Found in Translation

Reading the classics with help from the Loeb Library.

It has always been difficult to say exactly who the Loeb Classical Library, founded in 1911 by James Loeb, is meant for. The series—the 500th volume of which has recently been published with some fanfare by Harvard University Press—is set apart from other, often more reputable sets of classical editions (such as the Oxford Classical Texts or Teubners) by the inclusion of a translation on facing pages. Virginia Woolf celebrated the series soon after it began on the grounds that it offered “the gift of freedom” to “the ordinary amateur,” whose existence was, through the Loeb Library, both acknowledged and “to a great extent made respectable.” Yet from the start, people disagreed violently about the extent to which amateurish approaches to classical literature could ever, or should ever, be “made respectable.” When James Loeb first approached publisher George Macmillan, he was summarily rebuffed: “I am sorry to say that we cannot form a favourable opinion of it from any point of view.”

Indeed, the Loebs for many decades seemed fated to fall between two stools. Their versions of Greek and Latin texts were often not accurate or informative enough to be usable by scholars, plenty of whom considered the series the death-knell for true classical scholarship, an endorsement of the schoolboy habit of using “cribs” to get through Latin class. Meanwhile, those who turned to the right-hand, English page of the old Loebs encountered a text that could be next to impenetrable. Notorious for their bowdlerized translations of the more risqué classical authors, the volumes lapsed into Latin to handle the dirty bits of Greek authors or Italian when dealing with the ribald Romans. Even perfectly decent texts, like the Odyssey, were consistently translated into a stilted language that only very rarely resembled contemporary English. 

The series surivived, despite these shortfalls, because it was the only thing of its kind, and because many authors have been hard to find in any other current English translation. (I believe that the Loeb Plutarch offers the only complete translation into modern English of this essential classical author.) But where have the “ordinary amateurs” gone, you might well wonder? One could argue that they have taken over the academy. Just as scholars once feared, there has been a steady decline in hard-core classical philology—and thanks in part to that, the Loeb Library has lately thrived. Figures like the Oxbridge don in Robert Browning’s “A Grammarian’s Funeral”—who devotes his whole life to parsing the minutiae of ancient Greek while proclaiming, “What’s time? Leave Now for dogs and apes!/ Man has Forever”—are ever rarer in modern classics departments. We no longer feel we have forever: The tenure clock stops for nobody.  Increasingly alive to the fact that ancient literature is about something, not mere grammar, even professional classicists want to hurry ahead to the gist and skip the boring stuff. Many of us turn to Loebs because there just isn’t time to study every particle of classical literature in the detail it might deserve. (That Browning’s shuffling, dusty don would be unlikely to find a job today perhaps shouldn’t make the profession entirely proud.)

As Harvard University Press takes the near-centenary anniversary of the series to announce, the new Loebs provide wonderfully clear and reasonably readable English versions. They also supply useful and high-quality notes and introductions—far superior, in many cases, to the old ones. For instance, John Fitch’s version of Seneca’s tragedies is in every respect an improvement on its predecessor: It is more readable, more accurate, and represents more up-to-date scholarship. Jeffrey Henderson’s new versions of Aristophanes, too, make it clear that Old Comedy was both smutty and—at times—very funny. * This would not have been clear to the Greek-less reader of the old Loebs. General readers who want a quick sample of the whole range of classical literature would do very well to turn to the handy little volume just published in celebration of the series: A Loeb Classical Library Reader. Ignore the blurb, which claims, idiotically, that the book will give you “a taste of the ideas characteristic of the splendid culture to which we are heir.” In 230 pages of excerpts from the Loeb Library, you will see very clearly that ancient Greece and Rome included a vast range of different cultures, and that many of the values held by ancient authors were (duh!) far from splendid. You can read all the way from the dirty trick Odysseus played on the Cyclops, through the rape of the Sabine women, up to Jerome pontificating against materialism and urban life—literature spanning 12 centuries, and you can zip through it all in two hours. 

Yet I admit a churlish part of me feels a tiny pang. I still wonder whether we really should be welcoming these splendid new translations with open arms. I, for one, would be extremely wary of recommending a Loeb in an undergraduate class in which the students were expected to read the original Latin or Greek. The temptation to rely too heavily on the translation would be all the greater now that the translations are so much better than they used to be. That’s perhaps why I enjoyed the 500th volume of the series, a splendid edition by D.R. Shackleton Bailey of Quintilian’s Lesser Declamations, as much as I did. It is a reminder that the old Loeb style is not entirely dead, after all. Shackleton Bailey is a senior and rightly respected Latinist whose English shows little danger of keeping up with the times. 

Never before been translated into English, this latest addition to the collection gives us a vivid picture of the sensational topics that young Roman students, at the equivalent of college or law school, would be made to debate in the classroom, cases involving divorce, theft, property rights, rape, insanity, incest, murder, the glory due to war heroes, and adultery. Even those with no prior interest or knowledge of Roman law, education, rhetoric and social history may be surprised to find themselves gripped by Quintilian’s school exercises.

But they may also be surprised by some rather fusty expressions, certainly for the 21st century. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random, which could have come from a Loeb at any moment in the past hundred years: “Surely she complains of Fortune in that she wasted her boon.” … “Perhaps he belittles me, but I shall venture.” … “Upon my word, if some munificent, or rather excellently deserving, citizen had been struck by lightning in the Forum, I should say all the same that some exceptions should be made.” It will be a shame when this lovely old schoolboy stiffness is eliminated from the series altogether, as one day, it surely will be. For the time being, the Loeb series—despite all its revisions and makeovers—is still offering a version of Greek and Roman antiquity that harks back, however faintly, to a fantasy of Edwardian England. Perhaps some Loeb editions are still meant for the gentleman or lady amateur, just as they always were. Let’s enjoy it while we can.

* Correction, August 16, 2006: In the original version of this article, the translator and editor of the new Loeb Library editions of Aristophanes was misidentified as John Henderson. His name is Jeffrey Henderson. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.