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A Case for Old Translations

Yesterday I had the immense good fortune to read a work of ‘colonized literature.’

At least, I suppose that’s what people would call the book I encountered yesterday. It’s an old British version of an ancient comedy: Terence’s Adelphi, translated by John Sargeaunt for the Loeb Classical Library, originally published in 1912, reprinted in 1925. And this particular copy looks its 97 years. The covers are a dingy red, half torn from the spine; the pages reek of dust, and the ink threatens to rub off on your fingers. In purely physical terms, the book is English through-and-through—just the sort of thing you’d expect to see poking from a British gentleman’s pocket along with his handkerchief or watch-chain.

But my reasons for labelling this book ‘colonized literature’ run far deeper than red cloth covers and bumpy, inky fonts. Because, as I worked through 50 pages of Sargeaunt’s Terence, I realized that—from the perspective of a modern classicist—something had gone horribly wrong with this translation. Actually, in many respects it wasn’t a translation at all—not a Roman Terence, with an ancient forum and ancient currency and ancient diction, but an Anglicized one, with all the propriety and dignity and prudishness of early twentieth-century England imported into an ostensibly ancient setting. This was Terence read through Shakespeare, Athens viewed through the spectacles of a modern man in a three-piece-suit and a bowler cap, Latin thoroughly ‘colonized.’

And yet I didn’t mind the ‘colonization.’ I didn’t mind it one bit. In fact, I was laughing with delight—and when I list some examples from this worthy Sargeaunt’s Terence, perhaps you’ll see why.

There’s nothing like watching staid Latin phrases adopt the liveliness of twentieth-century idiom. Under Sargeaunt’s pen, the ancient currency morphs from minas to pounds, a reference to drinking (potat) becomes ‘at his cups,’ and the Roman forum is ‘the Piazza’—a term conjuring up the warm, exotic flare of an E. M. Forster novel. And such Britishisms abound in this twentieth-century Terence. Mild sentences such as ‘they start going mad from abuse’ (insanire occipiunt ex iniuria) take on a wondrously English specificity: ‘outrage drives men into Bedlam.’ Perhaps most notably, the dignified phrase ‘kind father’ (pater lepidus) has been thoroughly domesticated to an ‘old dear,’ and the ‘good and noble’ Roman man (bonus [et] liberalis vir) becomes an uncontrovertibly British ‘honest man and a gentleman.’

And everywhere the Christianization is obvious. ‘Hem’ (a guttural exclamation) reads as ‘the devil,’ ‘may the gods love me’ (me di ament) becomes ‘as I hope to be saved,’ ‘to the temple of Diana’ (ad Dianae) is now ‘to the Church,’ and betrayal (prodidisti) takes on the tone of Arthurian legend: ‘you have been false.’ Meanwhile, the play teems with Shakespearean stage directions, none of which appear in the Latin. Overall, this 1912 Terence is thoroughly British from one frayed cover to the other—and, as a result, it makes a delicious read.

I’d like to be clear about one thing: if I were translating Terence today, I wouldn’t turn him into a British gentleman, nor would I transform his prose into twenty-first century slang. When it comes to translations, I don’t believe in paraphrasing. I believe in translating.

That said, I’d hate to discard the baby with the dregs of its proverbial bath. After reading Mr. Sargeaunt’s delightful Terential rendering, I’m worried that modern readers might dump his translation altogether in the name of decolonization. And, in my view, that would be a sad act of book-burning. As a conservative, I stand by Mr. Sergeaunt’s book—not as a translation, but as a literary work in its own right, a specimen of that delightful period of self-confidence when British citizens took pride in their culture and had the innocent, unblushing gall to assume that everyone shared their own aspirations to dignity, propriety, and gentlemanly deportment. It’s a naïve assumption, of course, and it died a long time ago, irrevocably crushed by the weight of two world wars. But there’s something sweet about it all the same. It shows real national pride, real social cohesion, real appreciation for the beauties of English-speaking society. And it makes for delicious Roman-British comedy.

The idea that we can or should try to ‘decolonize’ literature is a strange one. The literary canon is always changing, as T. S. Eliot observed, and we don’t have to reject, ignore, or modify the past to enjoy the present and future. Mr. Sargeaunt is just as interesting a fellow as Mr. Terence, and I look forward to reading them both, side by side, for years to come.


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