Some Classical Profanity

Classics debowdlerized

A glance at the 50 most popular volumes in the Loeb Classical Library--the venerable series of facing-page English translations of Greek and Latin classics now published by Harvard University Press--reveals the usual cast of luminaries: Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Homer. But Aristophanes, a star of the classical Greek era, is nowhere to be found.

This is somewhat surprising, because many of his political and social satires make unforgettable reading and, more than 2,400 years after they debuted, the plays still engage audiences. Lysistrata, for instance, the first play in Western literature to depict contemporary females as characters, appeals to women today because its women characters are strong-willed and independent, and shrewdly use their sexuality to lure their husbands away from the battlefield. Yet Aristophanes' absence from the classics bestseller list is also understandable; existing translations--some completed in the mid-nineteenth century--are stilted and bowdlerized. Besides deterring buyers, the outdated language renders his and other classic texts inaccurately.

The Loeb series is changing all that, releasing four or five revised volumes a year with little fanfare. But when a volume of Aristophanes--including The Birds, Lysistrata, and Women at the Thesmophoria--was published in October, the media covered the story. The reason is simple, says series editor Jeffrey Henderson, Ph.D. '72: "Aristophanes is the raunchiest."

So raunchy, in fact, that Victorian-era editors deemed entire scenes too obscene and omitted them from their translations. "The words 'neck' and 'leg' were not used," says Henderson, who retranslated the Loeb's first three volumes of Aristophanes and is at work on the fourth. For example, an excerpt from the 1924 Loeb Lysistrata, in which the heroine explains her scheme to her countrywomen, reads: "If we women will but sit at home, powdered and trimmed, clad in our daintiest lawn, employing all our charms and all our arts to win men's love, and when we've won it, then repel them, firmly, till they end the war, we'll soon get peace again, be sure of that."

Henderson's more faithful rendering of the same passage reads: "If we sat around at home all made up, and walked past them wearing only our diaphanous underwear, with our pubes plucked in a neat triangle, and our husbands got hard and hankered to ball us, but we didn't go near them and kept away, they'd sue us for peace, and pretty quick, you can count on that!"

It's not your grandparents' Aristophanes. In the past 30 years, the series has revamped many translations, reflecting an ongoing shift in classics scholarship that Henderson says can only be a good thing. "I think the Loeb policy is the fairest one: Don't hide anything. Let the readers decide," he says. "The Loeb translations are useful in all the important ways: for laypeople, for scholars, for 'truth' of texts."

When James Loeb, A.B. 1888, founded the library series in 1910, he had both the classics scholar and the average reader in mind. But in those days, books that included "naughty" passages risked being banned or burned, so Loeb instructed translators to alter licentious parts. (When the works of Catullus were published in 1913, ribald sections were not even euphemized, but simply left out.) This style has gone out of favor with classicists, who now opt for more faithful renderings rather than what Zeph Stewart, Mellon professor of the humanities emeritus and executive trustee of the Loeb series, calls "the roundabout way" of translating. For Stewart, the claim of "inappropriate language" is itself inappropriate. "If you say you're going to translate something," he says, "then you should translate it."

Classics scholarship has been transformed in part because of relaxed obscenity laws dating from the mid-twentieth century. Also, in the years since James Loeb founded the library, understanding of Latin and Greek has improved; scholars have recovered more texts and manuscripts that give a clearer picture of the original works; and historical research has shed more light on the world in which they were originally composed.

Harvard University Press became involved with the library in 1933, when James Loeb died, leaving money and the existing volumes to Harvard (see "Renewal of a Classic," September-October 1993, page 48). It does not expect a windfall from the new books. But Henderson is sanguine about the impact of the revised translations, even if the uncensored texts don't make it to any bestseller lists beyond the Loeb's. "I'm confident in the power of the literature to keep the interest alive," he says. "Greeks and Romans are more interesting than people think."

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