Aesop: The Complete Fables, translated by Olivia and Robert Temple (Penguin Classics)
The Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles and Introduction and Notes by Bernard Knox (Penguin Classics)
Four Greek Plays translated by Kenneth McLeish (Bristol Classical Press)
The Greek Philosophers: Selected Texts from the Presocratics, Plato and Aristotle edited with introduction, notes and commentary by J. H. Lesher
Review by R. B. Bradshaw
Reading the Classics may be a depressing experience. To start with Aesop: we have stories such as the one about the eagle struck by an arrow equipped with its own feathers. In Sophocles we come upon a man who, investigating the source of the ills of his city, finds it in himself. There follows blindness, hanging, immurement. In the comic Aristophanes we encounter such despair in the hearts of those trapped within the city-walls that they will go to absurd lengths for Peace, even so as to fly out on a beetle. Some have thought the Odyssey had a happy ending, but it ends as the souls of the suitors go off to Hell and the hero returning is destined to realize his struggle is over and nothing is left but boredom. It is enough for us to agree with the King: ?By heaven, I?ll hate him everlastingly that bids me be of comfort any more.?
There are two points to make. The first that I have not yet considered the possible solace in Ancient Philosophy: the second that even in this gloom I still have an obligation to say whether those who have translated or edited the works have done a good job or no.
In the popular mind philosophy is closely associated with consolation, though no bird caught in a snare found any, nor any Antigone condemned to die. Yet Plato, for one, may have sought comfort in a process leading to other worlds. For the ordinary man it is a matter of profound indifference whether the Idea of beauty exists or if there is an ?Umoved Mover?.
The motives of the translations to be considered are of very different kinds. In Aesop?s Fables the Temples are concerned to bring out a translation of the complete corpus and exactly to identify the animals. Fagles, in translating the Odyssey, aims to achieve a great literary feat in his own verses. McLeish repudiates the translation of the work as it is, cleaning it up so as to be suitable for performance by school-children.
They may all be said to have done fairly well. Unfortunately, as far as Fagles is concerned, the ?fairly well? is like damning with faint praise. One recalls what Richard Bentley said about Pope?s translation. Variously Fagles? efforts have been called ?a masterpiece?, ?seductive?, ?magnificent?. It may be so, but I regret that I do not think I could either prove or disprove it. The book also does have an interesting introduction by Bernard Knox and a translator?s post-script.
Homer has a preciousness not in Aesop. The Temples have produced workmanlike translations which clearly make the essential point, and if they do not, well-judged notes provide assistance and there are curious digressions such as one which refers us to a Lancet article on the food value of acorns.
Translating Attic tragedy and comedy for modern performance is not easy, particularly translating Aristophanes -- there is a very broad humour for everybody but also subtle parodies of Euripides and references to Cleon that go over your head. McLaish in his preamble says he wishes to avoid scatological references (even in a play with a dung-beetle) and, consequently, he never lets his children know what the Megarian in The Archarnians was really selling in his sack. Purists might revolt at mention of ?Christian Names?, but these versions convey the spirit, with vigorous choruses and opportunities for ?business?. The tragedies themselves could be convincingly performed.
That leaves philosophy. In Lesher?s selection we have the original Greek. Having translations provided is like having the workmen in the house, while being faced with the original language is like Do-It-Yourself. The scaling-up in the effort required is enormous. Not only are there concepts to grapple with such as ?induction?, but the challenging complexity of the Greek with its terminology, cases, infinitives, syntax. This is a slim volume, but it packs a great deal: very sound help in introductins to each section, notes, bibliographies.
We have teasers among the Presocratics. For Odysseus, in a sense, assuredly, it was not possible to visit Ithaca twice: that is, to return. From the fragments we pass to the seductive wholeness of Plato and his quest for Justice, Virtue and Beauty and to Aristotle, a thinker free of despair. The supreme human good is ?an activity of the soul in accordance with reason?. Aristotle and his circle had indeed already achieved this: for them there was no despair. In their company we occupy a place far, far away from sheep eaten by wolves or kings blinded by brooches