Thursday, June 19, 2014


Jan Parker, Timothy Mathews (ed.), Tradition, Translation, Trauma: The Classic and the Modern. Classical presences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xvi, 358. ISBN 9780199554591. $125.00.

Reviewed by Fiona Cox, University of Exeter (

Version at BMCR home site


This is an unusually wide-ranging volume, born of international colloquia addressing questions not only about different modes of classical reception, but also about different metaphors applied to translation (e.g. translation as repression, translation as cannibalism, translation as decapitation) as well as about modernity's contested relationship with the past. It is this recognition of the damaging and traumatic legacy of the past that gives this volume its distinctiveness. In an Introduction that deftly and rather beautifully handles the enormously wide range of authors and approaches to be found in this book Jan Parker observes that "From the start the question was not so much a celebration of great and humane texts passed down (tradition) and reinvented in/incorporated into other cultures (translation) but of the potentially rebarbative, politically dangerous, irritant, painful, or at least challenging nature of such texts (trauma): a painful, ongoing marking effect of such texts sometimes lost and sometimes made potent in reception." Parker identifies Rilke's Archaic Torso and Benjamin's Angel of History as the two figures dominating the different narratives in the book. While Rilke functions as 'an icon of Modernity's project', Benjamin's Angel rejects the notion of the mediation of tradition.

After the first two contributions, Parker's Introduction and a Prologue by Susan Bassnett (who offers a lucid and compelling overview of the issues involved in the act of translation, coupled with an awareness of how these issues are shaped by contemporary history), the volume is divided into three parts. Part One "Handing On, Making Anew, Refusing the Classic," contains six chapters which all have classical reception as their focus. Frederick Ahl's essay "Proemion – Translating a Paean of Praise" reflects on the pressures and pitfalls faced by modern translators of classical epic in the light of his own acclaimed translation of the Aeneid. He warns trenchantly how the medium adopted for the translation may flatten the challenges of ancient epic: 'Chronicles construct concepts for readers to accept. Ancient poetry designed for public performance more often describes or deconstructs the concepts readers have accepted. Translating ancient poets into prose, then, usually reverses their rhetorical poles. Poets who challenge readers' beliefs are transformed into instructors who tell readers what to believe. A prose Aeneid gives exactly the effect Victorian educators wanted.' Through its presence in popular culture Classics is probably more democratic today than it has ever been, but Ahl reminds us that there is a price to be paid for its widespread appeal: "We lower the masterpiece to suit the needs of its least demanding readers since we despair of raising readers to the level of the masterpiece. We rarely use translation to encourage readers to raise themselves to the masterpiece."

The pressures exerted by the target culture are also explored by Hardwick, who employs the image of Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome as a model to talk about translation. This botanical metaphor offers the image of "an underground stem that sends out shoots but whose source root is impossible to identify." Using this model Hardwick combines sensitive close reading and wide cultural knowledge, as she charts a pattern of translation amongst modern and contemporary Irish poets, especially Longley, Heaney and Kavanagh.

David Hopkins' probing essay pits Pope's version of the Iliad against a compulsion to set readings of the Iliad against a "real" Troy. He concludes that the real Troy lives within readers' imaginations, especially in its finest incarnation of Homer, namely Pope. Pat Easterling's "Sophoclean Journeys" plots the far-reaching yet intersecting paths of journeying as a metaphor. This is another essay that combines a lucid methodology with excellent close reading, as Easterling follows the paths of Sophoclean reception as far as Henry Bauchau's novel Œdipe sur la route and Derek Walcott's poem "A Santa Cruz Quartet."

Matthew Fox's elegant essay "Cicero: Gentleman and Orator. Metaphors in Eighteenth-Century Reception" analyses the rupture between Rome and modernity by examining the mediations of Cicero to the political elite of the eighteenth century. His essay is followed by what is, to my mind, one of the highlights of this volume. Richard Armstrong's "Eating Eumolpus – Fellini Satyricon and Dreaming Tradition" offers a reading of Fellini Satyricon that is 'a kind of allegory of reception' and that is witty, searching and highly original. The First Part closes with Rachel Bowlby's persuasive examination of post-Freud interpretations of Oedipus, which tracks the different shapes of the myth as it adapts itself to ever-changing social and family structures.

Section 2, entitled "Modernity and Its Price; Nostalgia and the Classic," contains four essays. Christopher Prendergast opens the section by revisiting Benjamin's Angel of History through the lens of "the proper sphere of the counterfactual." This searching reading is followed by Jonathan Monroe's re-evaluation of Glissant's work which demonstrates that it defies the narrow approaches characteristic of "poetry and poetics" to ask questions about the development of "relational, translational, appositional approaches to knowledge making and the sharing of knowledge." Ian Patterson's "Time, Free Verse, and the Gods of Modernism" offers a compelling, close reading of Eliot and Pound, while the final essay, "Lost in Nostalgia – Modernity's Repressed Other" by Wen-chin Ouyang, is a fascinating construction of Arabic modernity as a response to the trauma of the "cultural shock with the super-powers of the West."

Trauma shapes Section 3, "The Time of Memory, the Time of Trauma." Its first essay by Gail Holst-Warhaft examines the ways in which the language of loss crosses centuries, so that the tones of ancient Greek tragedy can still be heard in ritualised lament. This is a beautiful and immensely wide-ranging account that probes the implications of her findings in the light of our need for collective lament and commemoration. Two essays that take receptions of Electra as their subject follow. Jane Montgomery Griffiths vividly analyses the harrowing experience of witnessing the bodily trauma of Electra enacted on stage, while Jan Parker offers a compelling account of the horror of Electra's unending trauma. She clarifies usefully that trauma is "the presenting sign of damage done in the past but appearing and demanding attention in the present." The lack of closure to Electra's story enables its horrors to be endlessly repeated; the pain "is expressed but not incorporated and instead threatens to escape the stage." George Rousseau's lucid "Modernism's Nostalgics, Nostalgia's Modernity" embeds his account of trauma within late nineteenth and early twentieth-century medical history and its understanding of nostalgia. Piotr Kuhiwczak offers a fascinating analysis of the difficulties of translating Holocaust testimony, with attendant warnings that translation practices may inflict further damage. For example: "The post-Second World War memoirs published in English pose another problem. Written or co-written by authors for whom English is the second or third language, they are often viewed as unproblematic and original writing, and the role of translation as a mediating factor is rarely considered as an important issue. By downplaying the importance of translation we obscure a fundamental issue, namely that the Holocaust was a multilingual event, and that, paradoxically, the English language which dominates the Holocaust discourse today was one of few European languages that was not important when the Final Solution was taking place in Europe." This essay is followed by Helena Buescu's account of "History as Traumatic Memory: Das Áfricas'," which is a haunting and sensitive analysis of the interplay of text and image in Das Áfricas and what it teaches us about how we have been shaped by the traumas of colonial history. The section closes with Timothy Mathews meditating on how to "read the invisible" in the works of Cees Nooteboom, Walter Benjamin and Alberto Giacometti. This richly-layered and plangent account is followed by Mathews' conclusion to the whole volume in which once again we find Benjamin's Janus-headed Angel of History, as Mathews celebrates the indeterminacy of the arena of translation. The final offering in the volume is an Epilogue by Derek Attridge, which deftly uses an analysis of Coetzee's Age of Iron to meditate on the many strands binding this volume together. Attridge's analysis of Coetzee demonstrates the power of the trauma of translation. And it is through such traumas that works of art are brought into contact with other cultures, so that they are reinvigorated and kept alive.

This is an immensely rich and wide-ranging volume, full of incisive, stimulating and moving accounts. It is unusual not only for its scope, but also (and this is far more rare) for the universally high quality of its contributions. Its riches will prove of immense value, perhaps especially to scholars in the field of Translation Studies, but also to the more general reader.

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