Friday, 13 December 2013

The Final Vision - Xerxes and the Phantom

We end the series of visions with a scene from Book VII (Polymnia) during the night following that day’s council of war in which Xerxes has rebuked the advice of Artabanus and boldly announced his intention to invade Hellas.


I. Tauta men epi tosouto elegeto. Meta de euphrone te egineto kai Xerxen eknizde e Artabanou gnome: nukti de boulen didous pangku heuriske oi ou pregma einai strateuesthai epi ten Hellada. Dedogmenon de oi autis touton katupnose, kai de kou en tei nukti eide opsin toiede, hos legetai hupo Perseon: edokee ho Xerxes andra oi epi stanta megan te kai eueida eipein. ‘meta de bouleueai, ho Persa, strateuma me agein epi ten Hellada,proeipas halizdein Persas stratov;oute ov metabouleumenos poieeis eu oute ho sungnosomenos toi para: all’ hosper tes hemeres ebouleusao poieen,tauten ithi tov hodov.’



Thus far was it spoken then; but afterwards when darkness came on, the opinion of Artabanos tormented Xerxes continually; and making night his counselor he found that it was by no means to his advantage to make the march against Hellas. So when he had thus made a new resolve, he fell asleep, and in the night he saw, as is reported by the Persians, a vision as follows:-Xerxes thought that a man tall and comely of shape came and stood by him and said: ‘Art thou indeed changing thy counsel, O Persian, of leading an expedition against Hellas, now that thou hast made proclamation that the Persians shall collect an army? Thou dost not well in changing thy counsel, nor will he who is here present with thee excuse the for it; but as thou didst take counsel in the day to do, by that way go.’

De Sélincourt:

So ended the speeches at the conference. Later on that evening Xerxes began to be worried by what Artabanus had said, and during the night, as he turned it over in his mind, he came to the conclusion that the invasion of Greece would not, after all, be a good thing. Having reached this decision he fell asleep; and the Persians say that before the night was over he dreamed that the figure of a man, tall and of noble aspect, stood by his bed. ’Lord of Persia’, the phantom said, ‘have you changed your mind and decided not to lead and army against Greece, in spite of your proclamation to your subjects that troops should be raised? You are wrong to change; and there is one here who will not forgive you for doing so. Continue to tread the path which you chose yesterday.’

Again, De Selincourt seems the more fluid, but here I can see that Macaulay, in staying close to the Greek has managed to leave in more of the detail that matters.  In the first comparison, we have the verb eknizde rendered as merely worried in De Selincourt, where it is more accurately translated in context as tortured ( although it can also be taken in some contexts to mean troubled - its literal meaning is to purge or wash out so the aorist here would imply going through the mill as opposed to being a bit concerned) by Macaulay. This is where I think that Macaulay has the occasional edge and that while De Selincourt is possibly better paced, the accuracy is sacrificed and this example is a meaningful case in point.

The text of Macaulay is in other places a tad too Biblical for our tastes with its thees and hasts but does manage to give a more vivid impression of the troubled night Xerxes has and the appearance of the mysterious figure (his father’s spirit? A God? His conscience? Or the embodiment of Fate?). De Selincourt manages to conjure up a bed in his version where there is none in the original and Macaulay’s translation  is again more accurate and straightforward rather than a gloss for the sake of ‘continuity’

The last sentence also demonstrates a certain license that De Selincourt displays with the original Greek and even though it is less clunky perhaps than our Victorian scholar, there is a certain loss of accuracy. Translation has this constant tightrope trick to pull off, stage management versus dry accuracy, content and form, pace and flow and which elements of the architecture that need to be sacrificed in order to effect that pace. I hope I have managed to give you a little insight into how Herodotus is approached in translation by different scholars and the decisions that they have made in order to render the best possible vision of the Greek historian for the audience of their own time.

I haven’t read theTom Holland translation but it would interesting to find out (if there is a preface of any sort) why he thought it was time for a new translation of Herodotus and what exactly his approach was in making the historian newly relevant and alive to a new generation of readers and perhaps future scholars.

I look forward to seeing you all on the 29th of this month for further musings on the revered Halicarnassian.

It might be a touch early but…

A Merry Saturnalia to all!



  1. Thanks for these comparisons of Macaulay and de Selincourt, Stephen, they've been very interesting. The choice between them is not an easy one, and it makes one think that all translations should come with a statement by the translator of their approach and how they've tried to balance accuracy, flow, contemporary resonance and so on. Some do, of course, but it should maybe made a legal obligation! In the Macaulay I find the King James Bible vocabulary like thus, hadst, didst, and so on unsympathetic and some of the, what seem to me, self-conscious constructions like 'made answer' the same. But the de Selincourt does seems a bit smooth, and perhaps is leaving too much out in the interests of readability.
    The end of the passage compared in this post is interesting because, presuming Macaulay is more accurate, de Selincourt loses an important resonance. When Xerxes is advised by his dream: 'but as thou didst take counsel in the day to do, by that way go.’ This implies to me that common experience we have of things seeming more serious or worrying in the dead of night than they do during the day. Xerxes doubts have come during solitary reflection at night, when his more positive view, to invade Greece, was the more optimistic view of the daylight hours. We can all sympathise with Xerxes in his night time doubts. De Selincourt's ' Continue to tread the path which you chose yesterday.’ loses all this resonance.
    In general, I would prefer a translation that is drier over one where immediacy is bought at the cost of loss of accuracy and even of strangeness. Classics have continued relevance, however, this doesn't mean that somethings even much in these writers may seem somewhat alien. I dislike in particular translations that use modern slang or modern phrases as equivalents. These strike me as a bit patronising to the reader. I'm capable of recognising the points of contact between Aeschylus', for instance, and our concerns without having them shoved down my throat. Also, there is a difference between our time and that of the Ancient greeks and I want to feel it.
    It would be interested to compare the Tom Holland transation with what I've been reading. I see its about £10 so if I get any book tokens for Xmas maybe...
    Cheers. D

  2. Yes it's that elusive sense that the translator should try to encapsulate that the past is speaking to us in an authentic voice with as little noise or interference from the mediators era as possible . It hasnt been all that long that classics has finally managed to unyoke itself from biblically inclined scholarship and start to sleek to us in its original prevhristian tones. This is where the Macaulay falls down for me. I suppose the Viictorians were still steeped in predarwinian concepts of ancientness and thus for them the KJB styling probably seemed very appropriate. If you can pick the Holland up for a rennet that sounds like a good deal!