The Argonautika by Apollonios Rhodios
Translated, with introduction, commentary, and glossary
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997
Reviewed by: Peter Toohey
Department of Classics & Ancient History,
Unversity of New England,
It is with pleasure that one receives a new translation by Peter Green. His Penguin versions of Juvenal's satires and of Ovid's amatory poetry have long proved useful, not just in the classroom and in the study, but also in the lounge room. Green has always displayed in his translations a remarkable capacity to cater for the needs of a range of readers extending from the student to the general reader.
Perhaps the simplest way by which to exhibit the qualities of Green's translation is to compare a sample of his version with those of his recent competitors, Rieu and Hunter. I reproduce here a few lines from towards the end of Argonautica 1 concerning the abduction of Hylas (1.1221-1234).
Here is Rieu (Apollonius of Rhodes: The Voyage of the Argo: The Argonautica, 1959: 69):
'Hylas soon found a spring, which the people of the neighborhood call Pegae. He reached it when the nymphs were about to hold their dances – it was the custom of all those who haunt that beautiful headland to sing the praise of Artemis by night. The nymphs of the mountain peaks and caverns were all posted way off to patrol the woods; but one, the naiad of the spring, was just emerging from the limpid water as Hylas drew near. And there, with the full moon shining on him from a clear sky, she saw him in all his radiant beauty and alluring grace. Her heart was flooded by desire; she had a struggle to regain her scattered wits. But Hylas now leant over to one side to dip his ewer in; and as soon as the water was gurgling loudly round the ringing bronze she threw her left arm around his neck in her eagerness to kiss his gentle lips. Then with her right hand she drew his elbow down and plunged him in midstream.'
And here is Hunter (Apollonius of Rhodes: Jason and the Golden Fleece, 1995: 32):
'Soon Hylas reached the spring which those who live close by call Pegai. He arrived just as the nymphs were arranging their dance, for all the nymphs who inhabited that lovely ridge were accustomed every night to honour Artemis with songs. Some were nymphs of the mountain peaks and the glades; others were forest-nymphs who had come from far away. The nymph of the spring, however, was just rising from the fair-flowing water when Hylas came, and she saw close at hand how the sweet grace of his beauty blushed red in the rays of the full moon which shone from the sky. The Kyprian goddess set her heart racing and only with difficulty could she gather herself together in her helpless amazement. But as soon as Hylas leant over to dip the pitcher in the stream and the water gurgled loudly as it swept into the echoing bronze, the nymph placed her left arm on his neck and with her right hand on his elbow she drew him down towards her, desiring to kiss his soft mouth. He fell into the middle of the eddying stream.'
And here finally is Peter Green's translation (pp. 74-5):
'Hylas, then, came to the spring that was known as The Fountains by local inhabitants. Just now, as it chanced, the dances of the nymphs were being held there; for it was their custom, that of all the nymphs who dwelt around that lovely mountain, ever to honour Artemis with nocturnal song. (1225) Now all whose haunts were hilltops or mountain torrents, the guardian wood nymphs, these were ranged apart; but one water nymph had just swum up to the surface of the sweet-flowing spring. Before her she saw young Hylas in a blushing glow of sweet gracefulness and beauty: (1230) for on him the full moon, shining clear from heaven, now cast its light. Aphrodite fluttered her senses, leaving her stunned, scarce able to gather her wits. But the moment he dipped his pitcher in the current, Crouching over sideways, and the brimful stream rang loud, (1235) as it hit the echoing bronze, then she at once slipped her left arm round his neck from above, in urgent longing to kiss his tender young mouth, and with her right hand drew down his elbow, plunged him into mid-eddy.'
Of the three Rieu's reads the most easily. Selling this rendition to students is a simple task. Alas, this fluency is achieved by a rather free setting of the Greek. For example 'the nymphs of the mountain peaks and caverns were all posted way off to patrol the woods' is not quite what the OCT has. 'Limpid' is stronger than the Greek. And Rieu can embellish whole clauses ('Her heart was flooded by desire; she had to struggle to regain her scattered wits'). In many ways Rieu, as is often acknowledged, makes Apollonius more fluent than he actually was.
Hunter's version is, as he confesses in the introduction to his translation, a serviceable and reliable (an utile) prose translation. It works well enough in classroom, but perhaps not so well in the lounge room. Hunter occasionally makes the Greek seem harder than it is ('and she saw close at hand now the sweet grace of his beauty blushed red in the rays of the full moon which shone from the sky') and creates a more complex texture in his version than is there in the Greek ('but as soon as Hylas leant over to dip the pitcher in the stream and the water gurgled loudly as it swept into the echoing bronze, the nymph placed her left arm on his neck and with her right hand on his elbow she drew him down towards her, desiring to kiss his soft mouth', 1234-8). Some of his epithets are flat or archaic - 'lovely', 'fair-flowing', 'sweet'. But I suspect that Hunter may believe that these reflect the often flat tenor of the Greek. The major drawback of Hunter's Apollonius is that it is not in verse. This has two disadvantages for the sorts of audience most liable to use a translation. The first is that they have to be constantly reminded that they are reading a poem and not a novel. The second it that it is much more difficult to key a prose translation into the Greek and hence to place it within the references of the secondary literature (a constant necessity for students in translation classes.)
Green's translation reads very well indeed. It catches some of the stiffness of Apollonius' verse, even if it is occasionally a little too prosaic. Students, I have learnt, find Green's version easier to read than Hunter and, perhaps as a result of this, easier to stay with. Furthermore his translation does key in well with the Greek and allows students to comprehend that they are reading a poem and that this translation offers a ready window into the increasingly abundant secondary literature.
What is most remarkable about Green's translation of Apollonius is how close he is able to stay to the Greek (at times he can be used as a good crib) without at any point sacrificing accuracy. Green's version of 1.1229-32, for example, is exemplary both in its clarity and accuracy. In many ways the quality of Green's translation approaches that of Lattimore's. Let us hope that his outstanding translation will do as much for Apollonius as Lattimore has done for Homer. This Argonautika is a very welcome event and it should, provided it stays in print and in paperback, become the standard classroom and lounge room version. We should feel grateful indeed.
What of Green's notes? These are intended, like Jones' on the Odyssey or Willcock's on the Iliad, to supplement an English translation. Their aim is to satisfy the needs of the undergraduate, Greekless reader, and, at the same time, the putative needs of our lounge room reader. (I should also add that the book comes equipped with an excellent glossary, a set of maps, a detailed bibliography, and an index.)
Let us stay with Hylas. How helpful is Green on this episode? The main gloss on this passage provides considerable scholarly apparatus. It mentions the popularity of Hylas' seduction in visual art, the indeterminate chronology sequence that exists between Apollonius' narrative and Theocritus' version of the same event (in Idyll 13), a few elliptical remarks on the status of the possibly amatory relationship that exists between the two, and some helpful comments on the historical provenance of the visual representations of the seduction scene (late and Roman). A long paragraph (with untransliterated and untranslated Greek words) follows on sexuality.
My students, Australians admittedly, found it difficult to work out what, beyond the purveyance of interesting facts and opinions, Green was trying to say on this matter. It is as if, to use the argot of local journalists, he has 'buried his lead'. Students (and general readers too) most want to know whether Heracles and Hylas were, or were likely to have been lovers. This question (the 'lead') needs to come first. Given the extremely episodic nature of this book (and of Books Two and Four, for that matter), it would be helpful to say something about the implications of the juxtaposition and sequential proximity of this episode with those preceding. The juxtaposition of this episode with that of Cyzicus and Cleite (in which the dominant theme is surely frustrated love) and that with the Hypsipyle episode (more love, albeit of a not very intense form), tells us something about the Hylas and Heracles narrative - it is not unlikely that love is important here too? These very simple equations, in a commentary for an inexperienced audience, deserve stressing.
I do not mean to cavil. Green's notes are often both entertaining and very instructive (see that on 1.1280ff.), but a shift in emphasis, a little downmarket I'd say, would serve students and the general reader better. The notes on the Hylas episode are perhaps symptomatic of the whole (possibly with the exception of those on Book 3 where perhaps the interaction with Hunter lends them more precision). Green's notes and commentary are sometimes a little perplexing and, seemingly, beside the point. They'll be used (and very much enjoyed) but not perhaps to the extent that they could be. Alas, I must say, the same point could be made of the introductory essay: studentsy will find these dense forty pages very heavy going. They need, I believe, simpler and more schematic help, of the sort perhaps provided by the introduction to Hunter's translation. This is, I think, a pity. A reordering and a simplifying of the argument are what the audience for this book really needs. Without this I doubt that they will have the patience to follow the argument.
Students and lounge lizards aside, there is much of interest in Green's prefatory essay. This Introduction to the translation presents Green's own reading of the Argonautica. It begins with a witty and learned rundown of the evidence concerning Apollonius' life and is followed by an examination of the evidence for the reality of the quarrel between Apollonius and Callimachus. It does not entirely surprise that Green inclines towards the historicity of the feud. Green is known both for his reading against the grain (to dismiss the reality of the quarrel is philological orthodoxy) and for his historicist leanings (remember his defence of Highet in his Penguin Juvenal?). Green bases his argument on the size of the Argonautica and argues that this reflects Homeric practice and contradicts Callimachean dicta. Where does Green place Apollonius' poem within the ancient epic tradition? Although the evidence is scant, he seems to believe that Apollonius is in direct descent from Homer and that his large-scale poem is typical of contemporary Hellenistic practice: there were plenty of epics and they were large- scale, rather like Apollonius' poem. They contradicted Callimachean practice. Green sets himself firmly against Cameron's Callimachus and his Critics.
The fourth and fifth sections of the Introduction argue controversially that Apollonius was neither rationalizer nor allegorizer. Apollonius was a traditionalist who believed in the reality, the historicity of the mythic tradition. Apollonius, Green suggests, rejects this rationalizing of writers such as Dionysius Scytobrachion (who would strip myth of its historicity) and turns a doleful gaze back on the Archaic period. He writes a poem that was a 'reconciliation of opposites, an epic geste as experienced by heroic yet vulnerable human beings' (p.35). For Green intertextualism, thankfully, is not the way to read the Argonautica. This is above all a poem dramatizing 'that persuasive sense of human uncertainty, shiftlessness, and ignorance in the face of an unknown that extends from divine motivation to the unpredictability of the future, from magic and other counternatural powers to the gaping cracks in the fabric of the old heroic ethos' (p.39).
COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 4 Issue 2 - April 1998 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington antiquity-editor@classics.Server.edu.au ISSN 1320-3606
by Kaavya Giridhar