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The Challenge of Proverbs in Translation: A Case Study.

Idiomatic expressions and proverbs are one of the greatest challenges for a translator. They present the two-fold feature of claiming some degree of universality, as well as of being (or through being) extremely local in their material. In other words, they claim a meaning which can be universally applied to a given situation, yet they achieve such a claim by means of an expression that often times only people who share a specific experiential horizon and historical context can easily recognize. The fascination of such expressions lies in the fact that, even when the communicative intention is clear in their usage, their meaning "is somewhat more than the sum meanings of its words," since "encountering any fixed expression conjures up in the mind of the reader or hearer all the aspects of experience which are associated with the typical contexts in which the expression is used." (1) In this paper, I would like to offer a case study of two expressions that appear in the correspondence between Libanius of Antioch and Datianus. I will proceed first by providing some historical background to the letters of Libanius, and the ones to Datianus in particular. Second, I will illustrate the occurrences of the two idiomatic expressions that I intend to analyze, discussing their proverbial and idiomatic nature. Lastly, I will face the challenge of translation and the consequences of different translation choices. I will advocate my preference for a literal translation.

The Background: the Relationship between Libanius and Datianus

Libanius of Antioch was a sophist, whose activity took place mainly in Antioch in the second half of the fourth century CE. A pagan professor in a city with a high number of Christians, (2) he was a personal friend of the emperor Julian. Libanius is exceptional amongst ancient writers because of the number of works that have been preserved: besides Orations, Progymnasata, and Declamations, 1,544 letters are extant and constitute one of the largest surviving epistolary collections from antiquity. The extant letters cover two different periods of time: (3) a first batch of letters, almost 1,300, goes from the year 355 to 365 CE, whereas a second one (with fewer than 300 letters) covers the The-odosian years (from 388 to 393 CE, likely the year of or before Libanius's death). Over 700 people are mentioned in Libanius's epistolary, most of whom are identified.

The expressions under scrutiny in this paper appear in the correspondence with Datianus, member of the imperial court at Milan and Constantinople, Christian by religion, Antiochian by birth, and a courtier whose great influence Libanius never ceased to appeal to, either on his own or on his friends' behalf. There are twenty surviving letters addressed to Datianus at court. The correspondence with him can be conveniently divided into three chapters, chronologically ordered, which describe three very different phases of their friendship, at least for the little it is possible to know from the letters. For we should never forget that the picture we can get of their relationship is confined to these letters, and we can hear only one side of the conversation, since the letters from Datianus have not been preserved.

The first chapter concerns the request addressed to Datianus to intercede at court so that Libanius might be released from his official appointment as a sophist at Constantinople, and permanently settle back into his hometown, Antioch. Libanius had received an appointment as a teacher in the Eastern capital by decree of the emperor, but after a visit to his hometown in 353 CE, he started longing to return home, and pressing his friends to lobby on his behalf. The first four letters date before his official release, (4) the fifth immediately after; its joyous praise of the city and the invitation it contains for Datianus to come back to Antioch attest to a serenity of mind he finally acquired, and it can therefore be grouped with the other four. There is a gap between 360 and the end of 363 CE, which might be explained by the accession to the throne of Julian, whose court did not welcome Christian members. The correspondence resumes after the accession of Jovian, and probably after Datianus reentered imperial circles. This is also the time in which a terrible event befell Datianus's properties in Antioch and Libanius had to step up to intercede on behalf of his city, as we will see. The last group of letters is concerned with miscellaneous matters, after the crisis has passed, and it is interrupted probably by Datianus's death. All this information is necessary to understand the context in which we encounter the expressions that are the object of this study.

Flutes and Lyres

Libanius sends letter 490 (5) to Datianus at the court in Milan in the spring of 356. As in many of Libanius's letters, the language and the expression is highly rhetorical. The exordium is one perfect example of the sophist's skills, and it also demonstrates the kind of relationship Libanius was cultivating through his letters. The proverbial expression that is of interest here appears at the end of the first paragraph. I offer, here as in the rest of the paper unless noted otherwise, my translation of the Greek text: (6)

[phrase omitted]

Ep. 490.1
Even if you had written me back without providing any assistance in
your actions, you still would have composed your words in the most
pleasing manner. Now, by helping me, you were saving me, and you sent
your letter after you saved me: helping me and writing to me so
beautifully, you added beautiful words to beautiful actions. "Flutes"
they say, "after the lyre."


As often happens with the correspondence of Libanius, many details of the unfolding events are lost for lack of sources. We do not know what Datianus wrote to Libanius besides what can be inferred from the letters Libanius sent to him, nor do we know the specifics of the initiative Libanius was hoping for from his courtier friend. According to Bradbury, Libanius attributed the success of his plea to return to Antioch "to the effort of Anatolius in league with an old medical friend, Olympius, the two of whom allegedly spurred on others, in particular, the powerful Christian courtier Datianus." (7) It is certain that at the time of this letter the matter had not yet been solved, although Libanius's friends were making progress in their efforts.

The expression that is our concern here refers, within this context, to the rhetorical craft of Datianus's letter, and the consequent pleasure it provides to the reader, which perfected effective action, whatever it may be. There is a marker in the Greek that suggests the proverbial nature of the phrase: [phrase omitted] (phasi), "as they say." The parenthetic verb places the expression within an array of common ways of saying, and does it explicitly, calling the reader to recognize it. The proverb is not attested in any of the ancient paroemiographers, (8) nor was Salzmann, who collected proverbs and proverbial expressions in the works of Libanius, able to find another occurrence of the same expression in Greek literature. Salzmann offers possible explanations for the origin of the proverb: the use of lyre and flute together after the fifth century, or the fact that the lyre is older than the flute. (9)

All these are valid elements, but more interesting clues may come from a closer look at the context of the letter. The rhetorical praise of the first paragraph implies that the beauty of Datianus's actions would have been enough to make a complete composition, one that could have been played on the lyre alone. Sending a beautifully crafted letter makes it an equally complete work, just much richer. Furthermore, the following paragraphs of the letter present the scene of Libanius reading the letter to his friends--a scene that appears often in his epistolary (10)--and then Libanius himself catching everybody's attention in recalling Datianus's past benefactions:
And now the others who were standing by were struck in awe, and they
were applauding, and they kept thinking of your divine person. I, on
my part, priding myself, said: "It is impossible for him to willingly
neglect my security." [3] I was puzzled, because what has been said
meant something to me, and so I started recounting your first kindness,
then the second, then the third, then the fourth, and all the others
which whoever receives them knows very well, but he who offers them has
forgotten. Then I was wondering whether Poseidon would see the ship he
saved through rough seas broken asunder at port. "He will not," I said,
"but this one will free me completely from my misfortunes, while looking
after his own business."


Ep 1184.2-3

The scene described here fits well with the musical reference of the expression we are examining. There are people applauding, and one "performer" who tells stories in a festive gathering of people. Finally, the reference to Poseidon saving the ship in port adds an epic flavor to the highly rhetorical interactions. The common experiential horizon in which the proverbial expression is placed, therefore, goes far beyond the utterance of the proverb, and it builds up a metaphorical context, in which the phrase flute after the lyre comes to be the key to unlock the imagery through which the message of the letter is conveyed. Libanius presents a group of people characterized by some degree of acquaintance with Datianus and by the fact that they all have the highest regard for the Christian courtier. The letter Libanius reads to this group of people crowns their gathering, since it offers tangible proof of Datianus's goodness the friends were praising together. The imagery not only flatters Datianus, but evokes the context of music, recitations, and mythological story-telling, bringing the symposium back to him, so to speak.

It appears clear, then, that the choice of an easy English equivalent like "the icing on the cake" or "the cherry on top," would lose all the power of referencing the commonality of experience which shapes the rest of the letter, and would spark a wholly different expectation in the reader. Both English equivalents, in fact, refer to the traditional modern custom of celebrating by sharing a cake, whereas the flutes and the lyre were not just symbols to signify merriment, but they were also instruments which accompanied the content of the celebration through poetic recitation. We might wonder what reaction the expression "the icing on the cake" would spur in ancient Greek minds. But more importantly, the wider context of the letter would produce the image of a gathering of people to recite poetry and celebrate great deeds with a cake in the middle, which clearly does not belong to the situation Libanius and Datianus were familiar with.

The Feathers of the Wolf and the Milk of Birds

The second proverb I will discuss is much better attested, both in Libanius's corpus and in Greek literature. It appears in one of the letters (Ep. 1184) that concern a very grave matter: the year is 364 CE and Antioch has just sent an embassy to bring crowns to the new emperor Valentinian I at Constantinople. Sometime after the accession to the imperial throne of Jovian or Valentinian, a rioting mob has looted Datianus's property in Antioch. Little is known about the identity of the rioters and their motives. Surely, the city council was called into question, either for having sanctioned the action or for having done nothing to prevent it. Libanius was in Antioch at the time, and fear of retaliation and/or punishment from Datianus, who was still at court in Constantinople, must have been in the Antiochians' minds. The embassy, then, must have also been entrusted with the mission to check on and/or to appease Datianus's mind on the matter. Libanius, in his letter, plays the role of the mediator between the city and his friend; we don't know whether this was Datianus's choice or Libanius's initiative. Libanius establishes his appeal on one main argument: [phrase omitted]

(to de dounai suggnomen theou te kai ted paraplesiou), "but to grant forgiveness is indeed work of a god, and of someone who resembles a god" (Ep. 1184.3). Such argument allows Libanius to recognize the guilt on the part of city (city council included), and at the same time present the better course of action in its favor.

At the end of the letter Libanius writes:
[phrase omitted]

Ep. 1184.11

When I sent out this letter, there were those who considered me a fool,
and thought that, as the saying goes, / am looking for the feathers
of a wolf.


The impossibility of taking the statement literally and its oddity in the context, along with the marker [phrase omitted] (phasi, "as they say"), spark the search for an idiomatic meaning. Once again, the meaning is pretty clear, and easily comparable with similar expressions in many different languages, which often use images related to the animal realm. English sees pigs fly, Italian prefers donkeys, etc.

A comparison with the other occurrences in Libanius's epistolary, though, deepens our understanding of the implication of this saying. In Ep. 515.3 addressed to Andronicus, Libanius uses the same expression to explain that trying to exact praises from a Strategius is like [phrase omitted] (lykouptera zetein), "looking for the feathers of a wolf." This occurrence confirms that we are dealing with an adynaton, an expression that denotes something impossible to achieve.

In Ep. 1351.3, the same expression is used, but with a variation that sheds further light on its meaning. The ability to apply a variation to a proverbial or idiomatic expression without sounding awkward is an almost exclusive competence of native speakers. The reason why one variation is perceived as acceptable, while another is not, is rarely logical, or at least escapes the constraint of fixed rules and grammatical explanations. If students of languages have irritated for centuries their grammar-oriented teachers with the answer or comment: "It just sounds right" or "It does not sound right," in this specific area of languages, that very answer seems the best possible. Therefore, when in search of the meaning of an idiomatic expression we have the luck of finding a variation of the same idiom, we are offered a unique opportunity to understand nuances that would have been inaccessible with only one version of said expression.

Ep. 1351 is concerned with a political/religious problem in the city of Apamea, and the issue is 'constraint versus freedom' in religious practices: that is, whether it is appropriate and convenient to impose certain religious practices on a given territory or group of people, and whether such an imposition can be successful. In the middle of this discussion, Libanius makes a remark about the character of the population of that city saying: [phrase omitted] (parakaloumenoi men syn epainois kan lykouptera doien kan ornithon gala), "When they are encouraged with praises, they will give you even the feathers of a wolf and the milk of birds" (Ep. 1351.3). The feathers of the wolf, this time associated with the milk of birds, are once again clear adynata. The interesting part is the variation on the verb. It is not a matter of [phrase omitted] (zetein, "looking for") here, but of [phrase omitted] {didonai, "to give"). Here the focus is not on an impossible effort, but on an impossible achievement. This makes us understand that the meaning of the expression has two elements: the impossibility itself (simple adynaton) and the effort to attempt to achieve it.

Let's now see possible translations: in the case of letter 515, Norman (11) proposes: "If you look for any kindness from him, you are on a wild goose chase!'' The choice of an equivalent idiom in the English language keeps the meaning intact, the nuance of the "chase" included. But if we look at how Norman translates letter 1351, that nuance is lost: "If they are encouraged and praised, they will do anything--even the impossible" (12) The choice, here, is to preserve the meaning, the adynaton, at the cost of losing the web of references that the feathers of the wolf and the milk of birds sparked in the ancient reader. Lastly, in the case of letter 1184, with which we started, Norman offers: "When I was writing this, some people thought me a fool, wishful to see pigs fly--as the proverb has it: they said I would never convince you." (13) In this case, again, the English equivalent is the choice, and one that conveys the meaning of foolishness, but not that of the effort and attempt to achieve the impossible, which instead constitutes the core of Libanius's request for forgiveness.

In conclusion, proverbial and idiomatic expressions represent the hardest obstacle in translation. They might be obscure in meaning, but even once their message has been unveiled they have implications that are fully within the reach only of those who share the same language and culture. This is proven by the capability of varying an expression. As we are not native Ancient Greek speakers, we would not know whether it is acceptable to change [phrase omitted] ("looking for") into [phrase omitted] ("giving"), for the "feathers of the wolf" proverb. But the study of these variations brings us closer to the full meaning of the expression. Once the interpretation is completed, the choice of the translator can take place. "To do the impossible" is a possible but wholly inadequate paraphrase for the successful enterprise of chasing the feathers of the wolf and the milk of birds. As it is, Libanius presents his plea to Datianus not just as something foolish, but as a "mission impossible," which would make Datianus's positive response even more praiseworthy. Similarly, "the icing on the cake" or "the cherry on top," as we have seen, keep us at a distance from the spirit of the reference to flutes and lyre, maybe even bringing to the fore feelings and images that have nothing to do with that world. Therefore, keeping the original in a more literal translation, it seems to me, fosters the work of interpretation and understanding of a language and a culture that, as much as we translate and interpret them, remain other, different from our world. Which is also what keeps its fascination for us alive.

A version of this paper was presented at the first University of Florida Classics Graduate Student Symposium, at the University of Florida, Gainesville, on October 21, 2017. This case study is one of the many challenges I have encountered in translating the complete correspondence between Libanius and Datianus for my MA Thesis at the University of Florida.

(1) Mona Baker, In Other Words. A Coursebook On Translation (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 64.

(2) The size of the Christian presence in Antioch is a lively subject of scholarly debate. See, among others, Isabella Sandwell, Religious Identity in Late Antiquity: Greeks, Jews and Christians in Antioch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

(3) For the problem of the composition of the epistolary see Lieve Van Hoof, "Self-Censorship and Self-Fashioning: Gaps in Libanius' Letter Collection," Revue Beige de Philologie et d'Histoire 92 (2014): 209-29.

(4) To ascertain when the official release took place is quite a complex matter, since Libanius's new position and payments from the former appointment seem to overlap. See Robert A. Raster, "The Salaries of Libanius," Chiron 13 (1983): 37-59.

(5) The numbers of the letters cited in this paper follow Foerster's critical edition: Richard Foerster, Libanii Opera. Vol. X and XI (Leipzig: Teubner, 1921-22).

(6) Ep. 490.1. Italics throughout this paper are my own addition.

(7) Scott Bradbury, "A Sophistic Prefect: Anatolius of Berytus in the Letters of Libanius," Classical Philology 95 (2000): 174-75.

(8) It appears in Stromberg's work on uncollected proverbs. Reinhold Stromberg, Greek Proverbs: A Collection of Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases Which Are Not Listed by the Ancient and Byzantine Paroemiographers (Goteborg: Wettergren & Kerber, 1954), 54.

(9) Ernst Salzmann, Sprichworter und sprichwortliche Redensarten bei Libanius (Tubingen: Druck von H. Laupp, 1910), 60.

(10) Such a scene also provides a peek into the nature and the process of letter exchange in antiquity. Letters were rarely completely private, and declamation and recitation of private correspondence was common, and often implied in the way they were composed. See Bernadette Cabouret, "Libanius' Letters," in Libanius: a Critical Introduction ed. Lieve Van Hoof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 144-159. For a different opinion, see Raffaella Cribiore, Libanius the Sophist: Rhetoric, Reality, and Religion in the Fourth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 27ff.

(11) Albert Francis Norman, Libanius: Autobiography and Selected Letters (Cambridge, MA and London: The Loeb Classical Library, 1992), Vol. 1,415.

(12) Norman, Libanius, Vol. II, 165.

(13) Norman, Libanius, Vol. II, 249.

doi: 10.5744/delos.2019.1011

[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article]
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Author:Simoni, Alberto
Publication:Delos: A Journal of Translation and World Literature
Article Type:Case study
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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