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Translating the Classics

A visit with Daniel Hooley, Professor of Classics

By Tammy Ritterskamp
Published: - Topics: imagination history Roman satire Persius theory
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As Professor in the Classics Department at MU, Daniel Hooley’s research includes Roman poetry, the classical tradition, and translation studies, about which he has written three books, including his most recent, Roman Satire (2006). Hooley first became interested in studying the classics through an “accidental journey,” studying the western classics as an English and Humanities graduate student at the University of Minnesota, where he focused his studies on modernism and wrote his dissertation on how Latin poetry was translated by American modernists such as Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot. The dissertation became his first book, The Classics in Paraphrase: Ezra Pound and Modern Translators of Latin Poetry (1988).

This work efectively served as a back door for Hooley into studying the classics by allowing him to begin exploring classical “reception,” which deals with the way an early text is interpreted by poets or readers from different cultural backgrounds. For example, a poem written 2,000 years ago could have been translated and imitated by many different people, and along the way subjected to different interpretations. Hooley describes the act of translation as “controversial, because it is so imprecise.” The core issue lies in the fact that there are various theories of how a text should be rendered. The most traditional theory, he says, is that a text ought to be translated as a “faithful and true representation of what the text initially meant to its readers.” Supporters of this notion suggest that the initial text was written by great authors whose work has influenced western history and culture; therefore, the translation should recreate the original sense of that text. This approach to translations has become an industry, with the Penguin Group being one example of a successful publishing company that uses this technique. Hooley explains that these types of translations are “more or less readable, and they more or less reliably transmit the information that is there.”

However, other translators observe that if one merely writes out a prose translation of a poem, it excludes all of the complex verbal artistry the poet drew upon when creating the poem. Some English translators therefore attempt to parallel the creativity or novelty of the poem by adding something interesting of their own. In doing this, however, some of the literal meaning of the text is lost for the sake of recreating the artistic experience of the piece.

Furthermore, there is a natural barrier between languages, explains Hooley, “We formulate thoughts and words in English, and other people in other languages will formulate their thoughts in their languages, and they won’t even be the same thoughts.” For this reason, translation studies and theories of translation become variously complex. Scholars have not come to a definite conclusion about how a text should be translated, but some have developed wonderful ideas about how to compensate for the qualities lost in translation while at the same time enriching the English version. In the past twenty years, Hooley has noticed a shift away from the radically innovative translations that were prevalent during the middle twentieth century towards more literal translations; he hopes to see the pendulum swing back toward the more creative mode.

While Hooley’s first book focused on Latin translations, his second book, The Knotted Thong: Structures of Mimesis in Persius (1997), is a study of Roman satire—namely, of Persius, one of the three major Roman satirists. Hooley was drawn to this man and his work partly because Persius was considered such a “strange guy.” He was a rich aristocrat who died at the age of twenty-eight and wrote incredible satirical poetry modeled after the work of his predecessor, Horace. But the youthful Persius saw in Horace’s poetry an inherent datedness that didn’t work in his own time, so he created something new and different. While Horace was an “elegant, gorgeous writer,” Persius purposefully made all of that beauty turn ugly. Satire, Hooley clarifies, is not supposed to simply please the reader; rather, it is intended to “get in your face” in order to cause reflection.

Most recently, Hooley has completed an introductory book on Roman satire. Not intended as a textbook per se, the work is to be used as a resource for anyone interested in learning about the classics. Roman Satire shows the historical development of the genre, explaining that satire is an inherent quality in humans: “It’s in our blood; it’s hardwired into our brains,” he says. Satire carries a very broad definition: it is partly a reaction to power and a way of expressing resistance, but at other times it’s a vehicle to poke fun at things. Hence, Hooley remarks that satire can be “funnily critical, or critically funny,” and satire is everywhere, having existed since the very earliest poems we have. Today it can be found in our popular culture in familiar forms such as folklore, images, songs, stories, television shows, and comic strips.

What Hooley finds interesting about the development of satire is that the Romans created an entire literary genre that has proven to be very important and influential in history. It was extremely experimental in Rome, treating all of the forbidden practices that larger genres did not portray: “You don’t go to the bathroom in an epic; you bleed, but you don’t go to the bathroom. You don’t have sex in an epic, but satire is just full of it.” In fact, satire is the “language of the body, giving it a chance to express itself.” Hooley’s Roman Satire examines the work of the major satirists, including its prefiguring authors.

Through Hooley’s work in classical studies he has developed a philosophy about why one should study the subject. “Classics is just good material,” he says, and although very old, it serves as a living presence even today. In his classroom, he brings a sense of refreshing openness to the texts, stressing that they are not simply vessels of truth. The classics may be limited in some ways, yet they’re extremely rich as well. “They challenge us, make us think,” he concludes.