Top positive review
13 people found this helpful
An extremely entertaining and absorbing read
on 25 August 2014
The hardback edition is quite a large book (it's 51mm thick, 160mm wide and 242mm high) but this also makes the type easier to read for those of us confounded by the microtype of small paperbacks. I started reading a copy in Barnes and Noble while on holiday in the US and couldn't put it down so I ordered it for delivery when I got home. Oddly the US edition has a far more attractive orange and black cover design featuring a Greek and Persian fighting (as well as possessing a dustjacket) so it is a shame the UK edition is so drab by comparison with a dreary grey cover featuring just a couple of partial hoplites popping over the edges. I wish I’d bought my copy in the US.
Unlike so many translations of ancient texts this has been written in the lively, readable, and entertaining spirit of the original rather than feeling a need to produce a literal translation. Purists will prefer the latter; those after a gratifying and absorbing read will prefer the former.
So, for example the Persians 'kept on badgering him [Croesus] until he told them about Solon' (p. 44) and 'The Scythians had no idea what had hit them' (p. 302). I've no doubt the translator will be cursed by some Greek pedants for being overly 'free' in his version of the text, and it is worth bearing in mind that English translations vary wildly. In 1890 G.C. Macaulay provided this for the last part of Book I.20, '... sending a messenger told Thrasybulos [sic] in order that he might have knowledge of it beforehand and take such counsel as the case required'. Aubrey de Sélincourt's 1954 translation for Penguin gives, '...had thereupon sent to tell Thrasybulus all about it, knowing that to be forewarned is forearmed'. Holland has '... promptly sent a messenger to his friend, letting him in on the secret. Intelligence is, after all, always the key to forward planning'. De Sélincourt's words move it on a bit but I'd say the Macaulay is truer to the exact wording of the Greek. Holland turns the sentence into two and the result is quite different and really far more of a paraphrase though the underlying meaning of course remains. The real question is whether there is more of Holland in this sort of phrasing than there is of Herodotus.
There is much that could be debated about this sort of approach. Macaulay has 'The Scythians meanwhile were not able to understand the matter' (IV.111). De Sélincourt's version is very similar, whereas Holland has 'The Scythians had no idea what had hit them'. The Greek very definitely doesn't 'say' literally what Holland says; a fairly literal translation would be something approximating to ‘the Scythians did not have a conjecture on the matter’. Macaulay’s version is more easily understood as a better way of rendering the literal Greek into English; Holland takes the essence of the meaning and supplies a vernacular modern English phrase – whether it goes beyond what the Greek actually says is a moot point, but it certainly makes it more readable for a modern audience. In large part the appeal of this text is Holland’s contemporary prose and in that sense it is an original work in its own right. So long as the reader appreciates this he or she will not be disappointed.
There is ample introductory material by Paul Cartledge as well as maps, extensive footnotes and a Glossary Index which makes for a good browse but can be rather indigestible. Greece, for example, has 2.5 pages of entries in the order they appear in the book which might confound a reader trying to find something specific. Under Herodotus there are a number of sub-headings such as ‘considers miraculous’ which is an unlikely category a reader would start off by looking for even if it is then fun to pursue the entries.
Overall, this is an excellent read. It provides a modern audience with an entertaining and absorbing version of Herodotus’ reckless and undisciplined stream of consciousness that provides an unmatched tour of his epic world just a few centuries before the Roman Empire turned Greece into a backwater.