Reading The Histories


Greek hoplitesI hadn’t always wanted to read Herodotus. He has a mixed reputation among historians, often cited as an unreliable source, gossip monger or simply as a fantasist. Sure, he’s the “father of history” as Cicero called him (or at least of historical writing) and penned the earliest surviving work of non-fiction, but he often doesn’t get the respect that, say, Thucydides gets for his efforts (dry as they might be at times). Herodotus has even been called the ‘father of lies‘ by some modern historians.

Steve Donoghue noted:

Herodotus’s widely acknowledged vulnerability has always been his affection for thomata, the amazing marvel-stories that fill his account and are so scorned by Thucydides.

Yet, you cannot dismiss him lightly. Twenty-five hundred later, his voice still rings out: The Histories is an entertaining, sprawling masterpiece that is referred to and remarked on even today. As Edward Gibbon – the author of the great Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote,

Herodotus sometimes writes for children, and sometimes for philosophers.

I had downloaded Dan Carlin’s lengthy, three-part podcast series on the Persian Empire and its wars with Greece (King of Kings at Hard Core History; great, rambling stuff by the way) for a drive to and from Windsor, last month. I found his enthusiasm for Herodotus was contagious. I decided to buy a copy to see for myself. But which one?

Here’s the problem: translation. Which one(s) to choose of the dozen or more available? I say ones because I am often as likely to buy more than one translation of any work simply to compare them. And yes, I did buy two versions of The Histories (see below).

Almost everything I read written prior to about 1550 is a translation. Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Egyptian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Sumerian, Chinese… languages which I don’t speak. Which means I have to depend on the accuracy and style of the translator. And these past few years, I’ve been reading a lot more material from the classical era (i.e. Greek and Roman). So translation is a very important topic for me.

Hollan'd HistoriesUntil recently, most of my library collection of classical works were older translations, generally penned somewhere in the demi-century of 1880-1930, but I have even earlier versions. These are generally good, solid works, but their language is often fusty and dry. I’ve been trying to update a lot of these books with more modern versions, written in a livelier, more robust style. But that brings its own issues, not least of all accuracy.

Steve Donoghue writes about the need to update or replace old translations for each new generation:

As the old cherished translations of great works – the Rosemary Edmonds War and Peace, the E. V. Rieu Homer, the Dorothy Sayers Divine Comedy, and so on – begin to feel almost imperceptibly dated around the edges. If they’re particularly beloved, the editors might attempt a facelift, bringing in some scholar to write a new Introduction and revise the old translation, maybe providing new notes. But such things are delaying actions only; generally speaking, every age tends to demand its own translations of the canon.

I’ve written about this dilemma in the past, most notably about the many versions of Machiavelli’s works, but also Montaigne, Chaucer, Pablo Neruda, Han Shan, Confucius and others. How do you choose your translation, especially when there are several, all promising to be the best of the latest?

The art and craft of translation, as I said, fascinates, puzzles, bemuses and entertains me. It matters to what and how I read. And when I pick a translation, should I look for something with precision, style or gusto? And how do I tell which is which (aside, that is from obsessively reading reviews online…)? Especially when I’m browsing the bookshelf at the local Chapters, not sitting at home in front of the computer? Well, by opening it, of course… reading some lines, checking the translator’s notes, and jacket descriptions.

And aside from the core material one has to consider the collateral material. Are there footnotes or endnotes, glossaries, maps, sidebars or images to explain the content? After all, the events, personalities, places and activities of 2,500 years ago are not exactly common knowledge today. I need backup material to show me, to lead me, to educate me in the stuff Herodotus took for granted. One picture of a hoplite or one map of the Ionian peninsula may be worth 1,000 words

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Simon Hornblower noted that,

Translators tend to be either “foreignizers” and “domesticators”: The former deliberately keep the original text at an alien distance, while the latter seeks to bring it as close as possible to the language and culture of translator and reader.

I suppose that fits with what I call accuracy versus style, although it’s probably more of a quadrilateral chart than a simple binary one.

Hornblower – a translator of ancient Greek himself – examines two recent translations of Herodotus, one by Tom Holland and another by Pamela Mensch. He tips his hat to Mensch in his review as the better of the two (at least the more accurate):

Tom Holland’s version is constantly sexing up Herodotus so as to make him attractive for a modern readership; that of Pamela Mensch is unadorned, readable, reliable.

Unadorned and readable is hardly stirring praise outside the confines of academia. It’s a ‘nice legs, shame about the face,’ sort of compliment. In a review in the Journal of Classics Teaching it says:

The final recommendation, however, must depend on the quality of the translation itself: Mensch’s version is modern and highly readable, making Herodotus’s narrative race along. Other versions of Herodotus are of course available but the layout and consideration shown to the reader make this one worthy of serious consideration as a textbook.

Highly readable is better. Racing along is, too. But textbook? I think I’ll put this version higher on the ‘accurate’ scale than it is on the stylistic.

How the collateral material is presented and what it covers is also an issue. As Hornblower notes:

Both translators have enlisted distinguished experts to provide introductions and notes: James Romm for Ms. Mensch, Paul Cartledge for Mr. Holland. Both have done fine jobs within the limited space allowed. Mr. Romm comes off better: nearly half again as many notes as Mr. Cartledge, and his are at the foot of the page, the more helpful place, not at the book’s end. All their notes are short, succinct and authoritative; but inevitably they are mostly about traditional political and military history—what is needed for understanding the main narrative. But Herodotus offers such religious and mythological riches as well! Both annotators, especially Mr. Romm, provide basic mythical information. But tougher problems tend to be passed over in silence.

As a reader, having easy access to notes and explanations on the same page is always preferable. One bookmark, rather than two. Hornblower goes into some detail about what might be called the esoterica that the annotators missed. Seems a bit like minutiae to me, but I’m not a historian, so I can’t say whether I’d appreciate its presence or not.

Mensch’s edition gets very few reviews outside the academic. Holland’s version gets a lot more coverage in the media. Perhaps that’s because his publishers (Viking, Penguin Random House) are behemoths with lots of PR muscle to put behind any book they want to get reviewed and read.

But you have to admit that getting any print review of a 2,500-year-old book is pretty good, even when the translation is the bee’s knees. Just think of how many modern thrillers and page-turners you’re competing with. And who’s your audience? How many people like me are reading this stuff today? Still, the reviews of Holland’s works are generally positive, Hornblower notwithstanding.

Justin Marozzi compliments Holland in his review in The Spectator:

One takes one’s hat off to Holland for learning Ancient Greek in order to update Herodotus for a new audience. He is following in some remarkable footsteps, perhaps none more elegant than those of Aubrey de Sélincourt, whose delightful translation readers have loved and admired since it appeared in 1954. The new translation, brisk, modern and idiomatic, gives greater weight to accuracy, with only an occasional loss of fluency.

You can hear Holland himself discuss his translation in the History Today podcast. And also in History Today, Paul Cartledge (who penned the introduction and notes to Holland’s translation), wrote:

In my view, Holland’s is a powerful rendering that allows all the drama and mysteriousness of this great book to be fully appreciated by modern readers.

Well, I’m a modern reader, not a scholar. But I think Donoghue’s lengthy assessment in the Quarterly Conversation (#36) was what sold me:

Holland… heightens drama right up to the limits of what the text of Herodotus will allow, shapes encounters until they read like the best kind of historical fiction. He clearly relishes creating a voice for the Father of History… Holland’s book is a performance of its own, full of gusto and flair, and in that way it beats its predecessors: this is Herodotus the pubman, taking your elbow to tell you stories about the dastardly yet fascinating tyrants of the Near East and the miraculous fables attending them… It’s Herodotus 2.0.

You might well gather that I chose the Holland version. But not alone. There’s always space for one more book (well, okay, on the floor, since every inch of shelf space is overflowing already…).

I wanted something more annotated, more descriptive in its collateral material. And for that, I picked up the massive, 950-page Landmark Herodotus (edited by Robert Strassler, who also gave us the Landmark Thucydides, and translated by Andrea L. Purvis). In Open Letters Monthly, reviewer Panagiotis Polichronakis says this edition,

…thoroughly annihilates all previous editions of Herodotus… Every single aspect of The Landmark Herodotus – most certainly including the translation at the heart of it – is superior to anything else that’s ever been produced on behalf of the author.

High praise indeed. Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Edward Rothstein called it,”…a worthy occasion for celebrating Herodotus’ contemporary importance.” Rothstein then added a good reason for me to buy it: the collateral material.

It may even be that this book makes Herodotus seem less monumental than he appears in other editions, as mystery is stripped away from the book’s exotic allusions and geography. Maps — 127 of them — outline Herodotus’ world; even the text is clearly mapped out, with wide margins offering summaries of each paragraph and identifying the time period.
The headings, index and footnotes let you know precisely where you are in this notoriously winding narrative, providing a set of landmarks far more detailed than anything Herodotus could have found during his tours. The appendices, nonjargony bits of scholarship by various authors, come at Herodotus from as many perspectives as he brings to his inquiries: Herodotus and Athenian government, Herodotus and tyranny, Herodotus and the poets. Photographs of artifacts and statues, most as little worn by the intervening millenniums as Herodotus’ conversational prose, help make history’s abstractions concrete. And the probing introduction by Rosalind Thomas increases readers’ knowledge and curiosity.

Well, that sold me. I love all that material. So here I sit with two translations, newly unboxed, and awaiting my reading. And I still might get the Mensch edition, too. I’ll let you know my thoughts on these translations in the near future, after I’ve had a bit of time with them.

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One comment

  1. I’ve worked out a rhythm for reading the two editions of Herodotus simultaneously. I read 10-20 numbered sections in Holland’s translation, then go back to the Landmark edition and read the same sections. I always end on a divisor of ten, to keep it simple.

    Works for me: the sections are short enough that I can remember the stories and content, but enough to keep the story progressing. And sticking to the 10-20 division makes it easy to recall where I am at any time.

    I really prefer Holland for the translation which I find flows better, but I like the notes, maps and photos in the Landmark edition. It makes for a slow progression to read both, but a thorough one.

    And I just received the Landmark Arrian and Landmark Xenophon to read after this…

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