18 MARCH 2006, Page 52

The best-Loebed hits

Peter Jones

A LOEB CLASSICAL READER Harvard University Press, £6.95, pp. 234, ISBN 067499616X Before the dramatic expansion of Penguin Classics, it was almost impossible to find a translation of anything in Latin or Greek. Schoolboys were reduced to furtively ordering Brodies or Kelly’s Keys from the local bookshop.

The great exception was the Loeb Classical Library. This was a series sponsored by James Loeb, a Harvard-educated American banker who loved classics and the arts and had amassed a fortune before retiring to Munich in 1905 to seek relief from his continuing psychiatric problems. He was persuaded to endow a foundation to publish the surviving texts of all Greek and Latin, with translation. The first volumes appeared in autumn 1912. Loeb died in 1933, emblazoned with honorary degrees. Since this series obviously made life far too easy for schoolboys, Loebs were kept out of the school library, presumably for the use of Sir alone in the privacy of his own bedroom. To find the relevant Loeb in the public library was therefore to experience a frisson more powerful than anything delivered by Tit-bits. The tradition is maintained. To this day the wonderful Lit and Phil Library in Newcastle has the complete Loeb series, but not on the open shelves. They are kept in the librarian’s room.

Like everyone else at the time, the editors had problems with organs. At the slightest hint of genitals, for example, the translation would bowdlerise, omit, or repeat the text of the original (another enlightening Tit-bits moment for the youthful scholar, accompanied by feverish scrambling through the dictionary). In his Martial: Epigrams (1919), Walter Ker left the obscenities in the Italian of the translation by Giuspanio Graglia (1782 and 1791). But there was still one no-go area, even for Italians: cunno appeared as c— o.

The Loeb series is nearing its 500th edition. To celebrate, it has produced this bargain, paperback, pocket-sized Reader containing brief extracts in the usual format — none more than about 100 lines from its huge range of authors: Apuleius, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Caesar, Callimachus, Cicero, Euripides, Herodotus, Hesiod, Homer, Horace, Jerome, Josephus, Juvenal, Livy, Lucian, Lucretius, Manilius, Ovid, Pausanias, Petronius, Pindar, Plato, Pliny the Elder and Younger, Plutarch, Propertius, Seneca the Younger, Sophocles, Terence, Thucydides, Virgil and Xenophon.

No Iliad, no Sappho (or any Greek personal lyric), no Aeschylus, no Catullus, no Metamorphoses, no Tacitus ... baffling, but I am not going to complain. Something had to go, and there is wonderful stuff here anyway. There could be better translations than some on offer, but who cares when we have the original to keep us warm?

In fact, Loeb translations were always pretty crabbed (though the latest Loebs and revised editions are a great improvement), and some downright deranged. My favourite is the translation of Hero(n)das’ Mimes (1929) by A. D. Knox, brother of Ronald. Because Hero(n)das’ Greek was inconsistently spelled and for a few years unintelligible to scholars, Knox argued that the English should follow suit:

And the poor tablet which each month I werke to cere, lieth beraft before the wallward post of our pallet, an so it be he scowl not on it as ’twere Death, and write naught fair thereon but scrape it clene. But his dibs, glossier far than our oil-flask, the which we use algates, lye in their bags and nets.

Mercifully, the Greek puts one straight.

Even for those with little Latin and less Greek, this compendium will bring enormous pleasure. Loeb is, indeed, a manysplendoured thing.