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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation / literary essays



The Loeb Classical Library
and Its Progeny


edited by
Jeffrey Henderson and Richard F. Thomas


general information | our review | links

To purchase The Loeb Classical Library and Its Progeny



Title: The Loeb Classical Library and Its Progeny
Editors: Jeffrey Henderson and Richard F. Thomas
Genre: Anthology
Written: (2020)
Length: 432 pages
Availability: The Loeb Classical Library and Its Progeny - US
The Loeb Classical Library and Its Progeny - UK
The Loeb Classical Library and Its Progeny - Canada
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • Proceedings of the First James Loeb Biennial Conference, Munich and Murnau 18-20 May 2017

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good overview of the four series, and a great deal of fascinating material about translating and publishing classical works

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       The Loeb Classical Library and Its Progeny collects, as the subtitle explains, the: Proceedings of the First James Loeb Biennial Conference, Munich and Murnau 18-20 May 2017 -- a total of seventeen papers.
       James Loeb was the man behind the Loeb Classical Library, founded in 1911, with Harvard University Press its sole publisher since 1989; the series presents classic Greek and Latin texts in the famous pocket-sized hardback editions, printed with the original text facing the English translation. In recent decades three more such series, covering other classic texts, have been introduced by Harvard University Press: the I Tatti Renaissance Library, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, and the Murty Classical Library of India, each of which is published in a larger format but also prints the text in the original language opposite an English translation. (There are other, similar series -- notably the NYU Press-published Library of Arabic Literature -- but the focus in this volume is very much on the Harvard University Press-published series.)
       As editor Jeffrey Henderson explains in his Preface, the Munich/Murnau conference was the first of four planned James Loeb Biennial Conferences, taking:

stock of the Harvard bilingual libraries in light of more general themes and issues that bear on translations of "classical" texts and their audiences in a variety of societies past, present, and future.
       The volume begins (beyond the brief Preface) with an introductory piece by Glenn W. Most, 'Loebing: A Personal Account', with the remaining papers then grouped, thematically-linked, into five different sections.
       Most's 'Loebing' amusingly begins by noting that early in his career -- he began studying classics in 1970 -- it was generally considered a bad sign: "if one was caught consulting a Loeb, for to do so suggested that one was not really capable of translating the Greek or Latin text by oneself" -- and that:
it was a much worse sign if one was caught doing a Loeb, for this meant that one no longer considered oneself a serious scholar but had given up one's own membership in the professional community and was henceforth addressing the world alone; and this was likely to be an incurable condition that for one's professional career was ultimately going to prove fatal.
       Jan M. Ziolkowski also reports that his: "undergraduate and graduate years fell during the deepest trough in the prestige of LCL" (finding itself punned as: "low-ebb") -- though some others, such as the somewhat older Christopher Shackle, did not shy nearly as much away, Shackle admitting in his paper:
I first used them as a Classics student at Oxford and quickly found them to be an indispensable resource. How else, I wonder, should we have managed to get through those very large numbers of Greek and Latin Classics prescribed for examination by translation at sight of randomly selected passages [...] ?
       (Admittedly, Shackle didn't pursue 'pure' Classics like the others, with his focus on the (then still so-called) Oriental languages.)
       As Most notes, as his career progressed a change became noticeable, and: "the Loebs too were becoming more professionalized" -- and:
     The result was that, after a certain point, perhaps sometime in the 1980s, Loeb editions started to become much more serious, but without losing their convenience and fun.
       Eventually, Most himself worked on new Loeb editions -- first two volumes of Hesiod, and then, together with André Laks, the landmark nine-volume Early Greek Philosophy-collection (HUP, etc.). As he notes, the standard Presocratic reference work, the legendary Diels-Kranz Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, has not been updated since its fifth edition from the 1930s, and is thus in many respects no longer as up-to-date as one would wish; if (much) older Loebs were often perhaps of little more serious use than gentlemen-cribs:
There can be little doubt that ours will be the edition that most people will reach for first" it is more complete than others, offers better texts in more perspicuous arrangements, and provides translations for all of them. It will not only be a new edition of reference, it will doubtless become over time the other edition of reference, next to Diels-Kranz.
       [I have the set, and while daunted by the idea of actually reviewing it, can, as someone who has long been deeply interested in the Presocratics, attest to its usefulness (as in also that I do indeed frequently (re)turn to it); for a review, see e.g. Alexander P. D. Mourelatos' at the invaluable BMCR.]
       The first section proper of The Loeb Classical Library and Its Progeny then consists of four papers by the (then) General Editors of the four Harvard University Press series, beginning with Jeffrey Henderson's on 'The Loeb Classical Library and the Process of Translation'. As he -- somewhat surprisingly -- notes at the outset: "a history of the Library has yet to be written", and his paper does offer a good, quick summary of its history and evolution. [The Harvard University Press site offers a short History of the Loeb Classical Library, too, but, yeah, somebody should really write a full-length institutional biography.] Since it is much older than the other series, the LCL has also undergone much greater change, and Henderson sketches many of these out well, confirming also Most's comments on a series that has successfully embraced a new and more scholarly role over the past decades.
       It's interesting to learn about some of the publishing-detail, too, such as that: "the Library has consolidated the over 300 style sheets represented in the Library at the turn of the millennium within a single set of guidelines for style, format, and technical quality". Henderson covers things such as the editorial process involved with new projects, as well as the "process of renewal", with new editions and translations replacing some of those that are no longer adequate. Like the other General Editors in their papers, Henderson takes note of the issue of digitalization; in the case of the LCL, he notes that: "a happy by-product of creating the online Library was the need to digitize all its volumes" (revealing also interesting titbits such as that the Greek was all done by hand, as it: "cannot be scanned with anywhere near the accuracy required to compete in terms of labor and expense"). (With its online site, the LCL has also gone furthest of the four series in making its material easily digitally accessible.)
       The other series are much newer, with the authors writing on each not just the General Editors but also the founding ones, and each interestingly describes how the different series came into being. Much attention is paid to the remit of each press -- what authors, what books, what periods are to be covered: James Hawkins' paper on the I Tatti library includes, as an Appendix, the (updated) prospectus listing all the titles they imagined the series covering, while Jan M. Ziolkowski describes how the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library fits in between and alongside the Loeb and I Tatti series (including, where there is an overlap in the period covered: "the unwritten agreement has been that LCL will embrace non-Christian writers but surrender Christian ones to DOML"). Sheldon Pollock goes so far as to title his paper: 'What Should a Classical Library of India Be ?", as the Murty Classical Library not only encompasses so many more languages but is constantly faced with questions of which literatures and works might fit in it. In all the cases, it is interesting to hear about the selection process involved -- which generally also includes the ambition to look beyond the seemingly obvious, expanding the classical horizons of contemporary readers.
       The editors all discuss issues of translation and finding translators equipped for the difficult task, repeatedly noting that many very well-qualified scholars nevertheless lack that ability to render these classical texts into appropriate English. And, as Pollock notes, with the Murty Library, the challenge of finding translators is particularly great:
Unlike the situation in Greek or Latin or even Anglo-Saxon, the number of scholars in the world who can confidently read Apabhramsha or Prakrit or even classical Kannada or Telugu can be counted, literally, on one hand.
       It's interesting to learn what sells -- Hawkins reports of the I Tatti volumes that Boccaccio's: "Famous Women has remained our best-seller at over 7500 copies sold", while the first volume of Ficino's Platonic Theology has surprisingly sold over 5000 copies (explained by the fact that apparently some "upmarket New Age cults" are really into Ficino); overall: "the whole series of ninety-two volumes as of 2020 has sold over 115,000 copies". Meanwhile, Ziolkowski reports that, rather unsurprisingly, The Beowulf Manuscript is the bestselling Dumbarton Oaks title, already in its fifth printing. Nevertheless, the financial situations are not entirely rosy -- as they also were not for the Loeb series for a period decades ago -- with Hawkins, in particular, discussing the difficulties of supporting these ambitious series.
       Having to deal with so many more languages and literatures in the Murty series, Pollock's paper is particularly interesting, discussing the large variety of issues that need to be addressed -- down to the difficulties of typography for the printing of the text in the original languages, all the typefaces designed afresh ("and at considerable expense") for the series. (See also the overview at the official site.) Overall, it's a particularly fascinating discussion of the many issues going into the creating of this remarkable series. (There's also a nice dig in a footnote at Roberto Calasso's The New York Review of Books review [$] of an early batch of the Murty titles -- Pollock suggesting: "The writer appears not to have opened any of the books under consideration, somehow convinced instead that he had been commissioned to review Moriz Winternitz's general index of the Sacred Books of the East".)
       The remaining four sections of The Loeb Classical Library and Its Progeny each gather three papers on a different theme, but all having to do with the translation of classics. The second part, for example, looks at 'The Sacred Translated', with pieces on translation in Buddhist Asia, 'The Challenges of Editing a Polemical Translation from the Thirteenth Century: The Extractiones de Talmud', and one on Lorenzo Valla and the New Testament.
       The third part looks at 'The Challenges of Premodern Translation', with Elizabeth M. Tyler making the interesting case for just how pervasive and influential classical texts were in early English writing -- finding: "Old English texts are much more forthocming about Alexander than about Beowulf" Julia Haig Gaisser's piece on 'Les amours de Catulle and the Adventures of Catullus' looks at Jean de la Chapelle's bestselling seventeenth century work and the 1707 English translation -- paying particular attention to the translations of Catullus in each, including the odd situation arguably behind the fact that the English version never really caught on:
The most probable cause for its relative obscurity is that the English translations [of Catullus], far more faithful than those in their model, do not support the narrative, and indeed are often at odds with it. Instead of the pleasure in seeing the author's play with his sources, English readers would have felt a jarring disjunction between the story and the illustrative poems.
       (Interestingly, this volume includes a second paper that also deals with the work of Catullus in translation, Jennifer Ingleheart's on Richard Burton and Leonard Smithers' collaboration.)
       The final paper in the third part is Stuart Gillespie's fascinating look at 'Amateur Translators of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries', which looks at the vast amount of unpublished translation of classical works of the period; as he notes, once he started looking in manuscript collections he found that the expected: "'quite a few' soon turned into 'an enormous number'". As he notes, these manuscripts are a valuable resource:
Instead, we get a window onto a translating culture that was not previously in view, and we begin to appreciate its dimensions, its diversity, and its vitality.
       The fourth part addresses 'The Challenges of Contemporary Translation' -- and begins with a paper on one of the most-discussed classical translations of recent times, as Emily Wilson writes on: 'Translating the Odyssey: The Ethics of Translation'. She gave the paper a few months before the translation was published (though, as is the case with all the papers, they have been revised and updated for this collection), and while much of the material here has by now been discussed at length elsewhere as well, it is still an excellent and very interesting overview of her concerns and approach in tackling Homer. She usefully compares older translations, and discusses everything from the fact that the Odyssey has previously been regarded from an overwhelmingly male gaze (and the obvious problems with that) to questions such as whether prose is adequate to render what Homer did, or, if verse, how to approach that (Wilson noting that: "the regular metrical rhythm of the original text is, for me, an integral element in reading Homer"). Among the other titbits of interest: her choice to stick strictly to the same number of lines as the original, well aware of the bloat that so otherwise so easily creeps in.
       James Hankins -- the only contributor with two papers in the collection -- also writes about 'Greek Constitutional Theory in the Italian Renaissance', a topic he expands on in his recent Virtue Politics (HUP; 2019), while Christopher Shackle writes specifically about the two translations he did for the Murty series, in 'Translating Two Sufi Classics from South Asia', again offering more insight into the larger process of translation as part of these series.
       The final section looks at 'Texts and Social Texts Across Space and Time', beginning with Indira Viswanathan Peterson's interesting look at the Pañcatantra (and Hitopadeśa) and Aesop's fables in translation in colonial India. Niels Gaul, meanwhile, looks at, among other things, the paratextual spaces of, for example, Byzantine schoolbooks, in 'Fringe Encounters'. Finally, Jennifer Ingleheart uses the example of Burton and Smithers' Catullus in examining 'Translation, Identity, and the History of Sexuality'. Unsurprisingly, anything to do with Richard Burton proves fascinating, and her look at this, and Smithers' embrace of the pornographic (for, apparently, the simple reason that he quickly realized: it sells), is indeed quite fascinating.
       As with most any conference-collection, some of the papers do arguably stray into what might appear to be the more tangential, and certainly a tighter focus on the four Harvard series alone could have provided more than enough material for a substantial volume -- as noted, there still isn't even a full-length history of the Loeb series ... -- but there's also something to be said for the range of pieces on offer here.
       (One slight disappointment as to the otherwise well-presented volume: the lack of an Index. Everything should be indexed !)
       Overall, The Loeb Classical Library and Its Progeny is an excellent collection shedding light on many facets of the translation (and publication) of classical literature. It is of obvious interest to anyone interested in translation, but especially anyone curious about translation of the classics. While certain areas, not covered by the series are, understandably neglected -- Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese are just the most obvious examples -- the area and literatures under the remit of these series is very well-covered, and the overall quality of the pieces is high. If some of the authors might get a bit carried away in particular detail, the papers are almost all entirely accessible even to the more or less lay reader. Of particular note, also: while translation is at the forefront of most of the collection, most of the pieces also provide interesting detail about the publishing of classical translations, both now and in the past, from the technical aspects to the circumstances (what was being published when, and who was reading it) -- an invaluable aspect of the collection.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 January 2021

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© 2021 the complete review

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