Wednesday, August 30, 2006

O TEMPORA! O MORES! In Slate, Emily Watson mourns the decline of traditional philology signaled by the success of the Loeb Classical Library series:
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.)


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.
All this is true and is a matter for concern. But I have to say that students using published translations to help them prepare their own translations generally doesn't bother me. When I teach or have taught reading courses in ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, I tell the students to use whatever translation they like, but that when I call on them I will ask them to defend their translation in detail on the basis of the grammar and vocabulary of the original text. And I do, both in class and on exams. Cribs can help with an initial understanding, but you either understand the grammar or you don't.

(Via Rogue Classicism.)

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