Books Review #3: The Classics and Penguin Classics

  1. Lucretius. Stallings, A. E., trans. 2015 (hardcover reprint). The Nature of Things. New York: Penguin Classics.
  2. Sayers, Dorothy L. 1957 (paperback). The Song of Roland. New York: Penguin Books.
  3. Dorsch, T. S., trans. 1969 (reprint). Aristotle, Horace, Longinus: Classical Literary Criticism. Baltimore: Penguin Classics.
  4. Wender, Dorothea, trans. 1989 (reprint). Hesiod and Theognis. New York: Penguin Books.

Penguin Classics is a series of books that features some of the most famous and influential literature from around the world, stretching back to the earliest days of written language. Foreign-language texts are, of course, translated into English. The books in this series are commonly found in the form of small and affordable paperbacks.

As a Classicist, I wish to share my thoughts on a few Penguin Classics translations of Classical texts that I have read. They are definitely not the only books from the series that I have read. Furthermore, I have many more Penguin Classics sitting on my nightstand, waiting for me to find the time to read them.

My least favorite Penguin Classic that I have read so far is Stallings’ verse translation of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (#1 above). I own the hardcover version that has a colorful geometric pattern on the surface. The translation is extremely loose in many places, and Stallings’ own ‘original’ wording tends to be long and drawn-out–and as I point own below, lengthiness is already a major obstacle to readers of Lucretius’ work.

The formatting of this edition also made my reading experience slow and frustrating. Many of Stallings’ verses cannot fit on one line in the text, requiring the last few words to be tagged-on in a second line with a hanging indent. If it happened occasionally, that would be no big deal. But this type of ‘textual anomaly,’ if you will, shows up far too often in this book, and just makes for an even slower read. As mentioned above, reading Lucretius is a lengthy, mundane chore to begin with. The De Rerum Natura is formatted into six books, each consisting of somewhere between 1,000 and 1,600 lines of hexameter. (Vergil’s Aeneid, by comparison, has 12 books that are 700-950 lines each.)

Stallings’ translation made reading Lucretius sluggish and frustrating for me. But one of the book’s redeeming qualities is the introduction, which does a very good job of readying the reader for Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. Plus, on the bright side, the translator’s willingness to deviate so far from the grammar of the original Latin is useful if you have are looking to reread Lucretius’s work in English, but feel that you are too familiar with more traditional translations to benefit from them. but as someone new to Lucretius, I found that this English version of his work presented too many hindrances to me as a reader. Overall, I’m giving this book a score of 4/10.

In my experience, Stallings’ translation of Lucretius differs from most Penguin Classics books in two ways.

  1. First of all, no other Penguin book has tested my patience anywhere near as much as this one. Most of them are well-written and very accessible! While I must admit that the rhyming in Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of The Song of Roland (#2 above) was a little irritating at times for the reader, the rhyming was also sometimes subtle and varied–the former is called ‘forced rhyme,’ but I forget the technical term for the other–which certainly made up for the less pleasant passages. (I feel that I am not qualified enough to offer any further comments on Sayers’ The Song of Roland.)
  2. Secondly, most Penguin translations favor readability without deviating so dramatically from the original text.

Now that I have gotten the one bad thing out of the way, I can get back to positive remarks.

Next on my list is a Penguin Classics book called Aristotle, Horace, Longinus: Classical Literary Criticism (#3 above), translated by T. S. Dorsch. It is a compilation of writings by three ancient authors, all answering the question of what makes for good literature. The concept behind it initially struck me as rather odd; but this book proved itself very useful when I needed primary sources for an essay on classical criticism of poetry. The translation of Aristotle’s Poetics is on-par with the standard English translations of Aristotle’s works. Dorsch’s translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica is in prose, which I found a little disappointing, and deviates too far from the literal in certain places. Nonetheless, it was very accessible and readable, which was probably the translator’s point. I fear that I cannot comment much on Dorsch’s translation of Longinus’ On the Sublime, since–unlike the other two texts and authors included in this book–I had no previous knowledge of or experience with the text of any sort.

Generally speaking, this book is an enjoyable read and a good introduction to Greek and Roman mentalities about literature. I’d give it an 8.5/10.

The last Penguin Classics book that I wish to discuss here is Hesiod and Theognis, translated by Dorothea Wender. The decision to pair Hesiod with Theognis-while certainly understandable from a literary and historical perspective–can be kind of confusing since one of Hesiod’s works is the Theogony–which looks a lot like the name Theognis. I am a Classicist, and I was pretty confused.

However, Wender’s translation is very good. It conveys the message clearly without sacrificing tone. I think a more detailed introduction to Hesiod Theogony,, one that outlines the poem’s structure and/or explains the details of Greco-Roman mythology, would have been a very wise addition–since the odd structure and the rich mythology are the two main stumbling-blocks to most readers of the Theogony.

Wender’s rendering of Theognis’ verses, meanwhile, is extremely easy to read. Wender makes the message very clear. Reading this translation inspired me to add “reading Theognis in the original Greek” to my bucket list. (Most of the things on my bucket list can be boiled down to reading, writing, and translating.) Anyways…

I give this book a rating of 7.5/10.

Overall, I really like the Penguin Classics series. These books give readers an easy way to become acquainted with some of the most influential authors and texts in history. I will continue reading books from this collection for years to come.

If you want to expose yourself to the texts that have shaped human culture all throughout history and all throughout the world, then look for Penguin Classics’ signature black-cover paperbacks at a nearby bookstore, thrift-shop, or book-sale. They are useful for professional scholars and leisurely readers alike.


Review #1: On Two Translations of ‘Beowulf’

1. Heaney, Seamus. 2001. Beowulf:A New Verse Translation (bilingual edition, paperback). New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

2. Tolkien, J. R. R., ed. Christopher Tolkien. 2015. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell (paperback). New York: Mariner Books.

In the year 2016, I have read the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf twice. Being unable to read Old English (a.k.a. Anglo-Saxon), I have read ‘translations’ in modern English. To be more clear: I have read two different versions: one by Seamus Heaney (best-known for his poetry), and one by J. R. R. Tolkien (best-known for The Lord of the Rings).

1. Heaney’s Translation. The first version that I read was a ‘bilingual’ version by Seamus Heaney. It had the original Old English on the left-hand page, and Heaney’s modern English rendition in verse on the right-hand side facing it. Even though I do not know any Old English, I still am really happy about the fact that this version is bilingual. Also, the formatting leaves plenty of space for readers’ annotations (on both sides). The book includes very useful marginal notes (about one every page or so) that broadly indicate the scene, plot, etc. In terms of formatting, I very much like this version; but I also want to touch upon the issue of translation.

Heaney’s translation is very readable, but only carries with it a hint of the tone of an epic from the distant past. Heaney’s vocabulary choices for this translation seem to generally favor words of Germanic and Nordic origins over words of Classical and multi-cultural origins; however, his style seems to err a little too much on the side of simplicity. But most of all, I want to emphasize the fact that Heaney’s translation is very easy to read, which makes the book very engaging; after I started reading it, I simply could not put it down, reading the entire thing in a few hour-long spurts over the course of an afternoon.

2. Tolkien’s Translation. The second version of Beowulf that I read was a prose translation by J. R. R. Tolkien, published posthumously by his son Christopher. J. R. R. Tolkien had written in prose, yet the editors of this book still managed to make it match up line-for-line with the original poem, which is a remarkable feat, and one for which I am extremely grateful. (My heart leaps for joy when a verse translation matches up line-for-line with the original poem, and here we have a prose translation that does that!) Tolkien’s translation is slightly more difficult to read than Heaney’s, seemingly because it is more literal. Liberated from the restrictions of meter, it seems that Tolkien’s translation strives to imitate the original as closely as possible, even copying the word-order in some places. Since Old English grammar was expressed mainly by word-endings, while modern English grammar is almost solely concerned with word-order, that makes for a few sentences and phrases here and there that are really hard to make sense of.

Despite these difficulties, I still very much admire Tolkien’s translation, because it is so literal and seemingly captures the setting, attitude, and atmosphere of Beowulf more so than Heaney’s translation. The texts of lectures that are included in this book are really fascinating, and are probably very useful for students and scholars of Old English/ Anglo-Saxon literature. Lastly, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sellic Spell, a Beowulf fan-fiction (of sorts),  is definitely a worthwhile read–both for fans of Beowulf and for fans of Tolkien.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I think I would give Seamus Heaney’s version an 8.0, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s version an 8.0 as well. This is taking into account not just the translations themselves, but also the formatting, commentaries, and other such features contained in the respective books. I simply cannot force myself to choose one over the other. They are both books that I enjoyed reading and will probably re-read in the future.