NEW YORK - So you know the fables about the tortoise who outlasts the hare and the mouse who pulls the thorn from the paw of the lion. Heard the one about the camel who relieves himself in the river?
A new translation of "Aesop's Fables" reveals the quaint children's tales were, in the original Greek, considerably rawer and racier. The new book features gender-switching hyenas, hard-hearted frogs and a crane with a taste for double entendres.
"The ones we're familiar with have been tampered with through the ages," said co-translator Olivia Temple, who collaborated with husband Robert Temple.
"The Victorians didn't translate any of the slightly rude ones. And the ones we have known about were turned into little morality tales for children."
Penguin Classics published "Aesop: The Complete Fables" in England recently. The book is just arriving in U.S. stores, but it's already received attention in some expected places. Rush Limbaugh mentioned them on his radio show, wondering if they were fit for children, and they were lampooned on TV's Comedy Central as "Lust in Translation."
Little is known about Aesop, who apparently lived in Greece in the sixth century B.C. He's referred to in the writings of Aristophanes, Plato and Aristotle, among others, and he was said to have used his stories in courtrooms and negotiations. It was supposedly a sign of status to quote him at drinking parties.
The new edition of the fables includes 358 entries, some 100 of which have never before appeared in English. The fables define a pagan world, where you do what you need to survive.
In "The Shut-In Lion and the Ploughman," the ploughman's attempt to trap the lion in his shed leads to the lion's killing all the sheep and then attacking the cattle. The moral: Don't provoke the powerful.
A hard lesson also is learned in "The Ass and the Frogs." When the ass falls into a bog and begins to cry, the frogs have no sympathy: "What sort of a noise would you make if you had been living here for as long we we have? You, who have only fallen for a moment?" The moral: Life is tough; quit whining.
Alterations in the fables date at least to the 18th century, when a translator named Samuel Croxall freely expanded the original works. "Well over 50 percent of Croxall's so-called translations were written by Croxall," Robert Temple said.
Just a single word could make all the difference. In "The Fox and the Bunch of Grapes," a hungry fox is unable to reach a bunch of grapes hanging from a tree. As originally translated, the fox walks away and, to save face, mutters, "Those grapes are sour." That's the source of the expression "sour grapes."
But the Temples' translation reveals a sexual overlay to the story. The Greek word was not "sour," but "unripe." The phrase "unripe grapes" also could refer to a sexually immature girl.