E. V. Rieu and Chekhov: an apology

November 25, 2012 • 4:04 am

by Matthew Cobb

Back in January, while Jerry was on a trip somewhere, I posted a poem by the writer and translator, E. V. Rieu, and went on to discuss the controversy over what exactly Homer meant by ‘wine-dark sea’. To liven up the post, I included what I thought was a photo of E. V. Rieu:

“E. V. Rieu”. Or not.

Except, as was pointed out by Drew Herzig in a comment in March,

 “I think the photo you show is of Anton Chekhov, not E.V. Rieu!”

Once this is pointed out, it’s obviously not Rieu – Rieu was born in 1887 and the man in this portrait is in his 40s. Neither the shirt not the glasses seem right for a photo that would therefore have been taken in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Neither myself nor Jerry noticed Drew’s comment, but yesterday Eben van  Tonder asked whether the photo of Rieu was indeed of him. I dug about a bit, and discovered to my embarrassment that the photo I posted is clearly a portrait of Anton Chekhov.

This minor misteak raises an interesting epistemological point. I thought I took the photo from Rieu’s Wikipedia page but the history of the page doesn’t say anything about deleting a photo, so I guess I just copied the first thing I found on Google. Here’s the lesson: a Google image search of the photo above reveals 139 results. The first page sources all identify him as E V Rieu, and that’s Google’s best guess. But if you dare to enter the second page of results, you come up with loads of Russian language sites, all of which name the face as that of Anton Chekhov. Indeed, apart from 10 ids as Rieu (including my post), the internet is convinced that this is Chekhov, which indeed it is.

As far as I can see on the internet there is no portrait of E. V. Rieu. I have tweeted two of the UK’s leading classicists – Mary Beard and Tom Holland – and they don’t know of a portrait either, but Tom helpfully said he would ask the Penguin Classics folk (who publish Rieu’s translations) whether they knew what he looked like.

What does all this have to do with Why Evolution Is True? Not a lot, but it reminds us – and me – to indicate my sources, and above all to go past the first page of a Google search.

25 thoughts on “E. V. Rieu and Chekhov: an apology

  1. Depressing to read about so-called scientists spending so much time discussing “wine-dark”, before bothering to check the original Greek.

  2. So the Chekhovian lesson here?

    If you introduce a loaded photograph misidentified as E.V. Rieu in Act I, someone is certain to pull the trigger by properly identifying it as Uncle Anton in Act III?

  3. Doubly funny, Matthew: I missed your initial post on E.V. Rieu because I was off-line, ill in hospital, reading two recent German translations of Homer. And I would immediately have identified Chekhov, because my grandfather, an ardent Chekhovian, kept his portrait on his desk.

    Welcome to the “now for something completely different” world of Homeric colour epitheta! And may I humbly advise to lay your beloved Rieu translation to rest for a while? It’s really not that good.

    Of all the wrong ways of translating oinops pontos, ‘wine-dark sea’ is perhaps the most misleadingly inaccurate.
    The whole exchange in Nature was about as meaningful as Dr. Franz Messerli’s recent Nobel-vs-Chocolate regression in NEJM.

    The most comprehensive study of Greek archaic and classical epitheta applied to landscapes was published in 1975 (alas, only in German, and alas, you will need some basic Greek) by Winfried Elliger:

    Winfried Elliger:
    Die Darstellung der Landschaft in der griechischen Dichtung.
    Berlin: De Gruyter, 1975. ISBN-13: 978-3110047943

    Elliger describes, with plenty of examples, the ancient Greek poetic way of assigning epitheta in accordance with subjective mood, emotional context, and impressionistic mode of perception. The latter cannot be emphasized enough: rhododaktylos eos and oinops pontos are not just mnemonic stereotypes, they are also fine perceptions of fleeting hues.

      1. Among reliable translations of the classics, those published by Penguin are probably the cheapest and easiest to find, with the added advantage in many cases of having been specially commissioned by Penguin.

        The range of classics published in translation by Penguin is truly remarkable and includes nearly all the Important Works, or so it seems.

          1. Nothing at all wrong with the traditional ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, it’s quite literal and therefore as valid an impressionistic mode of perception (whatever that means) in one language as another. I’d guess the ‘fingers’ are (reddish) rays of light piercing through clouds, which is a motif the Egyptians were very keen on and may, as an atmospheric phenomenon, be more characteristic of the eastern Mediterranean than most places.

            Literally, oinops is wine-faced (or ‘looking like wine’), so it’s not obvious whether it refers to appearance of red colour in a particular light, light-scattering and absorbency characteristics (coloured shallows grading to utterly dark depths), smoothness of the surface like wine in a bowl, or whatever. Maybe all of them at once.

            But I’m no Homeric scholar, my four years of school Greek were nearly all classical Attic.

      2. The problem is, no single translation of a complex work as distant in time, space, and mentality as Homeric epics is likely to satisfy on all levels.

        In this digital age, the best would be to consult and compare translations of the Classics available online, getting a sense of the differences and probing for their reasons. Online references, either linked or easily searchable, are also helpful and often indispensable.

        For a thoroughly modern Odyssey, see:

  4. “alas, you will need some basic Greek”

    Why “alas”? If more people studied Greek and Latin, and spent their evenings reading the classics, wouldn’t the world be a better place? I’ve read that you can learn enough classical Greek in six months to read Homer.

    1. Good point, that. It was offered at our school as one of the language options for 14-16 year olds. In two years you get to that stage – longer than 6 months I’ll grant you but there’s a lot else going on in those 2 years (like 9 other subjects as well).

      I didn’t take up the Greek option myself – I did Russian instead.

    2. ‘Alas’: because Greek is still seen by many as a subject fit for the scions of the leisured class only. Also, as a waste of time and energy compared to more vital subjects vying for the increasingly short attention of our youngsters.

      My teaching experience tells me otherwise. We tend to start languages way too late, diluting the pensum over insanely long stretches of time, making a boring drill of what should be essentially absorbing, thrilling, playful, and fun — as hard but interesting work should be. On this I agree with Churchill’s conclusion in My Early Life:

      I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.

  5. Now that you presented us with Anton Chekov you can’t just leave us hanging. Give us some insight into the evolution of a great writer/playwright.

  6. There was a radio 4 programme earlier this year I think, in which they discussed colour & what it meant. Blue was a colour that it seems – if I recall correctly – was not really talked about in ancient times outside Egypt… I will try & work out what the progeramme was (could have been Stephen Fry?)… may be I have recallerd this incorrectlky. I will check.

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