Reading Greek in Latin

Tom Hendrickson |

Three Ancient Latin Translations of Ancient Greek Works, and One Greek Translation from Latin



 From the Stephanus (1578) edition: Plato’s Euthyphro, with a Latin translation.
    From the Stephanus (1578) edition: Plato’s Euthyphro, with a Latin translation.

Classicists practice a notoriously bad style of translation. Only in a Latin (or Greek) classroom could it be considered good English when a student says “The about-to-be-handed-over hostages were fearing lest Caesar, with his assizes having been held, depart by means of horse without granting any assurance of their own safety.” What does it do to our comprehension when we’re trained to equate Latin literature with sentences like that? (For more on this problem, see Johanna Hanink’s exploration of the gulf between how classicists are taught to translate and how actual translators work here.)

Latin teachers tend to have a near fetish for grammatical precision, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but we have an unfortunate habit of using translation as a way to assess students’ understanding of the grammatical minutiae of a sentence rather than as a way to, you know, translate something. (If you want some great non-translation ways to develop and assess student comprehension, check out this piece by Dani Bostick.)

In a bit of historical irony, the Romans themselves were avid and excellent translators. In fact, Roman literature originated as an act of translation, when Livius Andronicus and others started rendering Greek dramas comprehensible for Roman audiences. It seems to have taken a few decades for the Romans to realize that you even could write original literature in Latin.

Greek literature in Latin translation presents a marvelous opportunity for those of us who want to get to know those languages better. How would a Latin-speaker render a given idea in idiomatic Latin? Just look at the choices that actual Latin translators have made.

There are a lot of Latin translations of Greek works, stretching from the earliest Latin authors through the modern era. In Late Antiquity, Christian authors in the Latin world wrestled with how to translate the mountain of Greek scriptures, commentaries, homilies, apologies, and invective. The Renaissance saw John Argyropoulos bring Greek scholarship to Florence, which resulted in a bloom of translations into Latin. Even as late as the nineteenth century, Migne’s Patrologia Graeca included Latin translations for its many myriad pages of Greek works.

As a small sample, below are three Latin translations of Greek works and one Greek translation of a Latin work, each with a link to a public-domain version. I highlight a couple of tricky decisions that the translators had to face. If you want some good philological exercise, try to think of how you would have translated the Greek into Latin (or vice versa) in these cases.

1. Livius Andronicus (c. 284–205 BC) translation of Homer’s Odyssey

The traditional founder of Roman literature is also, by no coincidence, the first translator of Greek works into Latin. The challenges of translating Homer are many: just ask anyone from Emily Wilson to George Chapman. As Wilson has pointed out, the challenge can be illustrated in a single word: Homer’s description of Odysseus as πολύτροπος, a man of “many-a-turn.” The word suggests both his travels (getting turned about) and his craftiness (turning every which way).


What word would you choose for πολύτροπος if you were making a Latin translation?


I would probably have chosen peritus, which has a sense both of experience and skilled knowledge — though it does lack the sense of trickiness. Andronicus chose versutus. The word is etymologically similar to πολύτροπος, since it joins the stem vert- (“turn”) and the suffix -utus (“full of”). Yet versutus actually lacks the sense of “well traveled,” and it’s a strikingly pejorative term for “cleverness.” Versutus means tricky in a way that is fraudulent or deceitful. In Paulus Diaconus’s epitome of Festus, he defined versuti (Fest. 370M) by saying that “those people are called tricky (versuti) whose minds constantly twist to evil (ad malitiam vertuntur).” I’ve always felt like Odysseus was a jerk. Generations of Roman students, growing up with Andronicus’s Ulysses as “a twisted man,” might well have felt the same. (Only a few pages of fragments survive; here is a link to a Loeb with the Latin and Greek.)

2. Caecilius Statius (c. 220–166 BC) translation of Menander’s Necklace (Plokion)

Everyone agrees that early Roman dramas were translations of Greek dramas. No one knows quite what that means. Some Roman plays seem to be more like reboots: very free reworkings that use the same characters or plot but in a new setting or with a new twist. Others seems to have been closer to straight translations, and there was at least the expectation that the Latin should somehow represent the Greek. Part of the problem is that while we have over two dozen of the Roman translations, we generally don’t have the corresponding Greek originals. One exception is Caecilius’s version of Menander’s Necklace. Aulus Gellius (2.23) happens to have preserved long passages of both for comparison, because that’s the sort of thing that he loves to do. Gellius smugly informs us how superior the Greek version is. Given Roman cultural attitudes about Greek literature, the conclusion is about as surprising as someone now declaring how much superior a given book is in comparison with a movie based on it.

The Greek is different, almost unrecognizably different, but in my opinion not necessarily better unless you prefer sit-com laugh tracks to outrageous obscenity. In Menander’s version, for instance, a husband complains about his wife by saying “She’s hard on everyone — and not just on me, but even more so on my son, on my daughter” (ἅπασι δ’ ἀργαλέα ’στίν, οὐκ ἐμοὶ μόνῳ, υἱῷ πολὺ μᾶλλον, θυγατρί).

How would you render this into Latin?

Probably not with a joke about bad breath and binge drinking, but that’s exactly what Caecilius does.

Husband: “When I got home, sat down, immediately she tries to make out with me with her bad breath [literally ‘fasting breath’].” (Ubi domum adveni, adsedi, extemplo sauium dat ieiuna anima.)
Friend: “No fault there. She wants you to puke up everything you drank while you were out.” (Nil peccat de sauio. Ut devomas vult quod foris potaveris.)

(Link to the Latin and Greek here, and to and English translation here. Make sure to scroll down to chapter 23.)

3. Cicero (106–43 BC) translation of Plato’s Timaeus

Cicero is (arguably) the best Latin prose stylist, and Plato (arguably) the best Greek prose stylist. I would read a Ciceronian translation of Plato even if the work itself were a book-length description of a geometry teacher’s acid trip. Which is pretty much how the Timaeus reads. The original Greek is challenging, and Cicero translated it in part because of that very challenge. It’s a challenge worth trying to take yourself. How would you render the following sentence into Latin: “What is that which always is and has no becoming; and what is that which is always becoming and never is?” (That’s Jowett’s translation for τί τὸ ὂν ἀεί, γένεσιν δὲ οὐκ ἔχον, καὶ τί τὸ γιγνόμενον μὲν ἀεί, ὂν δὲ οὐδέποτε;)

I’ll give you a moment.


Cicero renders it as Quid est quod semper sit neque ullum habeat ortum, et quod gignatur nec umquam sit? It actually seems simple once you see Cicero’s version, but there are areas when he struggles and even seems to give up. Plato, for instance, describes a sphere as the shape that is “most perfect of all and most similar to itself” (πάντων τελεώτατον ὁμοιότατόν τε αὐτὸ ἑαυτῷ). Confused? Cicero thought you might be, so his translation actually explains what he takes Plato to mean: “nothing is rounder … (it has) nothing jagged … nothing protruding, nothing indented by chips or dimples, nothing sticking out, no gaps, and all parts most similar to all other parts” (nihil rotundius … nihil asperitatis … nihil offensionis, nihil incisum angulis nihil anfractibus, nihil eminens nihil lacunosum — omnesque partes simillimae omnium).

(For a magnificent page that sets out in columns Plato’s Greek, Cicero’s Latin translation, the fourth-century Latin translation of Calcidius and the fifteenth-century Latin translation of Ficino, Jowett’s English, and Susemihl’s German, see here. You may have to refresh the page once in order to get the columns to show up.) \


4. Anonymous translation (c. AD 14) of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti

Greek translations of Latin works likewise provide a great lens to look at both languages. When Augustus died, he left a lengthy description of his deeds (res gestae) to be inscribed on his tomb. Copies of the inscriptions were made elsewhere as well, and a translation survives in several Greek-speaking cities. It’s interesting to see how Greeks made sense of Roman terms and Roman institutions. A consul is a ὕπατος (“top guy”), a term Homer uses to describe Zeus. The Senate is the σύνκλητος (“summoned council”) from συγκαλέω (“to call together”), though there was a good term already for a council of old men (γερουσία). The assassination of Caesar is a “crime” (facinus) for a Roman audience, and a “sacrilege” (ἀσέβημα) for a Greek audience. It’s even more interesting to see how the anonymous translator dealt with the imperialist swagger, given that Augustus wrote for the conquering Romans but the translator’s audience was the conquered Greeks.

How should one deal with sentiments like the very first one expressed:


“Below is a copy of the accomplishments of the Divine Augustus, by which he subjected the whole world to the rule of the Roman nation, and of the expenses which he incurred on behalf of the state and the Roman people.” (Rerum gestarum divi Augusti, quibus orbem terrarum imperio populi Romani subiecit, et inpensarum, quas in rem publicam populumque Romanum fecit … exemplar subiectum).

Apparently, the translator decided that on that matter, the less said the better:

“Below is written a translation of the deeds and gifts of Augustus, a god.” (Μεθηρμηνευμέναι ὑπεγράφησαν πράξεις τε καὶ δωρεαὶ Σεβαστοῦ θεοῦ.)

(There is a text with the Latin and Greek here, but if you really want to read the Res Gestae, do yourself a favor and find a copy of Alison Cooley’s edition, which has facing Latin and Greek texts, with translations of each, and a historical commentary.)

Tom Hendrickson teaches Latin and English at Stanford Online High School. His Ancient Libraries and Renaissance Humanism won the Iozef IJsewijn Prize.


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