book cover imageLucian’s Dialogues of the Gods,
translated by H. & F. Fowler & W. Tooke,
edited by Nicholas Jeeves.
PDR Press, 2016.
Paperback, 149 pages, $14.

Woe to the great comic authors of the ancient world, none of whom would be terribly good sources for a Boy Scouts of America Campfire Joke Book! How do we present them to modern readers?

The problem is hardly a new one. In Canto I of Don Juan, Byron writes of the hero’s education (clearly a burlesque of his own):

His classic studies made a little puzzle,
Because of filthy loves of gods and goddesses,
Who in the earlier ages raised a bustle,
But never put on pantaloons or bodices.…
Juan was taught from out the best edition,
Expurgated by learned men, who place,
Judiciously, from out the schoolboy’s vision,
The grosser parts; but, fearful to deface
Too much their modest bard by this omission,
And pitying sore his mutilated case,
They only add them all in an appendix,
Which saves, in fact, the trouble of an index.

Byron himself adds in a footnote that there such an edition of Martial does exist—and I can vouch for that by analogy though not by fact. One highly respected Latin textbook has seen fit to let Catullus inform my students that his ex-girlfriend “Lesbia glubit [literally, “peels”] the descendants of great-hearted Remus at crossroads and in alleyways,” but it’s left to me to explain the technicalities of the verb. (“Well, Roman men were not circumcised, so prior to sex a woman would …”)

In general, both our knowledge and our ignorance of ancient literature are given a Picasso-esque sculpting by the rather strange status of Latin and Greek in post-antique Europe. True, they were ecclesiastical and legal languages, but in a broader sense they were men’s languages; or at any rate, only select boys would enjoy this standard curriculum. But I marvel that anybody learned anything from poorly paid, all-but-unsupervised schoolmasters whose main authority was the rod. (Charles Lamb recalls of Christ’s Hospital that the master of the lower form did not even bother to preside over the boys’ diversions, but spent most of his time alone in a private room. The master of the upper form produced sound scholars, but seems—to me, anyway—to have done it by laying about him like a Homeric warrior in a fugue state.)

A racy author of short works with one-liners might at least provide some reward for the toil of deciphering, and some punctuation in the teaching/“cramming.” And these authors pointed forward to some resulting privileges: you, the successful man of parts, would know the proper names for these parts, names unspeakable in the vernacular. Wit and bawdry made up substantial regions of the lofty intellectual province. Hence Thomas More and Erasmus produced the first major translation of Lucian’s Greek, into Latin. Latin extracts of Lucian remained in favor as school texts clear until the late eighteenth century, when standards for gentility began to apply more equally between the sexes. By this time, English translations (one by Dryden) had appeared too, and found wide readerships, but the loss of Lucian from the early curriculum pushed him toward a low status among the classics.

But more was at issue; certainly Aristophanes and Catullus, for example, don’t have to worry about their place in the canon. It’s a fair question whether Lucian—an Assyrian-born but cosmopolitan rhetorician active in the late second century CE—is worthwhile. His masterpiece, the True History, is an ingenious spoof (mainly of ethnographic writing), and famously marks the invention of science fiction. But the jumpy, overfull narration does not recommend even this work, even to a modern academy excited by reconsiderations of the ancient novel. Lucius or The Ass, telling the same basic story (a man is transmogrified and experiences life as a donkey) as Apuleius’s Golden Ass, sounds, in comparison to that masterpiece, like a fantasy computer game: wonder follows wonder, episode follows episode, and nothing’s particularly interesting or conclusive to anyone on the outside peering in.

Lucian’s Dialogue of the Gods is an even weaker draw. In what Nicholas Jeeves makes the headliner joke, on this translation’s back cover, Hermes hopes he has not “unwittingly come in contact with a she-goat,” which would explain his son Pan’s hooves, horns, shaggy beard, and tail. The two-word (usually political) insult familiar from late-night TV isn’t memorably or meaningfully prefigured here.

In another scene of which Jeeves makes much in his introduction, Ganymede, snatched up to heaven, steers a drawn-out, contrived conversation toward a close by asking where he will sleep, and loquaciously fails to understand Zeus’s mustache-twirling insinuations; Zeus then turns the boy over to Hermes for a drink of immortality’s nectar and some training as a waiter—nectar and waiting at the table having endured (we thought) sufficient discussion already. It’s like SNL’s innocent Miles Coppertwaite aboard the Raging Queen, except not funny. As an explosion of mythology, it’s as if the movie Bad Santa were scripted entirely with euphemisms. Lucian’s surviving works (including some of disputed authorship, and some now considered to be pseudonymous), by the way, run to four large volumes. Just imagine a scholarly commitment to this author, as opposed to a look-see in the hope of amusement and interest.

What is kind of funny is this new book’s cover rave, which reads in part, “I know of no stage comedy, or satire, which can be compared with this man’s dialogues”—that’s a piece of native advertising from Erasmus himself. If for no purpose but a better understanding of our ancestors’ tastes (Why Lucian? Why Sallust? Why bear-baiting?), it’s useful to have a well-curated new paperback Dialogues of the Gods in English. Jeeves, a graphic artist and an instructor at the Cambridge School of Art within Anglia Ruskin University, has reconstituted these works from three translators, including the two eccentric Fowler brothers. Since Oxford funded their Lucian (1905), it was not the complete Lucian, but a version expurgated by the Vice Chancellor; seven of these twenty-six dialogues (for instance) fell away. Jeeves restores them with “tweaked” versions from a still earlier translation, that of William Tooke (1820). The Fowler Lucian is out of print, and I can find readily available only one other version of Dialogues of the Gods, by Baudelaire Jones; there is of course a Loeb edition. The Perseus Project, my quickie online reference for original texts and translations, has Lucian works only in Greek. This all amounts to precious little access in contemporary English, even for a second- or third-tier work of the classics.

But Jeeves’s effort hardly boosts Lucian even up to an authentically hubba-hubba rendering. I spot-checked the Greek of passages I’ve cited above, and found that within the naughty dialogues the bowdlerization remains breath-taking, which must mean that Jeeves did little to bring bold authenticity up from a Georgian standard and past an Edwardian one. Among the meanings altered or merely dropped are “begotten in adultery,” “That’s what boy-lovers say,” “kiss passionately,” and “embrace.” Who out there is too delicate to read such things? This corpus offers plenty of chances for useful if not scintillating translation reform to any classicist or amateur who’s willing.  

Sarah Ruden is apoet, translator, essayist, and popularizer of Biblical linguistics. Her translation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia is part of The Greek Plays, a Modern Library collection (2016). The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible (Pantheon) and Augustine’s Confessions: A New Translation (The Modern Library) will both appear in 2017.