Friday, April 28, 2017


Anna Rist, The Mimiambs of Herodas. Translated into an English 'Choliambic' Metre with Literary-Historical Introductions and Notes. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Pp. viii, 143. ISBN 9781350004207. $120.00.

Reviewed by Graham Zanker, University of Adelaide (

Version at BMCR home site


The third-century writer of mimes in choliambic metre, Herodas, has in recent times enjoyed considerable attention in the form of commentaries and translations, notably by I. C. Cunningham with his 1971 Oxford and subsequent Loeb (2002) and Teubner (2004) editions, and by L. Di Gregorio in his two-volume commentary (Milan 1997 and 2004). In 2009 I myself contributed a text, translation, and commentary with lemmata in both Greek and English, aimed at an audience ranging from professional scholars to the interested general laity.1

Rist's new translation offers a 33-page General Introduction (with notes) addressing matters of Herodas' historical and literary milieu, the question of whether or not the Mimiamboiwere staged,2 and Rist's strategies in trying to convey their sense, flavour and metre 'for a wide spectrum of contemporary readers' (p. 1). Each of the nine surviving Mimiambs is given an introduction, with notes for students and interested general readers, followed by the translation, which is not supplied with notes, the introduction apparently having sufficiently explained all the vital problems.

Let us look at a sample of her translation. I take lines 1–20 of Mim. 2 (Rist's lines 1–17), in which the pimp Battaros makes his charge in court against one Thales for allegedly stealing one of his ladies, Myrtale.

Gentlemen of the jury, to be sure you are not judges
of our race or of our standing; nor if this man, Thales,
owns a ship that's worth five talents while I don't have
even bread, will he in law have weight one wit to
prevail to Battaros' hurt; contrariwise, bitter
tears it shall cause him! Like me he's to this city
an immigrant, and we can't live as we might like but
as our lot falls out. He has Mennes to stand sponsor; I have
Aristophon: Mennes is a boxing has-been!
That Aristophon still holds the ring at wrestling's proven,
Gentlemen! Let him come out toward sundown; then from
the cloak he wears shall be known what champion I come armed with!
But perhaps he's going to say 'I've come from Ake, bringing
corn, and put a stop to a feared famine.' Well, so
I brought whores from Tyre: to the populace what difference?
He don't give grist free to grind and nor do I give
her for screwing free!

The translation is accurate enough, where the papyrus' Greek exists; 'a boxing has-been' neatly renders πὺξ [νε]νίκηκεν. On the other hand, some phraseology seems curiously less idiomatic than the Greek, as with 'will he in law have weight one wit to | prevail to Battaros' hurt; contrariwise…', 'Like me he's to this city | an immigrant', 'to the populace what difference?': Herodas certainly parodies Battaros' deployment of forensic clichés, but there is nothing in the Greek text to suggest that he is parodying any attempt by the pimp to ape an orator's elevated diction here, nor that he is interested in the bathos produced by Rist's slangy 'He don't give grist'. On the tonal level, therefore, Rist's rendering adds something which isn't there, all in the name of capturing Herodas' 'liveliness', 'raciness' and 'relevance' for the English reader.

This is a procedure which features throughout Rist's translations. I agree with her assessment of Herodas' diction: '[he] combines an at times decidedly racy realism with a diction which revives… quaint, passé or otherwise striking usages' (p. 20). However, it is the degree of raciness and artificiality that has to be observed. Rist is frank about where she stands on the matter of raciness ('racy' is a word she is fond of: pp. 19, 20, 37, 42 [bis]). She writes (p. 29): 'I have assumed a translator's right to compensate, to an extent and where feasible, for … the 'entropy' implicit in translation — the inevitable loss of the precise and contextual colouring of the original', calling her procedure 'not less but more faithful to the reader.' She gives as an example her translation of Metriche's δὸς πιεῖν (Mim. 1.81, Rist's line 72) 'Give her one for the road!', though the Greek has merely 'Give <wine> to her to drink.' Here, she says, she has 'enlarged' the Greek. Another example of this 'enlargement' can be found in the same Mimiamb at line 54 (Rist's line 48), where Gyllis' decidedly neutral πλουτέων τὸ καλόν in reference to Gryllos' being 'nicely well off' is supercharged into 'all right for the readies'. In the fifth poem Rist makes Bitinna call Gastron 'Gutsy', but the adjective from which the name is taken simply means 'pot-bellied', and 'gutsy' in the sense of 'bold' is not an epithet easily applied to our Gastron (cf. Rist's defense at p. 79). 'Enlargement' too often leads to a false, inflated impression of Herodas' liveliness of diction; he is actually plainer and less sensationalist than he is presented as being. Herodas hyperbolized—who would have thought it?

Moreover, Rist claims (p. 27) that it is 'an obligation, as well as a challenge, to attempt to reproduce the 'limp"' of the final two syllables of the choliamb. Let us examine this claim. Like all ancient Greek verse, the choliamb is based on syllable-length, diverging from straight iambic trimeters by ending the line with a long-short trochee or long-long spondee instead of a short-long iamb, which gave the metre its 'limp'. It is bound by strict laws, even when the laws are 'broken', as when a long is 'resolved' into two shorts. Rist claims to capture this in English stress-accent, by translating into lines with six stresses, allowing herself 'fair latitude' with the first four feet' but 'rigour with the final two feet' (pp. 27–8). As she admits, she is 'on occasion' forced into a compromise even with the last two feet. Already, we can see that the choliamb's impact is likely to be attenuated. In practice, the effect she aims for is scarcely perceivable, because it is, as can be seen from our sample, rarely possible to make out four stresses (let alone iambic stresses) in 'the first four feet', and even in the last four syllables one cannot reliably sense an unstress/stress stress/unstress patterning. To take the passage above as an example, Rist's success-rate with the last four syllables is a mere 6 out of the 17 lines, and this is enough to destroy the intended effect, especially when there is so much contamination of the 'iambic' pattern in the first two and a half metra. These findings are representative for all the translations. I have to conclude that I do not think that Rist's attempt at replicating Herodas' metre is very effective.

A particularly disturbing element in Rist's translation is her smoothing over of all the papyrus' textual problems. She claims (p. 28) that her text is that of Cunningham, but that she has 'on occasion offered what I surmise to be the poet's likely intent, each time drawing attention to this in a note.' However, this programme is not always followed in practice. In our sample, for instance, she makes no mention of the fact that the left-hand side of the papyrus' lines 5–20 (her 5– 17) is severely damaged, and that line 7 is unintelligible (she therefore simply omits it). The aim is to avoid discommoding the reader, but it also allows her to pick among the 'liveliest' supplements or readings, like Papabasileiou's βινεῖν at the end of line 20 (her 17), which provides her with her 'racy' rendition, 'screwing'. Similar criticism can be made of her massaged translations of Mim. 1.35–47 (her lines 31–41) and 82–5 (her 72–6), and Mim. 7.26–42, after her line 20. Perhaps the most irritating example of her methods of supplementation involves her argument that the references to iambs and his 'second skill' in Mim. 8.77 prove that Herodas wrote straight iambs as well as choliambs. This not only depends on an unfounded equation of the two elements, but also on a word for 'skill' (either γνώμη or γνῶσις, optimistic supplements of the letters γν[ by various editors), which is not attested as conveying the sense of 'poetry'. Rist therefore ascribes an uncertain meaning to an uncertain reading, and yet, she expostulates (124), 'He hardly could be plainer!'

Then there is the problem of part-distribution. The papyrus's only indication that there is a change of speaker is the paragraphos in front of the word where the change occurs, and even then the system fails us. This affects every poem, except Mim. 2, from which our sample is taken (the interjection by the clerk at lines 46–8 [Rist's 38–9] is unproblematic), and Mim. 8, where there is only one speaker. In this respect, Rist follows Cunningham's distributions throughout, even with Offerings to Asklepios, poem 4, where the problem is especially acute (see Zanker [2009] 104–5 for a list of the wildly discrepant solutions). All this without a hint about the problem to the unsuspecting target-audience.

The introductions to poems 1, 2 3, 5 and 6 are the most helpful and least dogmatic in their contextualisations, though the expatiations on, for example, buttock-'mooning' in Mim. 3 (n. 4 pp. 60–1) and the connotations of Kerdon the shoemaker's name (from both kerdos, 'gain', and kerkos, 'tail', and therefore 'penis'!) border on the shy- making.3 Rist and I disagree on many issues concerning Mim. 4, its setting, and the seriousness of the two girls' art criticism, and I would have been interested in seeing her engagement with my position; I note here only that her insistence (p. 74 n. 7) that the traditional comic slave-abuse passage is almost at the centre of the poem does not disprove the possibility that ironically serious art-criticism might after all be at the heart of the piece, or its real aim. As for her introduction to Mim. 7, if all parties are in the know that Kerdon is covertly referring to dildoes as well as shoes, why the need to be 'cryptic' (p. 104)? In her discussion of Mim. 8 Rist forces the case for her old theory that Herodas wrote ordinary iambs in his youth, as we have seen.

For a book of this price, the standard of proofreading is very low. I must record the following for the 'general reader': at p. 19 for Askesis read Akesis, p. 76 Panake for Panakea; at p. 84 there are two note 7s, of which the second should be deleted; at p. 94 there is another supernumerary note 7, two lines of surrounding matter being repeated at p. 96 n. 8; in the bibliography the proofing of German titles and the spelling of Dutch names is haphazard.

To conclude. Rist's enthusiasm for her author is to her credit. Unfortunately, the by-product of this is that she will not serve the needs of her intended wide readership. The Greekless general reader will gain the impression that Herodas is far more slangy (and also archaic) than he really is, and that the text of the papyrus that preserves him is far more reliable than it is. The translation is generally accurate as to sense, but over-idiomatic in tone, and, as we have seen, is sometimes willfully forced to support Rist's interpretations. The book is therefore also unsuitable for 'students in that word's narrower usage' (p. 1).


1.   Graham Zanker, Herodas: Mimiambs (Aris & Phillips Classical Texts: Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2009) Pp. x, 252. Rist omits the item in her bibliography, though she refers to it some fourteen times.
2.   Rist seems to incline to the view that 'they are entertainments to be performed by no more than two or at most three actors', but admits the possibility that they were presented by 'one skilled actor' (p. 22; similar equivocation at pp. 108, 113).
3.   Rist parades her command of trendy, predominantly low-life slang. Some examples: 'send-up' (pp. 8, 19, 700), 'slumming' (p. 9), '(at the least) "oversexed"', 'Ms Bitch', 'from the stews', 'moniker', 'Nellie' or 'Fanny' for the alleged innuendo behind Kokkale's name (all p. 68), '"Bumma" (rather than "Stamma")' for the alleged connotations of Batale's name (p. 74), 'Get your ass out of here' (p. 125).

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