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Sarah Fielding, trans., Xenophon’s Memorabilia and The Apology of Socrates

Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias P, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4632-0614-7
Penelope Wilson
Référence(s) :

Fielding, Sarah, trans. – Xenophon’s Memorabilia and The Apology of Socrates. Ed. Hélène Pignot. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias P, 2016. vii + 223 pp. ISBN 978-1-4632-0614-7

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1As a monument of female classical achievement in eighteenth-century Britain, Sarah Fielding’s 1762 translation of Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Apology stands in the shadow of Elizabeth Carter’s slightly earlier translation of the works of Epictetus (1758). Both attracted subscribers from high society as well as across genders (Fielding with 611 subscribers against Carter’s 1,031), and both found some extended life via Dent’s Everyman classics series in the early twentieth century. As a classicist, Carter has always been the bigger figure: a dedicated scholar, and a pioneer, forging ahead with the translation and annotation of an ancient philosopher who had never previously been available in English, she created her own niche in literary society. Sarah Fielding, like her brother Henry best known as a novelist, was more self-deprecating about her classical attainments, and her chosen text was the staple of many a schoolboy’s education: ‘the memorabilia are so much read in the schools, that every person the least tinctured with learning, may be supposed to be acquainted with the subject’ (Tobias Smollett in the Critical Review for March 1762).

2Fielding’s translation of Xenophon’s Memorabilia as “Memoirs of Socrates” was published alongside the much shorter Apology (in the Greek, 2,000 words as against 33,000). The present edition offers four short pieces of additional contemporary material, including Smollett’s highly favourable review. Hélène Pignot’s introduction is accompanied by a bibliography and a note on the text. The introduction, somewhat loosely structured between main arguments and footnotes, discusses the assistance and influence of Sarah Fielding’s friend James ‘Hermes’ Harris, Fielding’s own learning and habits of translation, and the relation of the Xenophontic Socrates to her other works and her religion. Especially welcome in this English format is the attention paid in both introduction and bibliography to work from outside the “English” tradition, especially Laurent Jaffro (on the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury’s unpublished work on Xenophon) and Louis-André Dorion. Shaftesbury and Dorion, in very different ways, provide persuasive chronological bookends to Pignot’s argument for the importance of Fielding’s eloquent representation of the Xenophontic Socrates, overshadowed for so long by the Socrates of Plato.

3In these terms one must be glad to see a new edition of this work take its place on library shelves. However, given the online accessibility of these as of other little-known eighteenth-century texts (both within and beyond academic institutions), the nature of the editorial “offer” today becomes subject to particular scrutiny. The commonest reason for turning to a hardback modern edition is likely to be for a reliable apparatus of notes and commentary. The sub-title, “edited with notes and introduction,” is here misleading, as with one exception the notes supplied by Pignot are to her own introduction rather than to the translation itself, where all notes are Sarah Fielding’s own. Whatever the rationale for excluding even the most rudimentary supporting annotation, that decision considerably limits the usefulness of this publication. The lack of a guiding hand for the reader is immediately felt in the Preface, where, for example, quotations from an “admired modern writer” and the “celebrated writer” of the Life of Cicero remain unidentified (as Samuel Johnson and Conyers Middleton respectively), and Sarah Fielding’s defensiveness over her choice of the word “Memoirs” in the title passes without any elucidation (although in her own title Pignot opts for the standard Memorabilia). The lack of annotation also means that there is little opportunity for close analysis of the translation itself, e.g. through highlighting and elucidating lexical points ad loc. There is some detailed discussion in the introduction of the ten pages of the Apology translation, but in relation to the main work we are left with a passing generality: “we [editorial] read Sarah’s translation of the Memorabilia, the Greek text, and two contemporary English translations and our general impression is that her translation is both accurate and elegant.” Fielding’s own notes, too, potentially offer a rich field for identification and discussion of her mostly unacknowledged sources in other classical writings and/or handbooks, as well as the range of her concerns. We are only told, again in the introduction and with limited accuracy, that “her notes are mainly meant to shed light on the historical and political context of ancient Greece.”

4With a few slight errors and misprints (a misread long-s giving “sickle” instead of “fickle” on p. 7, and “refrain” for “restrain” on p. 66; reference to ch. 5 rather than ch. 6 of Book IV on p. 13; omission of ”not” 9 lines from the foot on p. 43 (“does not necessarily cause harm”); “she said” for “he said” on p. 80), there are some larger points for correction. One of the four “Annexes” of contemporary material is an interesting and entirely relevant passage from the 1754 work The Cry, together with Pignot’s own long note on Shaftesbury, Socrates, and ridicule. It needs to be made clear, however, that this work is not “Fielding’s The Cry,” but written in collaboration with her friend Jane Collier (see Michael Londry’s article “Our dear Miss Jenny Collier” in the Times Literary Supplement for 5 March 2004). A nuance is missed on p. 6 when Fielding and Collier are said to thank Harris “with hyperbolic humility” for the gift of his book Hermes: Harris would surely have appreciated the terms of their thanks rather as a witty allusion to their mastery of his linguistic philosophy. There is a significant misreading of an important statement by Sarah Fielding on her motives for the translation, in the letter to James Harris where in describing her translator’s method she expresses her reluctance to use a French translation “because I have a double view in this Translation the Improvement of the Greek as well as the Substantial Utility which my Situation makes Needfull.” It is clear from the context that by the phrase “the improvement of the Greek” she means the improvement of her own Greek, and not, as Pignot takes it (20), using amplification to clarify the meaning of the original.

5Over all, this is an attractive and generally well-produced book, bringing welcome recognition to an under-estimated work. Readers will have to look elsewhere, however, for detailed analysis and for the most up-to-date contextual discussion.

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Penelope Wilson, « Sarah Fielding, trans., Xenophon’s Memorabilia and The Apology of Socrates », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 74 | 2017, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2017, consulté le 16 janvier 2018. URL :

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Penelope Wilson

Murray Edwards College, Cambridge

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