Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 20.
A. J. Woodman (tr.), Tacitus: The Annals translated with Introduction and Notes. Indianapolis / Cambridge, Mass.: Hackett Publishing, 2004. Pp. xxx + 412. ISBN 0-87220-558-4. US$16.95.
D. B. Saddington
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
For one who has not read the Annals uninterruptedly from cover to cover for a long time (though frequently consulting it on points of detail) it has been an exciting and rewarding experience to read through Woodman's translation; it holds one's attention throughout, even in the lengthy depressing passages on the treason trials of the period. It regularly forces one to turn to the original. It is indeed a splendid tour de force.
The translation is accompanied by much assistance, an introduction on three themes: Tacitus and the Annals, the translation, and the afterlife of the work. There is a list of books for further reading, as well as one of abbreviations and references. There are copious footnotes. The seven appendices cover 'Political and Military Terms' (pp. 356-61); 'The First-Century A.D. Roman Army and the Annals' (pp. 362-64); 'The City of Rome' (pp. 365-67); 'Peoples and Places' (pp. 368-83); 'Textual Variants' (pp. 384-89); 'Roman Emperors from Augustus to Hadrian' (pp. 390); and 'The Imperial Family, with Stemmata of Augustus and Tiberius, and of Gaius, Claudius, and Nero' (pp. 391-93). The three maps are of the Roman Provinces, Italy, and the city of Rome. There is a copious index. There is excellent comment on textual problems.
The author is a distinguished Latin stylist and Tacitean scholar (and his valuable commentaries on Velleius Paterculus should not be forgotten). This translation is a highly individualistic, not to say eccentric piece of work. In the Introduction (pp. xxii-xxvi) Woodman says that he has tried to reproduce as many of Tacitus's literary characteristics as possible, not avoiding the strange and the difficult, often choosing an unusual English synonym where Tacitus avoids common terminology. Tacitus's Caesar is always rendered by `Caesar', imperator by `Commander' (always with a capital 'C' as on page xxiii). Even his word-play and assonance are reproduced (p. xxiv).
Woodman has certainly produced some good new translations, as `in a brainstorm' for lymphati (p. 18) or `denouncers' for delatores. But his determination to reproduce Tacitus's stylistic effects, especially his uariatio, often results in versions that are at times difficult to understand or even seriously misleading. As noted imperator always becomes `Commander'. This is indeed a literal English equivalent, but leads to confusion with (the admittedly lower-case) `commander' for a general in the army. Surely the normal English 'emperor', would serve the `casual reader' (p. vii) more effectively. Tacitus's other term for the emperor, princeps, however, remains Latin (though there is an entry for it in Appendix A): in spite of `principate' (p. 359), which is hardly newspaper English, but a technical term used by ancient historians, the `casual reader' must learn the meaning of a Latin term.
Renderings of proper names are often forced. How is one to know that an `Appian murder' (p. 210) is a murder committed on a road leading to Rome or that a `severe African' (p. 327) means a wind blowing from Africa? Sometimes a modern equivalent is given, sometimes the Latin retained. Two (to the Romans) remote northern rivers, the Rhenus and the Mosa, become not the Rhine and the Meuse, but the Rhine and the Mosa (p. 20). Why is Hibernia not Ireland (p. 227) or Albis not the Elbe (pp. 63, 144)? Not every reader wants regularly to have to refer to the notes or to an appendix. As far as the emperors are concerned every Roman knew that all the male members of the imperial house bore the name of Caesar, and could readily deduce from the context which Caesar was meant. But it is not easy for a modern reader to recognize `Caesar' as on one occasion Tiberius, on another Claudius, or especially as referring to the sons of Germanicus.
So, too, with ordinary words. Things for auction in English come `under the hammer'; `under the spear' (p. 100) has to be elucidated. Sometimes even Woodman seems to have been misled by his search for archaisms. In early Latin the cavalry was called ala because it was on the wing. But by the first century A.D. ala had come to mean a particular type of unit in the army, a regiment of cavalry. By using the term ala Tacitus was not being anachronistic but using contemporary language, as the usage of Velleius Paterculus and military inscriptions clearly shows (the more `literary' term is equites). `Wings' for alae obfuscates Tacitus's military passages. And what `wing-men' (p. 311) could mean is completely obscure. In soccer one can play on the wing, but alares and alarii were ordinary cavalrymen (who only occasionally were actually fighting on the wing). Nauarchus (15.51.2) does not mean `marshal' (p. 329), that is a high-ranking general in the army or the airforce, but a `squadron commander' (or even a `captain') in the navy. But Woodman chooses this translation, as he says in n. 69, to prepare for his translation of nauare (`to perform, devote one's energies to') twelve lines lower down also as `marshal' because the first syllable of each word is the same. That a Roman reader would have been sensitive to such assonance over that distance one can perhaps accept on Woodman's authority, but one suspects that few casual readers in English would be. In 6.37.3 Tacitus uses the rare word auxiliator instead of the more usual auxiliaris or auxiliarius (though admittedly of a Persian nobleman rather than an ordinary auxiliary). This becomes `adjuvant' (p. 183): even adjutant would have been more helpful. And it is difficult to recognize Clodius Quirinalis' post of admiral of the fleet at Ravenna in the literal `prefect of the rowers' (p. 260) which Woodman chooses accurately but not too helpfully for the Latin. Paraphrase is sometimes more effective than the completely literal. `Leaders in Germany' (p.271) suggests chieftains across the Rhine rather than governors of the province of Germany. The literal `banner-men' (pp. 19; 291) for uexillarii hardly gives the proper meaning of detachment: `those under a separate banner' might perhaps just scrape through.
It is difficult enough for the Latinless reader to master the terminology of the Roman political governmental and social system even in straightforward renderings. It seems perverse to retain as much of Tacitus's brilliant uarietas, which a Roman insider would appreciate, as Woodman does. It is true that the excellent footnotes and the glossaries in the appendices provide full assistance, but it is irksome regularly to have to leave the text for an explanation.
Half a century ago Michael Grant produced a translation of the Annals (in the Penguin series). In his Introduction (pp. 22f.) he described Tacitus's `brilliant style' and said (p. 24) that in theory a translator should attempt to reproduce Tacitus's expression. But he concluded that `no amount of colourful or fanciful language will make the strange personality of Tacitus understandable to contemporary readers' and chose `a trenchant and astringent simplicity' instead. Ronald Martin, with whom Woodman has often co-operated, produced an edition with a translation of Annals V and VI (Warminster 2001). He also opted for plain English (p. 29). It seems the wiser course.
Accordingly unfortunately one can hardly recommend Woodman's translation to the ordinary reader. But it will be of the greatest use in making advanced Latin students sensitive to Tacitus's style. In fact it will serve the Latinist and the ancient historian as a valuable commentary, frequently instructing them by its sound and often original insights.