From my diary

I’m still unwell, after an unbelievable 9 weeks of sitting around at home with a headache.  But finally I seem to be improving.  None of the pills and potions prescribed by my GP has had any effect, but time seems to be the cure.  I’m waiting for a scan, but the doctor thinks that it won’t show anything.

Meanwhile I’ve been rereading the epigrams of Martial, in the old Loeb edition with facing Latin.  I do prefer the stately translations of a century ago to modern attempts.

I notice that the eye is always drawn to the epigrams that are not translated, and instead given in some elderly Italian version which is hardly more comprehensible than Latin.  You inevitably find yourself attempting to understand the syntax.

The books could not present the obscene matter at that date, for that was illegal.  But was there a subtle ulterior motive here?  Print the Latin, and then rely on the frustration of teenage boys as a way to teach them Latin grammar and syntax?  For the best way to learn any language is always to have something in that language that you wish to read!

The risks of snobbery in the classics

A few days ago I was reading the 17th century John Aubrey’s Brief lives when I came across the following statement in the life of Sir Henry Billingsley (d. 1606), who translated Euclid into English.

Memorandum. P. Ramus in his Scholia’s sayes that the reason why mathematiques did most flourish in Germanie was that the best authors were rendred into their mother tongue, and that publique lectures of it were also read in their owne tongue – quod nota bene. 

There are other statements of the same kind, that people had real difficulty accessing technical works written in Latin, but that translations were the exception rather than the rule.

This evening I was reading Martial in the old Loeb edition.  This contains a  list of translations, ending with the following paragraph (vol. 1, p.xxi).

If a “bad eminence” confer any title to fame, James Elphinston (1721-1809) deserves special notice. He was the son of an Episcopalian clergyman, and was educated at the High School and at the University of Edinburgh. In 1750 he superintended the issue of a Scotch edition of Johnson’s Rambler, supplying English translations of the mottoes, for which he was thanked by Johnson. From 1752 to 1776 he was successively a schoolmaster at Brompton and at Kensington. He published in 1778 a Specimen of the Translations of Epigrams of Martial, with a preface informing the public that he awaited subscriptions to enable him to publish a version of Martial’s works complete. With regard to this work, it is recorded by Boswell under date of April 9, 1778 that Garrick, being consulted, told Elphinston frankly that he was no epigrammatist, and advised him against publishing; that Johnson’s advice was not asked, and was not forced upon the translator; and that Elphinston’s own brother-in-law, Strahan, the printer, in sending him a subscription of fifty pounds, promised him fifty more if he would abandon his project.

The offer was not accepted, and in 1782 the whole work appeared in a handsome quarto. It was received with derision, the poet Beattie saying, “It is truly an unique: the specimens formerly published did very well to laugh at, but a whole quarto of nonsense and gibberish is too much.” And Mrs. Piozzi records that “of a modern Martial, when it came out, Dr. Johnson said ‘there are in these verses too much folly for madness, I think, and too much madness for folly.'” And the unhappy author was gibbeted in the following epigram by Robert Burns:

“O thou whom Poesy abhors,
Whom Prose has turned out of doors !
Heardst thou that groan? Proceed no further:
‘Twas laurell’d Martial roaring ‘Murther!'”

Criticism indeed.  The comment of Garrick to Elphinstone is recorded in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, where it is given verbatim (‘…you don’t seem to have that turn’).  It is certainly true that Elphinstone’s versions lack literary charm, being frankly dull.

But … the fact is that Elphinstone’s translation was the first attempt at a complete Martial.  Selections had been made before.  There is quite a list in the Loeb.  An unpublished Elizabethan manuscript by an unknown author contains many vivid versions in verse, included in the Bohn Classical Library.  So too are many by William Hay MP, also in verse and of much charm.

However such selections did not make Martial accessible to ordinary people.  We have already seen that, when medical textbooks were in Latin, this was enough to stifle knowledge. The criticisms above of Elphinstone achieved nothing, however well reasoned they were.

So we owe Elphinstone thanks for his charmless efforts.  He started the process of creating an English Martial.  The versions in the Loeb are indeed themselves greatly to my own taste, and some have real poetic power.

An obstacle stands in the way of completing such a task.  This is the problem of the obscene epigrams. 

Each edition edges closer to a full version, as the years of our age pass by, and moral standards fall.  We live in a coarse age, and it is extremely easy for one of a coarsed nature to render common verbs like futuere by English obscenities.  A complete version that would be unfit for any decent man’s bookshelf would be possible to print and sell today. 

Such “choices” do not advance the process of creating an English Martial that is faithful, poetic, and non-pornographic.  Perhaps it is impossible to achieve this end, I do not know.  But we should certainly try.

Yet Martial is fortunate.  How many texts do not possess any English translation?  How many of us have been deterred from making one, for fear of criticism such as that which greeted the luckless Elphinstone?

Translations are essential.  Even bad translations make an author more accessible than he was.  Whatever you do with ancient literature, translate!

Loeb loving on the road to Bilbilis

A couple of weeks ago I was feeling a little unwell, and I looked around my shelves for something undemanding which would take my attention off things.  My eye fell on the old (1920-ish) Loeb Martial, and I pulled down a volume.  There is something very soothing about these old volumes, the genteel English, and the notes, cultivated and inoffensive.  Juvenal has long been a friend in these circumstances; Martial now joins him.

Martial was a Spaniard who came from Bilbilis.  Today I saw some photos online of excavations at Bilbilis, here.  Unfortunately the blog is in Spanish — I expect Google translator would make a reasonable effort at this, if I had time to try. [Note: it really does!]  The photos are worth a look, tho.

Thinking of Martial reminds me of a book plate in the second volume.  The volume itself was a handsome example of its kind.  The plate showed that the book was a gift to Glasgow University Library, long ago, by the Church of Scotland no less.  But the book plate was carelessly cancelled with a stamp; the library doubtless sold it, when a new edition appeared.  I bought it from an online dealer, all unknowing. 

Perhaps when we finish our earthly course, many wonder whether we might donate our libraries to some deserving university.  Alas, not even thus may one procure a little immortality!