Poetic and Performative Memory in Ancient Greece: Heroic Reference and Ritual Gestures in Time and Space

  Calame, Claude. 2009. Poetic and Performative Memory in Ancient Greece: Heroic Reference and Ritual Gestures in Time and Space. Hellenic Studies Series 18. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_CalameC.Poetic_and_Performative_Memory_in_Ancient_Greece.2009.

Translator’s Preface

This translation, undertaken with the support of the Fondation Chuard Schmid at the Université de Lausanne and the Center for Hellenic Studies, is intended in part to address our ambivalence about translation. Translation nearly always represents compromise in our various fields of study. Academics, especially those specialized in some specific language area, naturally prefer the original of any work, in its original language. Everyone accepts compromise in this as in many things, as there would be little time left for much else if we attempted to master all the languages required for the study of Western thought, particularly at the high level required to discuss and debate proposed interpretations of those texts. We all find ourselves obliged to rely on translations from time to time, sometimes even translations of major works and primary sources in languages where our skills are limited, but we don’t really like it any more than we like our students reading the Cliff Notes rather than Dickens in the original.

On the other hand, translation of scholarly works is not very different from part of what many of us do. In our teaching, we read others’ works, we attempt to become expert enough to speak with some authority on them, and we try to make them accessible and understandable to others. For the scholar as for the translator, the first problem is to become sufficiently competent in the matter to speak with some authority, to represent accurately the content of the original document. Sometimes we do this through dispassionate traditional research and impartial comment, sometimes (as Calame stresses) we interpret those texts (critically, rather than linguistically) by applying our own contemporary biases, to see how well the texts suit our academic viewpoints, rather than the other way around, though there is less danger of that in translation, where any academic biases should be limited to those of the original work.

Like translators, students of the humanities are already well-accustomed to becoming at least moderately knowledgeable in numerous fields of study. Simonides’ image of the unpredictable flight of a fly (cited in Calame’s concluding chapter) could as easily apply to many questions in the Humanities as it does to the time of human happiness. There is no telling when an art history question may branch off into chemistry, textiles, history, anthropology, or optics, or when verification of a Greek text may depend on accurate carbon dating, advanced computer-imaging techniques, or centuries-old notes from an archaeological dig. Translation nearly always involves similar complications: alongside literary matters, it has for me meant becoming reasonably familiar, at various times and among other things, with French patent and contract law, geotextiles, marketing, industrial uses of asbestos, the standard terminology of a private investigator’s report, and auto mechanics, all finite and limited domains, far less complex and demanding than Claude Calame’s study. But there is a very different dialectic in this more traditional translation in the Humanities, and considerably more help available: some of those who will be obliged to trust this English translation are the same scholars I have trusted to translate and interpret for me the Greek texts being studied here. Translation is something we do for one another.

There have been irritations in this translation, as in most others. Some are language based: I can find, for example, nothing better than the conventional but inelegant putting-into-discourse to translate mise en discours, which recurs in Calame’s semantic analysis in the text. Occasional problems stemmed from my own lack of familiarity with the details of a culture geographically and temporally distant from our own: the use of astragales (meaning both ‘knucklebones’ and ‘bitter vetch’ in English), among items placed in a basket during Dionysian initiation rites (along with a rhombus, a top, and a mirror), could as easily have been the one as the other to me, until various scholarly sources clarified the ritualistic representation of toys the Titans used to tempt the young Dionysus within their grasp.

Given my relative inexperience in this subject matter, I’ve been grateful for help given by a number of people. This project required reading and studying a number of primary and secondary texts unfamiliar to me. I’d read Hesiod only in survey courses many years ago, and had never come across Bacchylides’ dithyrambs or the texts of the gold lamellae before accepting this translation project, and I am grateful to several Hellenists whose works clarify and interpret those texts. I thank a number of my colleagues at Furman University for their kind assistance: Chris Blackwell in the Classics Department for proposing, facilitating, and organizing this entire project at its inception, and for occasional Greek help along the way; Tom Kazee, our Academic Dean, for his enthusiastic support for release time for the translation; David Morgan in my own department for his quick answers to Greek spelling and language questions; Bill Allen in the French section of the department for working out how to replace me for one entire semester; Chantal for not being too upset at finding the dining room full of books, papers, and computers. I thank Gregory Nagy and his colleagues at the Center for Hellenic Studies for proposing the project, and Lenny Muellner for guidance and answers along the way. Steve Clark’s careful editing has made this translation vastly more readable and precise. Thanks also to the Fondation Chuard Schmidt of Lausanne, which helped in funding this project along with the Center for Hellenic Studies. And of course my thanks to Professor Calame himself, with whom I corresponded while in France last fall. He will have many readers far more qualified than I to appreciate his work fully, though I have done my best here to insure that he will never have a more careful or attentive reader.

Harlan Patton

Professor of French, Furman University