Classics for a new generation

As a translator of the classics, Josephine Balmer is forever being asked why we need yet another translation of Catullus, Ovid or Sappho. Speaking at the «Translation Days» conference held in London by the British Center for Literary Translation and the Translators Association in September, Balmer gave an entertaining account of how different translations of Homer reflect changing political and social circumstances. The historic Loeb edition of Homer reflected its target readers, who were public schoolboys being groomed for public office, she explained, while E.V. Rieu’s popular 1946 rendition extolled the valor and virtues of British leadership. Later versions by translators from other places had their own take on this classic text, but all of them, said Balmer, «subsumed Homer into their own culture.» Expanding on those comments in an e-mail interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Balmer said: «What I meant was that the semantic tone or flavor of a classical translation can be determined as much by its audiences’ cultural needs as by the nature of the original text. I’m not saying that this is in any way a conscious process but different times call for different translations, so that a post-WWI English translation of ‘The Odyssey’ can read differently to a post-WWII version.» With «Sappho: Poems and Fragments» (1992) and «Classical Women Poets» (1996), Balmer has built an enviable reputation as a classical translator. A volume of poems by Catullus and a book of poems and creative translations of Catullus are due out in early 2004. What did she study and how did she come to be a translator? «I studied classics and ancient history at University College, London, although I’d had a tough struggle learning Greek and Latin at school. It was something I’d wanted to do since reading Greek myths and history books as a small child but, with so few schools teaching them, in the end I had to go to a boys’ school for my Greek A Level as it was the only place for miles which offered it. «Frustrated by the lack of attention paid to works as a literary text, and also by the emphasis on translation as a purely grammatical rather than literary exercise, I started translating at university. I wanted to take the time and trouble to produce something in English that was worthy of the original. In particular, I started work on my first published translation, of Sappho’s poetry, as she hadn’t even been included in the undergraduate syllabus. I was studying for a doctorate at the time but got diverted by translating (which wasn’t allowable as research in those days) and things spiraled from there…» How much call is there for translation of the classics? As much as you make. Translating classical works is rather different from translating modern novels and poetry, as they have almost always been translated many times before – and will be translated many times again. What you are offering is your skill as an interpretative translator, the new light you might be able to throw on ancient texts. People always want to be able to read these works, whether for study or pleasure, and so they need to be retranslated every so often (otherwise we would all still be reading them in Middle English). A good critical apparatus is important, too: An informed and well-written introduction, glossary and notes, which give the reader a fuller picture of the ancient culture in which the work was produced, is always welcome. What particular challenges do the classics represent for a translator? The most obvious one is the lack of an author to ask what he or she might have really meant. There is also the unreliability of the text, with damaged or fragmentary texts or works which have been copied by scribes over and over again. Their exact reading is often difficult to determine and often greatly disputed. The translator has to read a fair deal of scholarship before they can decide what as well as how to translate. Then there are the difficulties in translating dead languages from past cultures, as many cultural references are lost on us, particularly in humorous works or political satires. Again, you have to turn to the invaluable work of classical scholars to help interpret these, although in the end I think it’s important to make your own (informed) decisions. For instance, Catullus’ poetry offers a mixture of obscene street slang and obscure literary references, as well as being addressed to and concerned with a small group of Roman nobility, some famous, such as Julius Caesar, some completely unknown. When translating the poems, I often had eight to 10 different commentaries open on my desk, as well as the usual lexicons (including a specialist guide to Latin obscenities) and historical/biographical dictionaries – sometimes it seemed as if I might disappear beneath them. Again, when I was working on my volume of classical women poets, I was so desperate for information about the often neglected and forgotten writers that I researched and then read every single academic article that had ever been written about them. What can be done to encourage and help young people to develop an interest and pursue studies in the classics? Obviously this usually begins at school and, with Latin and Greek no longer on the curriculum in most state schools in Britain, it is a problem. But classical civilization courses, which offer a study of Latin and Greek literature in translation, are booming (good news for translators). Students who take the course at school often go on to study the original languages at university. And after-school Latin clubs are proving very popular too, especially with wonderful new initiatives in simple and fun teaching materials, very different from the Victorian grammars we had to use in the past. I was down in the far west of Cornwall recently and the local paper was appealing for anyone who could tutor an 8-year-old boy who wanted to learn Latin. The next week it was announced that a retired teacher had come forward and that several of the boy’s friends were also interested in joining the classes. Excellent! What advice would you give to an aspiring translator of the classics? Go for it! Although, as in any publishing venture, you must also do your homework first. For instance, find a work that has been overlooked for some reason: How long is it since a new version appeared? Is anyone planning one? Is it likely to appear on school or university syllabi? What audience are you aiming at – educational, literary, general reader or all three? And, above all, what will be your translation’s «unique selling point»? Why should a publisher commission you to do a new version at this particular time? If you can give good answers to all these questions, translate a long sample and, crucially, give a good synopsis of the sort of introduction and other information you might offer. Again, do your homework on which publishers might be interested – and then start approaching them. Don’t forget, too, that there are other media as well as print in which to work, such as radio and stage drama.