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Poetry Review: “Elegies” by Theognis, Translated by Dorothea Wender

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I recently polished off a book that has been on my “to read” shelf for some years now, the 1973 translation of Hesiod’s “Theogeny,” “Works and Days,” and Theognis’ “Elegies,” translated by Dorothea Wender and published by Penguin Classics. It’s a tidy little volume at just under 150 pages of unrhymed iambic pentameter. I’d like to talk about Theognis presently (I will probably deal with Hesiod in some later post).

Now. I don’t like to give bad reviews, to a certain extent because I don’t like to read bad books. Every once in a while, though, one sneaks through, as is the case with this particular translation of this particular poet.

Theognis, so far as we know, was a ancient Greek poet, who lived somewhere in the vicinity of 550 BC, around 200 years after Homer. He was a well educated aristocrat who lived in a city named Megara, (of which there were evidently several), and at some point lost his money and was exiled.

Now, I’ve read some poetry in my time, and this translation of the Elegies of Theognis is at best dull, repetitive, and inherently self-contradictory. The elegies produce the impression of an arrogant, whiny, self-indulgent man in the grip of whatever passed for a mid-life crisis in the iron age. One moment he’s saying that all rich men have unjust hearts, and the next he’s lamenting how poor he is and how he wishes he still had his riches. One moment he says that an honest friend is worth their weight in silver and gold, the next he advises to always be duplicitous, and never tell even your friends the whole truth. The one thing he universally agrees on, though, is that youth is wonderful and being old is worse than being dead. In fact, one gets the distinct impression in a couple places that Theognis is a pedophile. I know I can’t make a claim like that without some proof, so here you go:

1335-1336: “Happy the lover who exercises, then / Goes home to sleep all day with a handsome boy.”

1341-1342: “I love a smooth skinned boy, who shows me off / Against my will, to all his friends.”

1345-1346: “The love of boys is sweet. Even the king / Of the gods, the son of Kronos [that is, Zeus], loved a boy / Ganymede, and he took him to his home / Olympus, and he gave divinity / To him, because he had the lovely bloom / Of youth. Don’t be surprised, Simonides, / To see me love and serve a handsome boy.”

Now, I know it’s not entirely fair to brand these ancient poets with our modern moral sense (I’m sure there was no legal age of consent in ancient Greece), but that doesn’t make it any more palatable to our modern tastes.

The translation isn’t terribly good either. I cannot read Greek, I have never read the Elegies of Theognis before. However, the translator makes the mistake of including prose translations of certain verses in her translation notes when she is particularly liberal with her interpretation. She should have left it in prose!

I am currently reading Eugene Onegin, by Aleksandr Pushkin. It’s translator, Vladmir Nabokov, says some things I agree with. (He penned a literal, unmetered, unrhymed translation of Eugene Onegin.) He puts it bluntly: “can a rhymed poem […] be truly translated with the retention of its rhymes? the answer, of course, is no. To reproduce the rhymes and yet translate the entire poem literally is mathematically impossible.” He gets quite angry towards the end of that paragraph. When I read Homer, it is Homer that I want to read. When I read Dostoevsky, I do not want to read the translator’s interpretation of Dostoevsky. I want to read Dostoevsky.

I recommend Eugene Onegin, by the way, to anybody currently alive. I would only recommend Theognis to a person who loves classical Greek poetry, who doesn’t mind loose translations, and who has read every other poet of the era, and then I would recommend it only for the sake of completion

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About Ezrasteelman

  • Nick

    This is the most hilariously unaware review I have read in a while. It should be titled, “in which the author discovers the ancient Greeks commonly practiced pederasty.” I guess Plato’s Symposium was never on your reading list in college?

  • http://ezrasteelman.blogspot.com Ezra Steelman

    Thank you for your comment Nick. I have not read Plato, and I am happy that my article entertained you. My point simply was that the modern reader (who may or may not have any foreknowledge of ancient Greek literature) would in all probability find such sections distasteful.