Why I ... am delighted that the 'dirty' bits are to be restored to the classics

September 1, 2000

Mary Beard

Reader in classics

University of Cambridge

Students of classics have long relied on small red and green hardbacks - the Loeb Classical Library. At last this series is being relaunched with new translations that will lift the Edwardian veil of decency that has clouded the colour and earthiness of the ancient world for so long.

The revised editions will reignite the vision of the philanthropist James Loeb, who in 1910 started the series in a bid to bring the classics to the public. It was a messianic vision, but his editions were too hygienic. The "dirty" sections in the original texts were translated into Italian or skipped completely. But I would not want to junk these editions, which now stand as wonderful examples of bowdlerisation, serving to reinforce the beauty, complexity and necessity of the originals. In 100 years, I'm sure that the Loeb will look very different again.

Authors famous for their profanity will be properly profane. Aristophanes and Catullus, notoriously lascivious and lewd, will show the way. Like this punchy episode from Catullus: in the original Loeb, it reads "'Tis you I fear, you and your passionsI" In the new translation it reads with more sexual honesty as "You and your penisI" It is difficult to be as filthy as the Greeks and Romans. Take this passage from Acharnians, a comedy by Aristophanes. In it a father describes his daughters as "piggies", on the surface this just appears odd, not filthy. However, "piggies" is a slang term for vulva: the father is "selling" his daughters.

Translation is much trickier than saying "****" for "****". We should see more accurate translations allowing for the nuances of the original to be more fully explored - with more explicit footnotes.

The responsibility for translating is a heavy one. The weight of the past lies on the shoulders of scholars. It will be a continuous and progressive role and should provide a few extra pennies for some brave academics. These new translations will wake the reader to a truer rendering of the Dionysian world. This is not a dumbing down, but a dumbing up - treating the readers as grown-ups.

Mary Beard's new book, The Invention of Jane Harrison, is published by Harvard University Press, Pounds 23.50. The new Loeb translations will be published by Harvard University Press, priced Pounds 12.95.

* Interview by Helen Davies

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