Monday, November 24, 2008


Joel C. Relihan (trans.), Apuleius. The Golden Ass. Or, A Book of Changes. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2007. Pp. xliv, 277; maps 4. ISBN 978-0-87220-888-9. $37.95. 978-0-87220-887-2. $12.95 (pb).
Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, Georgetown University (

Of four softcover English translations of the Metamorphoses on my shelves, Relihan's fresh new version is the only one to offer an image of a donkey on the cover, and a donkey in a precarious position at that. The commoner sources of illustration for Apuleius are either dreamy representations of the hormonal befuddlement of Cupid and Psyche or exalted depictions of the high pomposity of Isiac religion. Relihan gets it right, as this translation does in many ways.

Relihan, admired for his study on Menippean satire and his translation (venturesome in ways congruent with but different from this one) of Boethius's Consolation, is the most serious scholar of Apuleius ever to make translation the primary focus of his engagement with the text. (A separate annotated publication of his version of the Cupid and Psyche episode in books 4-6 is forthcoming from the same publisher.) That makes the translation unusually strong and valuable. There is ample evidence that Relihan has worked the text as closely as any commentator, and of course the student of this work has the Groningen volumes on which to draw: but Relihan's special focus is on language and expression, and the translation benefits at many levels. The index presented in the volume, and even more so the fuller index presented online by the publisher (half again as long as what's in the book) is effectively a thematic index to the work and to some extent a guide to translation choices Relihan has made. Many serious readers of the original Latin will still profit from using this index as a tool for exploring the text's language. (And the index is very happily keyed to book and paragraph, not to page of this edition, so its use is portable.)

The distinguishing feature of this translation to my eye is, however, Relihan's vigorous attempt to bring each line fully and vividly to life, that is, to capture the rumbustiousness of the original. So ingrained are the habits of dignification in modern translators, that sobriety keeps breaking through in the best-intentioned. (Even Graves, who tried to lay on raffishness with a trowel, subsided too often into merely workmanlike metaphrase.)

The attempt carries costs. One is mild verbosity, for to capture as much as he can of the spirit and flavor and nuance (he says he translates for those who will read the work more than once), a rough count suggests he doubles the word count of the original. (So the standard translators of Caesar's more austere text generally come in between 1.5 and 1.7 words for each word of the original.) The other translations now in the market (more on this below) expose themselves to criticism much less often, while Relihan sallies forth boldly to take what is coming. I can give examples, while regretting the formulaic need of the review format that compels me to do so. I take as sample a passage from Met. 6.14, from the latter pages of Psyche's travails, which offers several reflections:

dextra laevaque cautibus cavatis proserpunt ecce longa colla porrecti saevi dracones inconivae vigiliae luminibus addictis et in perpetuam lucem pupulis excubantibus. iamque et ipsae semet muniebant vocales aquae. nam et 'discede' et 'quid facis? vide' et 'quid agis? cave' et 'fuge' et 'peribis' subinde clamant.

Relihan: What should she see to the left and right of the spring but sadistic serpents slithering out of hollows in the rock, their eyes in the service of their unblinking sentry duty, the pupils of their eyes in sleepless vigilance, endlessly open in ceaseless sight. And now the very waters were singing out, seeking to protect themselves. For they cry out forever and a day, Go back!, and What do you think you're doing? Watch out! and What are you up to? Look out! and Run away! and You are going to die!.

Observe: (1) for ecce, "What should she see"--though translators regularly neglect the word entirely, and I might prefer to tie it more closely to the (atypically overlooked and unrendered by Relihan) words that follow ("Right and left from rocky hollows there come snaking forth--look at how they have their long necks extended!--fierce dragons . . ."): (2) for saevi "sadistic" (defended implicitly by the entry s.v. in the index, gathering passages with saevi/saevitia: a good interpretive point, though English "sadistic" carries a fair amount of baggage; (3) in a curious conservative choice, serpents and not dragons; (4) subinde rendered "forever and a day", a colloquialism that exaggerates more than Apuleius does here--for all that exaggeration is an Apuleian inclination. The sentence structure around the reptilian eyes is somewhat clunky--but so is A.'s--and the alliteration of "ceaseless sight" connives with the ooh-ing assonance of "pupulis excubantibus" to remind us of A.'s habits of wordplay.

In sum, here as elsewhere, Relihan pushes the envelope beyond customary philologist's translation practice. The examples I have given show him going about as far as he goes--that is, he is venturesome but I've not caught him breaking the text's leash entirely. Every choice can be defended. It's just that there are more choices needing defending than most other translators allow themselves.

The serious competition for this version in the paperback market is clearly that of E.J. Kenney in the Penguin edition. By contrast to both Walsh and Graves (the others I have examined), Kenney is fair and fluent and clearly gets what Apuleius is saying and manages to represent that in English; Hanson's Loeb is his equal (and enjoys a genuinely witty index added by George Goold when death unforgiveably mistook Art for someone underserving of many more years and deprived the Loeb volumes of much learning and style). (Graves sometimes misses what A. is saying, while Walsh sometimes fails to get it into intelligible English and settles for accurate translationese.) Both Kenney and Relihan provide good annotation and helpful maps. Relihan's index (see above) is clearly superior to anything else for this book.

In the end, the choice is one that I have faced in other ancient works, especially when choosing for the classroom. Shall I prefer the most accurate, careful, and precise representation of the original, or shall I choose the most persuasive and vivid impersonation of the original? For Augustine's Confessions, for example, where my judgment is the most considered, Ryan's older and Boulding's newer versions are splendidly exact, but I confess to having told students at times to prefer Pine-Coffin's Penguin, which is often more paraphrase than translation, but which reads well and quickly and effectively. Relihan is far better a translator than Pine-Coffin and a far more astute reader of Apuleius than many scholars who write about him at length, but he takes chances that some will deprecate. Those very risks will work to the considerable advantage of the readers he brings to Apuleius for the first time.

Relihan's usefulness may be greatest for two ends of the spectrum: that naïve and untutored reader, who simply wants to read a naughty (or is it pious? is there a difference?) novel from antiquity, and the serious scholar, who wants to turn over every phrase thoughtfully and appreciates the provocation and the implicit debate with other interpretations that Relihan's sophistication brings to bear, while enjoying the impersonation and relishing the cleverer touches. In between those two readers, there will be more conservative souls who will not be pleased. Let them select a version with a dreamy or pompous cover. I'll take the donkey.

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