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Studying Smut: Classics Professor Translates 'Hermaphrodite'

Holt Parker edits Beccadelli’s bawdy tale from its original Latin.

Date: 9/3/2010
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Holt Parker, professor in the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Classics, has published on a range of subjects from Sappho and Sulpicia to sexuality, slavery and sadism. He is a fellow of the American Academy in Rome and has translated numerous historic authors.

This summer, his translation of “The Hermaphrodite” by Antonio Beccadelli was published by Harvard University Press.

Holt Parker.
Classics Professor Holt Paker has translated many historic text, the most recent of which is 'The Hermaphordite' by Antonio Beccadelli.

What made you decide to edit and translate “Hermaphroditus” from its original Latin?

Mostly because of its legendary status as a work of smut. I’m interested in the history of sexuality and Beccadelli has a unique place in it, not just as an author, but when the scholar Friedrich Karl Forberg ran across a manuscript in 1824, he more or less had to invent the discipline of sexology in order to understand it. Plus, Harvard has this wonderful new series, The I Tatti Renaissance Library, modeled on the Loeb, with facing Latin and English: elegant, convenient and portable.

Can you explain the undertaking and the process involved in translating historic text? What were some of the challenges you faced?

Latin has a much more complex and sophisticated grammar than English. It can command very intricate sentences that are better busted up in English. In poetry in particular, Latin can interweave words in a way that English simply can’t (despite Milton’s attempts). So much of the poetry vanishes in translation. There’s also a problem with translating dirty books of ages past, partially because their sexual systems don’t line up with ours, but also because English is so woefully impoverished when it comes to obscenities. If you really want to know, Latin has three separate verbs for each of the three orifices, while English has to make do with just one.

When Beccadelli wrote it in 1425, it was labeled obscene for its eroticism yet still gained critical acclaim. What makes the piece a “precious jewel in a dunghill,” as it was so called?

That tag comes from this wonderful story told by Vespasiano da Bisticci (who’s terrific fun). Cardinal Cesarini stumbled on his secretary reading “The Hermaphrodite.” The priest tossed the book into a chest but not fast enough and was speechless when confronted. Cesarini made him take it out and destroy it, but kindly remarked, “If you had known how to respond, perhaps you wouldn’t have had to tear it up. What you should have answered me was that you were searching for a precious stone in a dunghill.” It captures nicely what his contemporaries thought. Here was the voice of pagan antiquity speaking again. Some relished the poetry while deploring the contents. Others held up the young Virgil as an example, who supposedly had written the Priapus poems (he’s the god of erections) before getting down to serious business like the Aeneid.

'I’m interested in the history of sexuality and Beccadelli has a unique place in it,' Parker says.

Compared to today’s standards, did you find the content bawdy or shocking?

Bawdy certainly, but hardly shocking. You won’t learn anything there you haven’t already learned. Mr. B did enjoy the seamier side of life: no elegant courtesans but a detailed description of how to find the brothel next time you’re in Florence. He wasn’t even really all that shocking compared to his contemporaries. Italian has a long tradition of lusty tales and poetry, from Boccaccio on. Beccadelli combined that carnival spirit with the satirical epigrams of Martial and Catullus.

You’ve translated other pieces, including Censorinus’ “The Birthday Book.” What key differences did you notice between Censorinus and Beccadelli?

Two different worlds. Censorinus’ “Birthday Book” is a sweet little present that tells you everything about birth, days, and birthdays. It’s this fascinating grab bag of facts: mummies, astrology, infinity, leap years, cosmic cycles. Censorinus was a scholar at the height of the Roman Empire, with a nicely varied prose style. Beccadelli is a poet, reviving an ossified language. He’s very nitty, very gritty. He suffered a lot, I’m afraid, in comparison to Olympia Morata, whom I had just finished translating for Chicago’s series, “The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe.” Here’s this brilliant woman scholar and poet, an early Protestant in the heart of Italy, who wrote Latin prose of such beauty and learning that it makes you weep.

What are you working on next?  

I’m finishing an edition of “The Gynecology” by Metrodora, which is the earliest surviving work by a woman doctor. She probably dates somewhere in the second or third centuries, A.D. Fascinating stuff. She writes about how to use the speculum and has some rather gristly recipes. She got translated into Latin in late antiquity and her work underlay a lot of medieval and renaissance medical practice.

I’m also starting on a book for Cambridge University Press on sexuality in the ancient world, provisionally titled “Wives, Whores, Boys and Slaves.” Look for the musical.

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