In honor of this year’s 100th anniversary of the Loeb Classical Library, the Barnes & Noble Review posts a piece by Adam Kirsch on the books in that series that describe Socrates. These include not only the dialogues of Plato, but also Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Aristophanes’ Clouds.
If I were given Kirsch’s assignment, I would not have chosen these as examples of the strengths of the Loeb Library. Most of the 518 volumes in the Loeb series have the same format: a brief introduction, combining remarks about an ancient Greek or Roman author with remarks about the manuscripts in which that author’s works have come down to us; then one of those works, presented in the original on the left hand page and an English translation on the facing page. A few years after the Loebs began to appear in the USA, the Collection Budé began to appear in France. The Budés are rather like the Loebs, only with French translation on the left and the original on the right.
When the Loeb series began in 1911, the texts and translations were of wildly uneven quality. The great problem the series faced was that each volume was entrusted to one person, who might be an accomplished textual critic or an accomplished translator, but who was not especially likely to excel in both of those fields. Very poor translations were produced when, as some critics put it, men who had never before tried their hand at English verse were required to translate Greek verse into it; A. S. Way’s translation of Euripides was long famous as an example of this. The translations by David Kovacs that replaced Way’s version are certainly readable, though, perhaps in reaction to Way’s ludicrously purple versifying, they are so resolutely unpoetic as to obscure the fact that Euripides was writing verse drama.
Even some of the prose translations were unreadable; at times I’ve picked up A. D. Godley’s Loeb of Herodotus to sort out some thorny passage in the Greek, only to find that I was using the Greek as a crib to decipher Godley’s English. The Loeb translations of the Socratic writings aren’t as badly rendered as that, but none is among the best translations of its original available in English. Other volumes were feature readable translations, but unreliable texts. Again, the Socratic volumes aren’t the worst offenders, but neither would their Greek texts be useful to a scholar.
If I had to choose a single volume to praise the Loeb series, I would pick A. W. Mair’s edition of Oppian, Colluthus, and Tryphiodorus. Not only are the texts exemplary, but the translations are sufficiently sensitive that even a Greekless reader might be able to understand why the two poems attributed to Oppian are unlikely to have been produced by the same person. (Granted, it helps that the author of each poem starts by telling us where he was born, and it isn’t the same place, but still, the style is important.) And the footnotes represent a fine commentary on these three neglected authors.