Posts Tagged ‘ancient fiction


A Fresh Take On Aesop

Aesop's FablesAesop’s Fables, translated by Laura Gibbs

With so many different versions of Aesop’s Fables, it’s probably futile to say one is the one to get. But still: if you’re only going to get one collection, you can’t go wrong with the Oxford World Classics edition.

For starters, it’s about as complete as you’re going to get. It collects 600 fables, taken from sources as diverse as Ancient Romans like Babrius and Phaedrus to Medieval manuscripts by Ademar and Odo of Cheriton. It’s a much wider cross-section than other collections (Penguin, for instance, has less than 400 fables in their “complete” collection). It has all the ones you remember, from the boy who cried wolf to the tortoise and the hare, but it has dozens most are likely unfamiliar with.

Here’s where this collection’s second strength comes in: the editorial work of Laura Gibbs. Not only has she translated all 600 fables into clear and modern English, but she’s gone a step further and organizing them by subject. All the fables about gratitude are lumped together, separate from ones about judges and ones about foolish gods. As a result, it’s a less haphazard read and makes it easier to navigate, especially if you’re looking for one in particular. She’s also supplied each with it’s Perry number, making it easy for people who want to compare it to Perry’s untranslated Greek and Latin edition. She’s also provided some useful footnotes and a nice introduction.

What about the fables themselves? They’re a blast, running the gamut from witty to instructive. Most offer at least some practical lesson – it’s not hard to see why so many people become familiar with them as children – but nearly all of them have a clever little turn of phrase or joke in them. Indeed, there’s a few sections included here of Aesopic jokes. One of my favorites has Diogenes getting insulted by a bald man and replying :

“Far be it from me to make such insults. But I want to complement your hair on abandoning such a worthless head.” (pg 268)

There are others I enjoyed, like Aesop and the Soothsayers or The Fox and The Stork. And there’s a ton you’ll recognize: the story of two pots, the snake and the farmer or the one about the goose who lays golden eggs.

The big drawback here comes from it’s sheer bulk. There’s so many fables that reading it cover to cover makes them all feel kind of samey after a while: some are variants, others just touch on similar themes. I found that reading them in a row led to some of them all blending together after a while. This is book that’s better read piecemeal, dropping in here and there for a fable or two.

Rating: 8/10. Even though they can blend together, this is as good a collection of Aesop as I know of. It’s bulk blows the Penguin and Signet editions out of the water, it’s translation never feels watered down or meant for children and it’s cheaper than the Loeb edition.  Recommended!


Where It All Begins: The Odyssey

The OdysseyLast week, I wrote about the problems of translating, especially when it comes to translating ancient poetry. If you read that, you probably noticed a couple of names I dropped: Rober Fagles and Bernard Knox. So this week, I’m taking a look at what I consider their best work: their joint edition of Homer’s The Odyssey.

Among those who read the classics, people generally fall into one of two categories: those that like Homer’s Iliad and those who like The Odyssey. I don’t think there’s a wrong choice, but I’m personally more of an Odyssey guy. Even to people without much knowledge about ancient Greece (Mycenaeans if you wanna be technical), it’s a fun read, the forerunner to generations of adventure stories. You probably know the plot: after the fall of Troy, Odysseus roams around the world trying to find a way home. He spends years living with Calypso on an island, tricks the cyclops Polyphemus, is tempted by the sirens and all that. Will he make it back safely? Will his son Telemachus outwit the lazy suitors of his mother Penelope, who by hanging around the palace and eating all his food are slowly draining away their resources (and plotting to murder him)? And will poor Argo the dog ever see his master again? The story has inspired everything from Virgil’s Aeneid to Joyce to O Brother, Where Art Thou.

So, what makes this edition the one to read, when there’s dozens of translations out there. Penguin Classics has this, plus a prose translation by E.V. Rieu in print, not to mention acclaimed translations by Richard Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald or Alan Mandlebaum. What sets this one apart? For one, I wanted a verse translation (goodbye Rieu) and I wanted one with a detailed introduction. I wanted something with some notes and maybe a postscript, but I didn’t need critical reactions. I was hoping for something a little contemporary. Both Fitzgerald and Lattimore’s translations were written over 40 years ago, but Fagles came out in 1996 and I found it a little fresher feeling.It did the trick for me: his translation is the strongest thing in this book’s favor: it’s accessible, detailed and fun to read, especially out loud, which is how this should be read. He doesn’t stray from the Greek names, but he does transliterate them a bit: for example, it’s Calypso, not Kalypso and Odysseus, not Ulysses.

I was also impressed by the long and informative introduction supplied by Bernard Knox, which covers nearly everything you want to know about the poem and more. Knox works back from the current day to what we know about the origins of the poem and, surprisingly, how it was all but lost for centuries when people stopped reading Greek; Dante only knew him through Virgil, which explains his appearance in Inferno. He breaks down it’s oral traditions, it’s characterization and more, referring to criticism that goes as far back as On the Sublime and as recent as Singer of Tales.

It’s a helpful introduction to the Homeric world that helps neophytes understand a little more about the context for the poem, but doesn’t spell it out for you the reader, either. I don’t always recommend reading an introduction before diving into an unfamiliar book, since they often assume prior knowledge and give away the plot, but this is a good exception. And it actually got me interested enough that I’ve picked up some of the books listed in the further reading section (check back someday for reviews on H.D.F. Kitto’s The Greeks and M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus).

Rating: 9/10. I don’t think there’s really a good excuse not to read Homer if you’re serious about reading. His influence over culture is everywhere and even if you’ve never heard of him before, you’ve probably picked up elements of this story over the years. And even if you were taught The Odyssey in high school (although I didn’t read it until after college), I can’t recommend reading it again as an adult. It’s absolutely fucking timeless and the most accessible of all the ancient fictions. Forget whatever O Magazine recommends, this will make a rad summer read.


Humor’s universal, but is it timeless? On Juvenal’s Sixteen Satires

Sixteen Satires

There’s always an unspoken problem with anything translated: what about the details that aren’t part of the language? Sure, anyone can translate Homer to English, but why is it that Robert Fagles is preferred to E.V. Rieu? For me, it’s a simple sounding answer: because some are to grab the nuances in the text, to give it a particular feel and rhythm. But that’s not really it: what about context? Nuance? All the things that can’t be translated?

I had all these in mind when I started reading Penguin Classics’ edition of the poetry of Juvenal.  He was a Roman poet back in the first century AD and his 16 existant satires are blistering broadsides against his society, one which he thinks is filled with decadence, corruption, vice and Greek influences (if only he lived to see the Byzantines!). He was a favorite of Dr. Johnson and several other old English authors, but they largely read him in Latin. I wasn’t, so I didn’t expect a ton from this collection. I wasn’t really surprised, either.

As a whole, it’s an interesting collection. Juvenal’s stuff occasionally drifts into complete bitterness, but some of his images have stuck with me: the pedestrian crushed by a load of rocks, reckless and above-the-law soldiers terrorizing commoners, the storm at sea in satire XII. But by and large, Juvenal just rages against anything and everything, completely full-bore. Here’s where the familiar phrase “bread and circuses” came from and it’s one of his more restrained moments.

So, this is where the problem with reading him lays: the world he’s satirizing is long gone, but for his audience it was a part of daily life. When he mocks people, I assume his audience knew who he was talking about. Reading him in 2013, we don’t. It relies on the translator or editor to provide these details for us, to help bridge the gap.

Here’s where I found translator Peter Green at his best: his notes were plentiful and helpful, if tucked away in the back (expect a lot of flipping back and forth). I found his translation decent, if a bit English in nature, and he occasionally tries to modernize it a bit: changing money amounts to pounds sterling, or the names of a few fish to one’s more commonly known to Brits. It was interesting to see Green drop some harsh language, too, which I didn’t really expect. In Penguin’s edition of Catullus, the text was either sanitized or left untranslated whenever Catullus got a little too risque (like when he said he wanted to face-fuck his critics). Still, I’d like to check out the revised edition that came out a while back and see what changed, not to mention the other translations out there.

All in all, the unrelenting bitterness can get a little repetitive and frankly, my tastes run more towards poets like Martial. But I won’t deny his historical importance, either. He inspired a great many people and I think some of his tone is sorely missing from a lot of today’s writers; it’d be great to see what he thinks of the debt crisis in Europe or of HBO’s Girls.

Rating: 6/10. Recommended for ancient history buffs, especially those into Roman poetry. But if you’ve never dabbled in the genre before, I’d recommend starting elsewhere: Fagles and Knox’s editions of Homer or Virgil, A.D. Melville’s translation of Ovid or a decently-sized anthology. But don’t write him off entirely: there’s still a place for Juvenal in the 21st century. Some things never change in society.