Thursday, September 13, 2012


A. M. Juster (trans.), Tibullus. Elegies, with Parallel Latin Text (with an Introduction and Notes by Robert Maltby). Oxford world's classics. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xxxiii, 129. ISBN 9780199603312. $14.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Beert C. Verstraete, Acadia University (

Version at BMCR home site

This is a most welcome addition to the Oxford World's Classical series, not only because of the general excellence of the translation, introduction, and explanatory notes but also because of its inclusion, becoming customary in the OWC for Latin poets (cf. Lee's Catullus and Propertius), of a parallel Latin text, which we may assume was provided by Robert Maltby, the author of a major 2002 edition of and commentary on Tibullus' Elegies.1 This extra boon for the reader was obviously practical from the publisher's point of view given the slim volume.

The sections of the engaging as well as scholarly introduction cover all the important bases for an appreciative understanding of Tibullus' distinctive contribution to Augustan elegy: "The Life and Works of Tibullus;" "Tibullus and Elegy;" "Tibullus' Adressees;" "Tibullus' Books as Poetic Units: Structure, Character, and Themes;" "Tibullus' Later Influence." The second to last section includes a useful discussion of book three of the Tibullan corpus, which is clearly not authored by Tibullus and hence is not included in this publication. Four short sections follow: "Note on the Text;" "Translator's Note;" "Select Bibliography;" "A Chronology of Tibullus." The first section is supplemented by six pages (124-129) of "Textual Notes," following the explanatory notes, indicating the numerous places where the editor has departed from the readings of the Ambrosianus (A), the fourteenth-century manuscript, which "provides us with our oldest datable evidence for the full text." (xxvii). The explanatory notes only seldom enter upon a discussion of textual questions, so for this the reader will have to consult the above-mentioned edition and commentary by Maltby.

There are instances where the translator follows the reading of A rather than the emendation adopted by Maltby, with the translation substantially affected thereby. In A, couplet 1.2.89-90 runs as follows: at tu qui laetus ridet mala nostra caveto: / mox tibi et iratus saeviet usque deus; and this is translated accordingly (somewhat too freely, I think, in l. 90) as, "But happy you, who mock my suffering, beware: A god won't punish the same man for long." laetus is rather redundant with rides, and so there is some justification for Maltby's adoption of the emendation lentus made three centuries ago by the Dutch scholar and editor J. Brouckhusius. The line can thus be translated, "But you who persistently mock my suffering, beware!" It will be noted that the meaning of lentus is neatly paralleled in the following line by that of usque.

At the beginning of his "Translator's Notes," Juster says that it was his " replicate the form, depth, and grace of Tibullus' verse while preserving as much of the meaning and metaphor as possible." (xxviii). Metrically, he has been exceptionally successful in achieving this. He has not opted for free verse, but has chosen "to replicate the elegiac couplet with alternating lines of iambic hexameter and iambic pentameter," allowing himself "ample traditional substitutions, such as a trochee for an iamb in the first foot and liberal spondaic substitutions" and also using "trochaic substitutions to signal mood changes," (xxviii) as well as other metrical refinements. Indeed, the translation as a whole captures the qualities of tarsus and elegans memorably highlighted in Quintilian, Inst. 10.1.93.

In the final distich of the second elegy of book two (2.2.21-22), Natalis is mistakenly set off by commas, thus suggesting it is vocative rather than nominative, with Juster translating the couplet in the form of a direct address: "Make omens come true, Birth-Spirit, and deliver heirs / so mobs of children frolic at your feet." However, the vividness of direct address has something to recommend it and must be considered a good choice on the part of the translator.

Occasionally, in my judgment, the translation could have been closer to the Latin without sacrificing poetry. Such, I think, is the case in 1.4.43-44: quamvis praetexens picta ferrigune caelum / venturam admittat nubifer arcus aquam. Density of descriptive and figurative language plus textual uncertainty, which inevitably invites emendation, make this couplet difficult; . 2 The editor has replaced A's unmetricial amiciat with admittat and imbrifer with nubifer; Juster translates, retaining, however, A's imbrifer: "although a rain-soaked rainbow is absorbing water and the sky is fringed with shades of rust." A closer translation, partially adapted from Kirby Flower Smith but keeping Juster-Maltby's text in its entirety would be: "although a cloud-massing rainbow, limning on the sky her dark-purplish tint, is driving onwards the coming rain."

In 1.4.51, it is, unfortunately, a matter of a wrong translation: levi….dextra means obviously "light-handed," not "left-handed." In other words, the lover in his fencing thrusts must go easy on his young opponent. The same can be said of the translation of 2.3. 19-20: tunc fiscella levi detexa est vimine iunci / raraque per nexus est via facto sero; Juster translates: "They wove a basket tied up with a switch and left room in a gap for making whey." "[T]ied up with a switch" is simply wrong and "left room in a gap for making whey" could be more precise. I suggest: "Then they made a basket of light wickerwork all woven of rushes, and through its meshes scattered passages were created for making whey." Fortunately, these are the only serious mistranslations I have found.

The explanatory notes provided by Maltby are copious and informative, although I was surprised by the almost complete absence, as already noted, of discussion of difficulties of interpretation and translation caused by textual uncertainties, especially given the numerous places where there are departures from the readings of A; in this respect, recourse to Maltby's 2002 edition and commentary is absolutely necessary.

There is an error of geography in the note on 1.7.15 (p. 105): Mount Taurus—the reference may be to the entire mountain range—also known as Bulgar Dagh, is in Turkey, not in Bulgaria, as the reference to the Cilicians in fact makes clear. In the introduction to 2.3 one would also expect a reference to Propertius 2.19, where Tibullus' contemporary whimsically imagines Cynthia and himself living peacefully in the countryside and occupied with their unhurried pursuits there. Rural life had served as the idealized background for Tibullus' affair with Delia in book one; with his new, harsher and more mercenary mistress, Nemesis, however, the countryside has become a place of exhausting physical labor that keeps him from her. This new perspective on rural life obviously serves as an ironic retrospective on the idyllic visions of rural life evoked not only in book one but also in the first elegy of the second book. If Propertius 2.19 was composed before Tibullus 2.3—which the respective time-spans of the composition of the two books make quite possible—and if Tibullus was familiar with Propertius' poem, an ironic allusion to the latter is also likely.

To conclude: The agreeably low price of this slim volume will make it an ideal text for a senior Latin course with a major module on Augustan elegy. The instructor, however, will be well advised to keep a constant eye on the larger editions and commentaries such as those mentioned above for help with textual uncertainties and knotty questions of interpretation and translation. I know it is unusual to equip students in such a course with a text that also provides them with a translation; however, Juster's translation will certainly not serve as a crib, and thus students should be challenged to make their own translations that attempt to stay as close as possible to the Latin without completely sacrificing Tibullus' qualities of tersus atque elegans. In doing so, they will not only learn a great deal about the elegies of Tibullus but, perhaps equally important, also acquire a real taste of the art of literary translation.


1.   Maltby, Robert (editor and commentator). Tibullus: Elegies. Cambridge: Francis Cairns Ltd., 2002.
2.   For a full conspectus of all the difficulties and of all the possibilities of interpretation and translation, see Kirby Flower Smith, (editor and commentator ), The Elegies of Albius Tibullus, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1964 (reprint of the 1913 edition), pp. 277-8.

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