Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Further Visions - The Anger of Xerxes

As per previous post, I will start off with presenting an excerpt of the Histories in the form of a transliteration of the original Greek, followed by Macaulay’s take on it and then De Sélincourt with some comments on the passage to round off the excerpt.

Here then we have an excerpt from Book VII Polymnia (7.11.1) where Xerxes reacts in fury to the advice of his father’s brother Artabanus, who has just prior to this passage advised in a rather eloquent speech against such an ill-starred enterprise as the invasion of Greece.

‘Artabanos men tauta elexe, Xerxes de thumotheis ameibetai toiside. ‘’ Artabane, patros eis tou emou adelphos: touto se rusetai medena axion misthon labein epeon mataion. Kai toi tauten ten atimien prostithemi eonti kakoi kai athumoi, mete sustrateuesthai emoige epi ten Hellada autou gunaiksi: ego de kai aneu seo hosa per eipa epitelaea poieso.’’

 ‘Artabanos thus spoke; and Xerxes enraged by it made answer as follows: ‘’ Artabanos, thou art my father’s brother, and this shall save thee from receiving any recompense such as thy foolish words deserve. Yet, I attach to thee this dishonour, seeing that thou art a coward and spiritless, namely that thou do not march with me against Hellas, but remain here together with the women; and I, even without thy help, will accomplish all the things which I said.’

De Selincourt:
‘Xerxes was exceedingly angry. ‘Artabanus, ‘he replied, ‘you are my father’s brother, and that alone saves you from paying the price your empty and ridiculous speech deserves. But your cowardice and lack of spirit shall not escape disgrace: I forbid you to accompany me on my march to Greece – you shall stay at home with the women, and everything I spoke of I shall accomplish without help from you.’

De Selincourt, as I noted in the previous post is characteristically lean and taut, and here even lops off the framing device of ‘Artabanos men tauta elexe’ getting straight to the essence of the text, leaving nothing important out but definitely trimming the frills. Macaulay clearly comes from an age when frills were not only left in; they were enjoyed for their own sake as part of the poetry and grandeur that was no doubt felt to pervade the texts of the revered ancients.

 Perhaps we have become a bit less precious as each decade ‘ups the ante’ and modernises (‘soups up’ even) Herodotus, but are we in danger of losing something when we trim and sharpen up the resolution for a modern palate? Could there be an argument for leaving some of the Victorian/Edwardian paintwork in?’ What I am hinting at is where the endpoint of translations might be – if there can be such a place- is there a point where like an elastic band the ancient text can be stretched until it risks breaking any link of resemblance to the original. Of course, to a certain extent a translation can be regarded as a separate work in its own right but there should still remain some link, however tenuous, to the original. I don’t think that by any means with the two visionaries presented here that we are anywhere near that point, but with, say War Music of Christopher Logue one could start to make the argument that it’s no longer a version of an ancient text. For the non Greek or Latin reader does it or should it really matter anyway?

To be sure, each successive epoch possesses its especially peculiar textual/literary foibles of which its embedded inhabitants can never be fully cognisant. That this is both a curse and a blessing can be in no doubt. The Macaulay text, paradoxically (due to its usual faithfulness and accuracy) often partially redacts or bowdlerises passages that offended the moral sensitivities of his day. The notorious fart of the Egyptian rebel Amasis in Book II (162.3) (as a reply to the summons of Apries his erstwhile master), perfunctorily dealt with in De Selincourt, is glossed over by our Victorian scholar as an unmentionable act, ‘When this Patarbemis came and summoned Amasis, the latter, who happened to be sitting on horseback, lifted up his leg and behaved in an unseemly manner,’.

De Selincourt, for the record renders this as ‘Amasis however, in answer to Patarbemis’ summons, stood up in his stirrups (for he was on horseback at the time), broke wind and told him to take that back to his master.’

Finally, A.D.Godley in the 1920 Harvard Loeb Series translation has this as 'When Patarbemis came up and summoned Amasis, Amasis (who was on horseback) rose up and farted, telling the messenger to take that back to Apries'

 I wonder how future ages will view the De Selincourt (which has already started to fade a little) or the most recent effort of Tom Holland.

By way of conclusion, there are certainly many good things to be said about both visions and they also have quite different potential applications; Macaulay is better (marginally) when working on the original Greek. His prose is much more faithful to the original word order, grammatical constructions (he often seeks out and provides exact equivalents) and the style despite (or possibly because of) its archness plays a certain and not altogether unpleasant cadence upon the ear. It may also matter depending on how you initially experienced Herodotus – As a student I read parts of the Greek first, then the De Selincourt translation (When reading at speed for Ancient History essays) and then much later on the Macaulay when looking at the texts comparatively.  Therefore I have a soft spot for De Sélincourt but that does not lessen my admiration in any way for Macaulay’s masterful if somewhat ornate to modern ears rendering. ‘It’s all good’ as the Classics geek might say!


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