A couple of thoughts on translations of Juvenal

A kind correspondent sent me the introduction to the 2004 new Loeb edition of Juvenal.  I warmed to the translator (Susanna Braund) on the first page of the preface:

My aim in translating the Satires of Juvenal and Persius for the Loeb Classical Library has been to produce a translation that is vivid and vigorous and accessible, without compromising accuracy to the Latin text.  Ramsay’s 1918 Loeb translation has lasted remarkably well, but it is clearly time to update it and to incorporate advances in scholarship since then.

One central difficulty of preparing a translation which is designed for a long shelf life is that of contemporary idiom. There is no doubt that when we look back at translations of Juvenal that were in vogue in the 1960s, such as those of Rolfe Humphries (1958), Hubert Creekmore (1963), Jerome Mazzaro (1965), Charles Plumb (1968), and above all Peter Green’s 1967 Penguin, they seem very dated, not just because of their covers, but because they indulge too much in ephemeral expressions.

I have tried to strike a balance between their strategy of trendiness and the clumsiness that results from trying to reproduce the structures of an inflected language like Latin in a largely uninflected language like English.

The praise of Ramsay indicates good taste.

I also possess two modern translations; that of Rudd, and that of Green.  The comment on Green’s Penguin translation explained much that repelled me about it.

A little further on she says:

My aim has been to produce the most plausible text and translation of Persius and Juvenal, while making it possible for the reader to identify textual cruces that might affect interpretation.

In terms of translations, there were four stalwarts beside me throughout my work on Juvenal Ramsay ‘s 1918 Loeb, Niall Rudd’s translation for Oxford World’s Classics (1991), Steven Robinson’s idiosyncratic 1983 translation from Carcanet Press, and an old and lasting favourite of mine, the Rev. J. D. Lewis’ prose translation of 1873, my copy of which I purchased in 1975, just after I completed my BA, at a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. John Henderson’s lively rendition of Satire 8 (1997) also proved provocative.

Both the Penguin and the OWC translations are still available.  Both feature repellent covers.  Penguin print an image from Pompeii of a sad-faced woman being groped, while OWC go a stage further with a truly loathsome Aubrey Beardsley drawing.  I was glad to remove both from my shelves.

The Green translation preface opens in the following remarkable way:

It is almost exactly thirty years since I finished the original edition of this book. That is a good life for the average translation. Times change, as the old anonymous tag reminds us, and we certainly change with them. I have a vivid memory of working on Juvenal’s later satires in smoky winter tavernas on Lesbos, or between spells of Aegean spear-fishing: my old tattered sandy-brown copy of Knoche’s 1950 text still carries a faint tang of sea-salt, faded stains of country wine and what was once the best olive-oil in Europe. By lucky accident my family and I missed the Anglo-American Sixties, and got by far the better of the bargain. I was then a free-lance writer and translator. I was also thin, deeply tanned, muscular, and as healthy as I have ever been. My classical training at Cambridge had put down roots in the here-and-now of Hellenic soil, and was infinitely improved by the change. A natural outsider, I had found my proper fulcrum, and was ready to shift the world. Juvenal – another outsider – and I got together at just the right time. My translation was energetic, impertinent, modernist, and took risks I would never have taken, then, as an academic.

It was also, of course, despite our being out of the Anglo-American loop, a quintessentially Sixties version: I might not be around any more in London or Cambridge, but the books kept flowing in, and without even realizing it I picked up a good many of the ideas and mannerisms of the era. In Athens I was also lured back into part-time academic teaching at university level. Fate was getting ready to hand me a special line in irony. Four years later I left Greece, and my free-lance existence, as it turned out, for ever: new job, new marriage, new life…. etc etc.

This is a bit much.  A blogger may talk about himself, and his long-suffering readers will put up with it.  No man pays for blog content, or rather no wise man does.  A purchaser of a book will feel annoyed at such things which have no place in the book.

The self-indulgent attitude does bleed into the translation too.  Looking at the opening lines of Green and Rudd suggests that a sober approach to the text works much better.  Here they are:


Must I always be stuck in the audience, never get my own back for all the times I’ve been bored by that ranting Theseid of Cordus? Shall X go free after killing me with his farces or Y with his elegies? No come-back for whole days wasted on a bloated Telephus, or Orestes crammed in the margins, spilling over on to the verso, and still not finished?


Must I be always a listener only, never hit back, although so often assailed by the hoarse Theseid of Codrus? Never obtain revenge when X has read me his comedies, Y his elegies? No revenge when my day has been wasted by mightyTelephus or by Orestcs who, having covered the final margin, extends to the back, and still isn’t finished?

Braund’s new Loeb is superior, I think:

Semper ego auditor tantum? numquamne reponam
vexatus totiens rauci Theseide Cordi?
inpune ergo mihi recitaverit ille togatas,
hic elegos? inpune diem consumpserit ingens
Telephus aut summi plena iam margine libri
scriptus et in tergo necdum finitus Orestes?

Shall I always be stuck in the audience? Never retaliate for being tortured so often by hoarse Cordus’ Song of Theseus? Let them get away with it, then?—this one reciting to me his Roman comedies and that one his love elegies? Let them get away with wasting my whole day on an enormous Telephus, or an Orestes written on the back when the margin at the end of the book is already full—and still not finished?

At least Braund doesn’t introduce the charmless “X” and “Y” in Green and Rudd?

We may look at Ramsay’s old Loeb translation too:

What? Am I to be a listener only all my days? Am I never to get my word in—-I that have been so often bored by the Theseid of the ranting Cordus? Shall this one have spouted to me his comedies, and that one his love ditties, and I be unavenged? Shall I have no revenge on one who has taken up the whole day with an interminable Telephus, or with an Orestes, which, after filling the margin at the top of the roll and the back as well, hasn’t even yet come to an end?

I suppose translations of Juvenal will continue to proliferate.  How much improvement each represents may be unclear.  But surely more can wait until progress has been made on the vast corpus of untranslated Latin texts – texts not even translated once?


7 thoughts on “A couple of thoughts on translations of Juvenal

  1. Sorry Roger, that was supposed to go on the post where someone suggested some software for organising books. Have I gone nuts and just imagined it? (On second thoughts maybe don’t answer that!)

  2. That’s a fun Juvenal poem. But none of the translations seem to get the central point.

    The man starts out with a standard opening — “Oh, how can I listen to poetry all my life and never give back anything to the world?”

    Then he breaks it. “Mwa ha ha, now I give the world my cruddy poetry as revenge on the rest of you cruddy poets!”

    Or at least, that’s how it looks to me. Maybe I’m missing something.

  3. Anyway, my point is that they all seem to let the tone of the rest of the poem invade the sweet and innocent first line, which is supposed to set up the punchline of the rest of the thing. Surely there is supposed to be a drastic swerve in tone.

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