luke hollis

The Instability of Theocritus's Language and Dialects

A Conversation with Transom Journal
Vergil Eclogues

When translating ancient texts, some translators try to use language that evokes ancientness, while others attempt to make that writer sound contemporary to our ears. You seem to take a middle path with your casual use of contractions and elevated language like “Hail, dread Hekate.” How did the ancientness of these texts influence your translation decisions?

Perhaps no Hellenistic poet is so keenly strategic and intentional with dialect as Theocritus. In the multiplicities and variations of dialect throughout his work, there exist the paradoxes and juxtapositions that lie at the heart of Theocritus’s inventiveness in genre that stems from a complex relationship with Homer predominantly and the Archaic tradition more generally. This is what makes Theocritus fascinating to me. One of Theocritus’s primary modern editors, A. S. F. Gow (to whom my translation owes much), divided Theocritus’s poetry into five distinct dialectical groups, the largest of which is “genuine” Doric, for which Theocritus is most well known, and the remainder contain elements of the Epic, Ionic, and Aeolic dialects. Classicist Gianfranco Fabiano described the intricacies of Theocritus’s language as such: “What seems chiefly to characterise Theocritus’ poetic language is the instability of the system at every level, from the least phonetic unity, which always enjoys a considerable autonomy inside the changeable convention of the dialect, to the structure of the Idylls as complex syntheses of different literary genres . . . . This tension of opposite elements in words and sentences and also in two sentences in succession is the dynamic device of composition according to which almost every idyll is built up.” The skillful shifts in register and diction are essential to the subtext of the Idylls that comes to be known as the pastoral mode and genre.

This was where the impetus for my translation of Theocritus began. Having grown up in a small town in rural Nebraska, I resonated with the landscape and speakers of Theocritus. His scientific and metaphoric interest in botany and husbandry, his acknowledgment and defiance of class consciousness, and his expansive use of dialect and language all vividly describe my experience of the American Midwest and continue to inform my understanding of the widely varied diction and language used by the residents of my hometown. Similarly, Fabiano writes of Theocritus, “[T]he Doric element alone is already so differentiated that it makes up an unlimited reserve of expression . . . . Theocritus’ language, no matter what the dialect, is almost always made dynamic in a series of oppositions between Homerisms and rough Doric forms, high artificiality and colloquialisms, realism in some details and refusal of a consistent realistic poetics, personal tone and literary stimuli.” The primary goal for my translation was to render Theocritus in just such precisely textured shifts of dialect and language, which explore the amalgamation of vocabularies, conventions, and colloquialisms that compose what I've come to understand as the Midwestern vernacular.

Continue reading this interview with Transom here.