Ask Mr. Autodidact

Translations of Herodotus and Thucydides

Karl White writes in to ask which translations of Herodotus and Thucydides I recommend.  In some ways, I am not the best person to ask, since I do not spend much time reading translations, but I have used a number of translations of the historians for classes.

For Herodotus I still prefer the older translations.  For the past 60 years or so, translators, however much Greek they know, are unlikely to write with precision , much less able to convey some of the charm of  Herodotus's style.  One of the worst is David Greene's charmless and pretentious volume from the University of Chicago.  The volume is marred by an insufferably arrogant introduction in which Greene--one of the editors of the infamous Chicago series of translations of Greek tragedy--wears himself patting himself on the back for being the first to translate Herodotus well.  When I gave the book a fair but fairly negative review (commissioned) for the Washington Times,  they refused to run it.  I well recall Grene's version of the Antigone because I was in a graduate school class when a student unwisely used it as a trot and translated a line from the heroine as "Love Creon," when the Greek quite plainly says, "Ask Creon."

De Selincourt's version in the Penguin is readable and entertaining, though it reads a bit too much like a newspaper.  A.D. Godley's older Loeb version, although I have just glanced at it, seems readable,and Godley was a decent scholar  with a fine sense of humor.  Herodotus I first read in Greek, but the first translation I liked was George Rawlinson.

Thucydides is much harder to translate, partly because of his terse Greek, which in the speeches becomes quite difficult.  The old joke is that his own mother could not have read him.  I still prefer Richard Crawley's older translation, but if you really crave the archaic, then the version by Thomas Hobbes is interesting, especially when one considers how much Hobbes had to have taken from Thucydides "stone-cold" realism.

One warning about Thucydides.  The conventional view that he is lover of democracy, religious skeptic, and admirer of Pericles is in my opinion exactly wrong, and this will be a good subject for future Autodidact entries.  Here I content myself with pointing out two facts:  First, Greeks, including Athenians, were firmly embedded in ties of kinship and clan, two the historian Thucydides son of Olorus shares a name with his cousin Thucydides son of Melesias, the leader of the anti-democratic opposition to Pericles after the dictator expelled the great Athenian hero, Cimon, son of Miltiades (who commanded the victorious Athenians at Marathon), and the warrior who led the Greek operation that cleansed the Aegean of the Persians


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina