Monday, June 01, 2009


Description of a Recluse

Phrynicus Comicus, fragment 19 (tr. S. Douglas Olson):
My name is Recluse. I live a life like Timon's, with no wife or slave, easily angered and unapproachable, never laughing or speaking to anyone, keeping my own counsel.

ὄνομα δέ μοὔστι Μονότροπος
                          ζῶ δὲ Τίμωνος βίον,
ἄγαμον, ἄδουλον, ὀξύθυμον, ἀπρόσοδον,
ἀγέλαστον, ἀδιάλεκτον, ἰδιογνώμονα.
This is B21 in S. Douglas Olson's Broken Laughter. Select Fragments of Greek Comedy. Edited with Introduction, Commentary, and Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Olson's translation keeps close to the Greek, except that it obscures the asyndeton (absence of conjunctions) in the original. The following slight modification makes the asyndeton clearer:
My name is Recluse. I live a life like Timon's, with no wife, with no slave, easily angered, unapproachable, never laughing, never speaking to anyone, keeping my own counsel.
Of the seven adjectives modifying the noun life (βίον = bíon), five are adjectives with alpha privative prefixes, and those five occur in groups of two (ἄγαμον, ἄδουλον = ágamon, ádoulon) and three (ἀπρόσοδον, ἀγέλαστον, ἀδιάλεκτον = aprósodon, agélaston, adiálekton). This therefore qualifies as an example of a series of asyndetic, privative adjectives.

Olson in his commentary doesn't mention the asyndeton, but he has some references to Timon, which I note for my own use:
Timon was a notorious misanthrope mentioned repeatedly by the comic poets (Ar. Av. 1548-9; Lys. 808-20 (he never shaved, and lived by himself, cursing other men); Pl. Com. fr. 237; Antiphanes' Timon (fr. 204); cf. Neanth. FGrHist 84 F 35; Luc. Timon (based at least in part on Antiphanes' play?); Hawkins, GRBS 42 (2001), 143-62). Most likely he was a proverbial character rather than a real person (despite Armstrong, G&R 34 (1987), 7-11).
Here are expanded references to the articles cited by Olson, plus more bibliography on Timon and other ancient misanthropes:Some later ancient references could also be added to Olson's citations, e.g. Alciphron, Letters 2.32; Libanius, Declamation 12; and Pausanias 1.30.4. Plutarch, Life of Antony 70 (tr. Bernadotte Perrin), gives the following supposedly historical details:
[1] Now, Timon was an Athenian, and lived about the time of the Peloponnesian War, as may be gathered from the plays of Aristophanes and Plato. For he is represented in their comedies as peevish and misanthropical; but though he avoided and repelled all intercourse with men, he was glad to see Alcibiades, who was then young and headstrong, and showered kisses upon him. And when Apemantus was amazed at this and asked the reason for it, Timon said he loved the youth because he knew that he would be a cause of many ills to Athens.

[2] This Apemantus alone of all men Timon would sometimes admit into his company, since Apemantus was like him and tried sometimes to imitate his mode of life; and once, at the festival of The Pitchers, the two were feasting by themselves, and Apemantus said: "Timon, what a fine symposium ours is!" "It would be," said Timon, "if thou wert not here." We are told also that once when the Athenians were holding an assembly, he ascended the bema, and the strangeness of the thing caused deep silence and great expectancy; then he said:

[3] "I have a small building lot, men of Athens, and a fig-tree is growing in it, from which many of my fellow citizens have already hanged themselves. Accordingly, as I intend to build a house there, I wanted to give public notice to that effect, in order that all of you who desire to do so may hang yourselves before the fig-tree is cut down." After he had died and been buried at Halae near the sea, the shore in front of the tomb slipped away, and the water surrounded it and made it completely inaccessible to man.

[4] The inscription on the tomb was:

"Here, after snapping the thread of a wretched life, I lie.
Ye shall not learn my name, but my curses shall follow you."

This inscription he is said to have composed himself, but that in general circulation is by Callimachus:

"Timon, hater of men, dwells here; so pass along;
Heap many curses on me, if thou wilt, only pass along."

A correspondent comments:
Your present post is an excellent place to discuss what we might call more transparent translations. Transparency is a kind of literalness that is at pain to reveal the resources and choices that are possible in the language we are translating. Since both English and Greek are rich in privatives, for example, and fond of stacking up adjectives without conjunctions, it is usually possible to preserve these devices in a more transparent translation. Olson's translation of the present passage does not even try, and I think this should count against it.

As just a first version, for example, we could have

I have the name of Recluse and I live the life of Timon,
wifeless slaveless choleric,
unwelcoming unlaughing unspeaking never meddling.

We need to fix the meter here, and do some other stuff, but you get the idea. I think especially a translator of poetry should at least try to show us the underlying Greek construction. It's not very hard to do!

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