Lessons in Bad Behavior from Ancient Greece: A New Translation of “Characters” by Theophrastus

If there’s anything new to learn from Characters, a series of personality portraits written by the ancient Greek Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC), it is that gluttons, chatterboxes, drunks, idiots, and others are not unique to any time or place in human history. A new translation offers a fresh look.

9780935112375_FC.jpg

If there’s anything new to learn from Characters, a series of personality portraits written by the ancient Greek Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC), it is that gluttons, chatterboxes, drunks, idiots, and others are not unique to any time or place in human history.  This robust little volume of character sketches has been widely published and translated since its first appearance twenty-three centuries ago–Jean de la Bruyère’s Les Caractères (1688), Character Writings of the Seventeenth Century (1891) and the Loeb Classical Library’s edition are a few that come to mind–but each translation is an interpretative undertaking, meaning there is always a renewed need for fresh viewpoints.

On October 1, Characters will be once again published in English, this time by Callaway Arts & Entertainment. Translated by Pamela Mensch with vibrant pen-and-ink illustrations by acclaimed caricature artist André Carrillo, this edition includes insightful annotations by Bard College classics professor and Guggenheim recipient James Romm.

Part the enduring appeal of Characters is that bad behavior, however caustic, is, whether we like it or not, universal; who doesn’t know a busybody who “stands up and promises what he can’t deliver,” a slovenly fellow “afflicted with dull-white eczema and black fingernails, go[ing] about saying that these illnesses are hereditary,” and the friend of scoundrels who “fraternizes with men who have been defeated in court and convicted in public trials; he assumes that if he’s friendly with them, he’ll become more worldly and formidable.”

 

“These are flesh-and-blood people, with very familiar flaws and foibles,” Romm explained. “They remind us that ancient Greeks were actual human beings, not marble busts. The past no longer feels like a foreign country. It’s a true gift to be able to ‘feel’ the reality of the classical world.” As Romm points out in his introduction, some previous translators could not square with the lack of judgement in Theophrastus’s sketches and inserted their own. This edition strips away those addendums, allowing the original descriptions to be read on their own merit.

 

And yet, English-speakers don’t suffer for lack options: Penguin released a paperback version as recently as 2015, so why a new translation now? “There’s a very practical reason,” Romm said. “The Greek text of Characters is rather messy, with lots of sentences in dispute (or simply unintelligible) due to copyists’ errors in the transmission process. Only a few years ago, a new edition of the Greek text by James Diggle sorted out many of these problems. This new English version by Pamela Mensch takes advantage of that cleaned-up Greek text.”

 

Contemporary readers may be familiar with Theophrastus’s exhaustive Inquiry into Plantsand Causes of Plants. However, Characters reveals more of the author’s natural verve and wit, which has led some scholars to dispute whether Theophrastus deserves the attribution. “The contrast between Characters and the botanical works is indeed sharp,” Romm said. “Assuming Theophrastus wrote both, he seems to have wanted to take an occasional break from science to compose light satire, and perhaps, like all good teachers, sought a way to bring some levity to his ‘classroom’ — in his case, the Lyceum, founded by Aristotle.”

 

We may see a bit of ourselves, our friends, and our political leaders in these portraits, but how might have an ancient Athenian reacted? After all, these were sketches based on actual people Theophrastus encountered on a daily basis. Romm believes the Greeks would have taken it in stride– “With a laugh and a nod of recognition, and probably a bit of embarrassment!”

Society needs writers who document human behavior, even if that behavior never seems to change. But those records needn’t always be gloomy. “Thucydides famously wrote that human nature is constant over time, so that the deeds he recorded in the Peloponnesian War would be seen again,” Romm said. “In his case, that’s a tragic message, since he mostly records atrocities. Theophrastus supplies the comic side of the same equation.”

Theophrastus’ Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behavior, by James Romm, André Carrilho, and Pamela Mensch. Callaway Arts and Entertainment; $24.95, 119 pages.

 

This story first appeared on the Fine Books Blog on September 28, 2018.

Announcing the Winner of the 2018 Albertine Prize

Readers may recall a story posted back in December about the Albertine Prize, an annual award co-presented by jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy that recognizes American readers’ favorite contemporary French fiction translated into English. The reading public was invited to vote at Albertine’s website, and pretty much stuff the ballot box with their favorites.
This year’s five nominees included:

 

Incest by Christine Angot, trans. by Tess Lewis, Archipelago Books
Compass by Mathias Enard, trans. by Charlotte Mandel, New Directions
The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis, trans. by Michael Lucey, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, trans. by Helen Stevenson, The New Press
Not One Day by Anne Garréta, trans. by Emma Ramadan, Deep Vellum
Interest in the prize was drummed up on April 10 when LitHub’s editor-in-chief Jonny Diamond, The New Yorker’s H.C. Wilentz, Albertine’s director Tom Roberge, and others shared their favorites.
The winner of the $10,000 prize was finally revealed to a packed house on Wednesday, June 6, with French literary critic and la Grande Librarie host François Busnel and translator Lydia Davis. The grand prize went to Anne Garréta’s Not One Day (Deep Vellum, 2017) translated by Emma Ramadan. Garréta’s twelve vignettes exploring memory and desire was originally published as Pas Un Jour in 2002 (éditions Grasset) and awarded the prestigious Prix Medicis. The winnings are split between author and translator and assure the book greater exposure to an English-speaking audience. Congratulations to the winners!

 

Photo courtesy of the French Embassy of New York

Albertine Prize Needs Your Help!

Calling all American Francophiles: the Albertine Prize needs your vote! Organized by the Fifth Avenue bookstore, Albertine, and co-presented by jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels  and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, the award recognizes American readers’ favorite French-language fiction titles translated into English and distributed in the U.S. within the preceding calendar year.

This year’s nominees are winnowed to five titles covering a range of perspectives and narrative styles; UCLA professor Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses (Petit Piment, 2015) follows a Congoloese boy who escapes a terrifying orphanage and is raised by thieves in Pointe-Noire, and Christine Angot’s controversial story about molestation, Incest (Inceste, 1999) also makes the shortlist.

The Albertine Prize selection committee includes author and translator Lydia Davis, French literary critic and La Grande Librairie host François Busnel, and the staff at the Albertine bookstore in New York City.

Not sure which book to vote for? Albertine will host a springtime Book Battle, where five critics and professors will defend their favorite title.
Anyone can vote, just follow the link here. Ballots close May 1, 2018, with an awards ceremony on June 6. The winner will receive a $10,000 prize, to be split between author and translator. Bonne lecture!  

I Work Like a Gardener: A New Translation of Joan Miró’s Art Philosophy

Catalan painter, sculptor, and ceramicist Joan Miró (1893-1983) is perhaps best known for his Surrealist sculptures and activity with the anarchic Dada art movement. Miró catapulted into the art world stratosphere, ending up on many contemporary art collectors’ wishlists.

In 1958, the artist spoke to Parisian critic Yvon Taillandier about his life and work, and that conversation was published in a French limited edition of seventy-five copies in 1964. Now, Princeton Architectural Press is releasing a new English translation of the book on October 10.  Read all about it on the Fine Books Blog  .