the Spartans:
“Surely the heaven will soon be below, and the earth above, and men will henceforth live in the sea, and fish take their place upon the dry land, since you, Lacedaemonians, propose to put down free governments in the cities of Greece, and to set up tyrannies in their room. There is nothing in the whole world so unjust, nothing so bloody, as tyranny. If, however, it seems to you a desirable thing to have the cities under despotic rule, begin by putting a tyrant over yourselves, and then establish despots in other states. While you continue yourselves, as you have always been, unacquainted with tyranny, and take such excellent care that Sparta may not suffer from it, to act as you are now doing is to treat your allies unworthily. If you knew what tyranny was as well as ourselves, you would be better advised than you are now in regard to it.”
All 20th century versions of that passage are pithier – but pithy isn’t everything. Rawlinson captures better than anybody one essential element of reading Herodotus – how the so-called Father of History envelopes you in a seamless fog of narrative, story upon story, story within story, and you happily floating along without ever touching down because all those stories, regardless of length or pertinence, have first been chosen for their worth by a master storyteller. That worth is the one thing they have in common, and Rawlinson’s rolling English perfectly mirrors it. When the female ruler of his own native Heilcarnassus becomes an ally of Xerxes and leads her troops personally, her story unfolds in an aside worthy of a novel:
Of the lower officers I shall make no mention, since no necessity is laid upon me; but I must speak of a certain leader named Artemisia, whose participation in the attacks upon Greece, notwithstanding that she was a woman, moves my special wonder. She had obtained the sovereign power after the death of her husband; and, though she had now a son grown up, yet her brave spirit and manly daring sent her forth to the war, when no need required her to adventure.
I recently spent a dreary afternoon reveling in the company of Rawlinson’s Herodotus, and I heartily recommend it. But do yourself a favor and prepare first: the best, most full-blown literature of the Victorian era can’t be picked up casually (unlike the literature of so many eras, which can) – its demands are as great as its rewards, so you need to acclimate yourself. The perfect way to do that? Find yourself a copy of the old Viking Portable Victorian Reader and spend some time rummaging its marvelous contents. By the time you know that volume inside and out, you’ll be ready for everything the Victorians can throw at you – Trollope, Darwin, and yes, Rawlinson.
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