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Penguins on Parade: Xenophon!

By (May 31, 2013) No Comment

penguin-colophonSome Penguin Classics, as we’ve already noted, are miniature battlefields in their own right. Whether its the editor fighting with some previous editor or the translator fighting with some previous translator, these little black-spined editions have always been an odd but perfect place to skirmish. And surely the oddest of these skirmishes – although it happens fairly often, odd or not – is translator v.s. translatee.

penguin xenophonPeople who haven’t been engaged in translating a long work can have very little idea of what an ordeal it is. The translator is trapped with his subject in the tightest of all possible confinements – his own head. Voices not his own are perpetually bombarding him, and often standards of translation excellence were set so high (usually by the Victorians, those bounders) that any subsequent attempt feels like mere wretched mucking around with participles. As with writing a long biography, so too with doing a long translation: it’s entirely possible to become well and truly sick of the subject. The graceful thing is to avoid letting this strain show; after all, your readers haven’t suffered as you have, and there’s nothing more tiresome than a couple who drag guests into their in-house squabbles. But if editors and translators had any grace they’d be novelists, so the squabbling goes on.

It can have a macabre kind of fascination, obviously. We’ve seen already, for example, how a new edition of Rex Warner’s Plutarch translation saw fit to justify itself mainly by slagging the old man, and the display might have prompted us to pity poor Warner. But the backhanded insults he received were peanuts compared to the overhand insults he himself dishes out during his own in-house squabbles. Case in point: the translation of Xenophon’s Hellenica he did for Penguin Classics back in 1966.

On the surface, Xenophon can seem like the cheeriest and chattiest of Greek historians this side of Herodotus. Even Warner concedes (in a typically wonderful line) “he must have been a delightful man to meet.” He initially patterned his Hellenica (Warner calls it History of My Times, which mildly sets the author up to fail) as a continuation of Thucydides’ great history of the Peloponnesian War, and that’s already the last straw for Warner:

Few, if any, historians can be placed in the same class as Thucydides. Xenophon certainly cannot. In fact, when one reads the first part of his history, where he seems to be deliberately imitating Thucydides, one often feels sorry for him. There are, indeed, some good scenes (the return of Alcibiades to Athens, for instance), even some good speeches, as in the debate on Theramenes; but on the whole the speeches are clever without being profound, and, most important, one often has the feeling that Xenophon has no grasp of and is not interested in the underlying causes of things.

You’d think that parting shot about Xenophon not even fully understanding the things he’s writing about would be as catty as Warner could get, but no:lucy reads xenophon he finishes up the indictment by adding, “Nor has he the passionate love for his own city, Athens, which burns on every page of Thucydides.”

And in case we missed the point, he stresses it again: “Indeed, by no stretching of partiality or imagination can Xenophon be called a great historian.” When he tells us that Xenophon was in his youth a student of Socrates, we can guess what’s coming: “though we may be sure that he was not, philosophically, among the most brilliant of his pupils …” It’s almost like Warner’s being paid by the Athenian council.

In reality, Xenophon’s Hellenica isn’t quite the train-wreck its own translator would have you believe. True, it’s not as neat and dramatic as Xenophon’s masterpiece, the Anabas, but it’s full of the worldly-wise character sketches Xenophon does so well, and the variation of its set-pieces, from intimate conversations to broad-stage action, is expertly orchestrated. Warner would have you believe it’s all slips and misses, and since he’s the translator, he’s in a perfect position to put his thumb on the scale.

One example will suffice. In a tense meeting at Ephesus between Agesilaus and Tissaphernes, a powerful satrap of Sardis, the impartial reader doesn’t have to know ancient Greek to suspect Xenophon’s alleged ham-handed tediousness might be getting a little help:

As soon as he [Agesilaus] arrived there, Tissaphernes sent to him and asked him why he had come. Agesilaus answered: ‘So that the cities of Asia may be independent as are the cities in our part of Greece.’ In reply to this Tissaphernes said: ‘Then if you will make a truce until I can send to the king, I think you will be able to achieve your purpose and then, if you would like to do so, sail home again.’

‘I should certainly like to do so,’ said Agesilaus, ‘if I could be quite sure I was not being deceived by you.’

‘I am prepared,’ said Tissaphernes, ‘to give you a solemn pledge that I will do what I have undertaken to do in all good faith.’

Well, I’m certainly gripped!