Sunday, April 08, 2007

Translation: theory and practice

Maximus Planudes, the great Byzantine scholar of the Palaeologan renaissance, composed a Greek translation of the Distichs of Cato (Catonis Disticha), a collection of moral advice in Latin, of late date and popular for centuries. The portion that caught my eye was the prologue to book two:

Εἰ μὲν γηπονίας ἐθέλεις μαθέειν πολυκάρπους,
Ἡσίοδον μέτιθι κλυτόν. εἰ δ’ αὖ εἰδέναι αἱρῇ
τὰς βοτανῶν δυνάμεις, Νίκανδρος τάς σε διδάξει.
εἰ δὲ Φρυγῶν ποθέεις Δαναῶν τε δαῆναι ἀγῶνας,
δίζεο θεῖον Ὅμηρον, ὃς Ἄρεος ἔργ’ ἀγορεύει.
εἰ δέ γ’ ἐρᾶν βούλει τοῦ ἐρᾶν τε τέχνην ἐπιγνῶναι,
στεῖχε Θεόκριτον ἀμφὶ γυναιμανῆ. εἰ δὲ μέλει σοι
σὺν σοφίῃ ζώειν, κλύε μοι κείνων ἃ μαθεῖν χρή,
ὧν διὰ πᾶς βότον παθέων δίχα πάντα διοικεῖ·
δεῦρ’ ἴθι γοῦν καὶ τίπτε πέλει σοφίη σύ γε μυοῦ.
I'll give a quick and dirty translation (no time to look things up):

If you want to learn about fruitful tillage, follow famed Hesiod.
And if you'd rather know the powers of plants, Nicander will teach you these.
And if you long to learn about the contests of the Phrygians and the Danaans, seek out divine Homer, who tells the works of Ares.
And if you prefer loving and learning the art of love, follow Theocritus on madness for women.

The oddest bit here is probably the reference to Theocritus as a writer of love poetry on women.

Here's the Latin original:
Telluris si forte velis cognoscere cultus,
Virgilium legito; quod si mage nosse laboras
Herbarum vires, Macer tibi carmina dicit.
Si romana cupis et punica noscere bella,
Lucanum quaeras, qui Martis proelia dixit.
Si quid amare libet, vel discere amare legendo,
Nasonem petito;
So on agriculture Vergil was preceded by Hesiod. Despite this common connection, Hesiod was less a model for Vergil than was Nicander, author of the lost Georgica (only fragments, preserved by Athenaeus, survive). Planudes must have known this, but knew just as well that the Georgica could not be consulted, which would render his translation inept in a sense. Advice only matters when it can be followed, even if it is just a literary exercise.

Aemilius Macer will tell you the powers of plants, and he too followed Nicander, this time inspired by the Alexipharmaca, one of Nicander's two extant works (one of our principal manuscripts of the Theriaca and the Alexipharmaca is written in Planudes' own hand). The poem concerned both poisons and antidotes. Lucan, rather than Vergil, is the poet of epic, and he of course followed Homer. Finally Ovid's love poetry was preceded by the amatory idylls of Theocritus. If they did not predominate among his idylls, then at least Ovid had a prodigious output not limited to love poems.

What makes this translation most interesting to me are two things: (1) that Planudes substituted Greek authors who wrote on their various themes before the Romans, and were often their models, and (2) that Planudes only used extant works that his own audience actually could read. This is translation of a sort we rarely see, making the material as relevant and accessible to the audience as if it were not a foreign work at all while still maintaining its antiquarian nature.

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