[Guest post from Liz Sawyer (email@example.com)]
If you visit the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Green Park, you will find, among the more predictable quotations by Churchill, one attributed to Pericles: ‘Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.’ The sentiment rings out proudly with the ideals of self-sacrifice, bravery, and staunch defence of liberty that the memorial was intended to praise, and its rhetorical power is undeniable. Thucydides’ succinct τὸ δ’ ἐλεύθερον τὸ εὔψυχον κρίναντες (literally, ‘after judging freedom courage’) has been expanded in this version into a rhetorical flourish that has been carved into soldiers’ memorials the world over since the end of the First World War, and today is emblazoned across their societies’ websites and email signatures. But where did this translation come from?
The history of this particular phrase throws up two important points. Firstly, it is a particularly vivid and touching example of how each and every act of translation is contingent on its time, its writer and its perceived audience. Secondly, it demonstrates how peculiar the genre of quotation is, and how it can travel in ways denied to other, longer literary genres.
The translation was not originally intended to be so long-lasting, I think, even though the translator was very well-known. The Victorian classicist Arthur S. Way is better known these days for his very flowery – and dated – translations of the Greek poets and playwrights than his rarer versions of prose and Biblical extracts. After 22 years teaching classics in British schools and 10 years as Headmaster at Wesley College, Melbourne, he retired to the Isle of Wight from where he composed many of his translations and where he died in 1930. On June 28th, 1918, he very discreetly published in his local newspaper, The Ventor Mercury, his own translation of just a short section from Pericles’ Funeral Oration (2.41.5-2.44.4). The translation was every bit as high-flown as his poetic renditions, and 2.43.4 became:
‘Take these men, then, for your ensamples. Like them, remember that prosperity can only be for the free, and that freedom is the sure possession of those alone that have courage to defend it. Scorn to be haunted by thoughts of the horrors of war.’
The article did not mention Way’s name, calling him simply ‘an eminent scholar and resident of Ventnor’, publishing the translation under the title of ‘An Old-World Tribute to Our Heroic Dead’ on the grounds that, ‘The perusal of it will be a great comfort to those bereaved by the present upheaval of events.’ Did Way genuinely intend it as an offering to help those who were experiencing exactly the same feelings of grief as the Athenians in 430BC, and therefore not want to draw attention to himself? Or did he not want his name to be attached to what was at that point a work in progress?
Although Dr. Way’s modesty may have prevented him from having his own name printed in his local paper, the same did not apply to publications abroad. The Wesley College Chronicle also published his excerpt from the Funeral Oration in its December 1918 edition, understandably under Way’s name as he had been headmaster there, and so also in March 1919 did United Empire, the journal of the Royal Colonial Institute, which Way no doubt knew well from his decade in Australia.
Through United Empire it was disseminated not only across Australia into more regional newspapers such as The Queenslander of Brisbane (May 24th, 1919), but also across the whole British Empire. Via this route it reached J. Murray Clark, a Toronto lawyer and historian. An enthusiastic and staunch defender of the British Empire, he gave a speech at the Annapolis Royal Historical Association on August 31st, 1921, on the bicentenary of the establishment of the first common law court in Canada. His speech was an unabashed encomium of the British Empire, on the grounds that British law had been the root of the law of Virginia, out of which Canadian law had been derived. The speech developed into a powerful hymn of praise of common law as the incarnation of the good sense of a ‘civilised’ people and the bedrock of democracy, followed by a blistering attack on socialism, and it culminated in the image of the young men of Virginia, Canada and Britain all fighting in common cause together for democracy and freedom in the First World War. He concludes with a short section of Way’s translation from Pericles’ Funeral Oration (2.43.2-4):
‘But each one, man by man, has won imperishable praise, each has gained a glorious grave – not that sepulchre of earth wherein they lie, but the living tomb of everlasting remembrance wherein their glory is enshrined, remembrance that will live on the lips, that will blossom in the deeds of their countrymen the world over. For the whole earth is the sepulchre of heroes; monuments may rise and tablets be set up to them in their own land; but on far-off shores there is an abiding memorial that no pen or chisel has traced; it is graven, not on stone or brass, but on the living heart of humanity. Take these men, then, for your ensamples. Like them, remember that prosperity can be only for the free, that freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have courage to defend it.’
Murray Clark’s speech was subsequently published as an article in the Virginia Law Register, which was then recommended in other journals such as the American Bar Association Journal and the Canadian Law Journal. Murray Clark even included the article in a letter that he wrote to Winston Churchill (April 10th, 1922), as Churchill was at that point Secretary of State for the Colonies. From the mid 1920s, the section of Way’s translation selected by Murray Clark proliferated throughout the Empire and even beyond into the USA, to a large extent due to the work of the Canada-based Armistice Ceremonial Committee, which organised additional memorials and promoted the observance of Armistice Day across all the Allied countries, and with which Murray Clark was personally involved. Before long, in a change that will not surprise any textual critic, the commoner word ‘examples’ gradually replaced the unusual ‘ensamples’ (The Sunday Morning Star, Wilmington, Delaware, on November 9th, 1924, and The Brewster Standard, New York, on May 28th, 1926).
That the version on the Soldiers’ Tower war memorial at Toronto University, where Murray Clark was an alumnus, has retained the word ‘ensamples’, indicates his own involvement in its production and also how early a monument this was (work began in 1919 and was completed in 1924). That it is still exactly the excerpt chosen by Murray Clark which is so frequently repeated worldwide suggests still that, despite the odd changed word, it was indeed through his selected excerpt that it reached a wider audience, especially given his involvement in the Armistice Ceremonial Committee. By 1926, even a provincial newspaper in New Zealand quoted Murray Clark’s extract (with ‘examples’ rather than ‘ensamples’) and commented that, ‘during and immediately after the war, nothing was oftener quoted than one or two of these sentences,’ and puts its prevalence down to ‘The International Armistice Day Ceremonial Committee’ (The Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser, January 8th, 1926). Through the commemorative movement during the 1920s, in which the Armistice Ceremonial Committee played a large part, the quotation from Pericles was repeated throughout the Empire in both speeches and on inscriptions, and published in newspapers on Armistice Day editions. During and after the Second World War, the quotation was once more used on innumerable occasions to honour the dead and comfort the living.
At each stage on this process, Pericles’ Funeral Oration was abridged and edited for its particular audience, and it thrived or declined accordingly. Way selected only a small portion to publish in 1918, just enough to convey his message of condolence to those who had lost family in the war, and to offer comfort through demonstrating that they were not alone in their grief, but that long ago other families had suffered in just the same way. Again, Murray Clark picked just the most pertinent part of Way’s translation to bolster his own message in 1921: that men fighting for the cause of liberty (as he had defined it) would become heroes, and be known worldwide in perpetuity. From Murray Clark’s excerpt, just one succinct phrase was, and still is, cropped for use as an inscription on memorials. Had Way not published just the most pertinent part of the speech in 1918, and in a medium which would achieve far greater readership than a mere book would have done, might it never have achieved the limelight that it did? And what if Murray Clark had chosen another set of phrases to praise the British Empire?
Even at the service of remembrance on March 18th this year at Lincoln Cathedral for the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters raid, the officer who led the memorial flight, Squadron Leader Dunc Mason read out ‘an excerpt from the Funeral Oration of Pericles, which concluded, “Remember that posterity (sic) can only be for the free; that freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.” ’ I expect that this phrase, with or without its accompanying preceding sentences, will be repeated with greater frequency, and with even more variants and copyists’ errors such as in this RAF example above, over the next few years during the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. It might be fitting to conclude (and to make a translation of the passage fitted specifically for this purpose), that Pericles was right when he said of the dead soldiers that:
ἡ δόξα αὐτῶν παρὰ τῷ ἐντυχόντι αἰεὶ καὶ λόγου καὶ ἔργου καιρῷ αἰείμνηστος καταλείπεται. (2.43.2)
‘Their renown is passed on, always remembered on each fitting occasion in perpetuity, both in the words spoken and on the artifacts.’