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?

An ancient life of Juvenal

Little is known about the satirist Juvenal, other than what can be gleaned from his works. There are ancient scholia, but these are plainly the product of Late Antiquity.

Reading the old 1913 Loeb edition of Juvenal, my eye was drawn to mention of an ancient biography of Juvenal, of dubious veracity.  The editor gave the Latin text of it, in the preface, but strangely not an English translation:

Vita D. Junii Juvenalis.—Iunius Iuvenalis, libertini locupletis incertum est filius an alumnus, ad mediam fere aetatem declamavit animi magis causa quam quod se scholae aut foro praepararet. Deinde paucorum versuum satyra non absurde composita in Paridem pantomimum poetamque [eius] semenstribus militiolis [1] tumentem [hoc ?] genus scripturae industriose excoluit. Et tamen diu ne modico quidem auditorio quicquam committere est ausus. Mox magna frequentia magnoque successu bis ac ter auditus est, id ea quoque quae prima fecerat inferciret novis scriptis:

Quod non dant proceres, dabit histrio. Tu Camerinos
Et Bareas, tu nobilium magna atria curas?
Praefectos Pelopea facit, Philomela tribunos.  (vii. 90-92)

Erat tum in deliciis aulae histrio multique fautorum eius cottidie provehebantur. Venit ergo Iuvenalis in suspicionem, quasi tempora figurate notasset, ac statim per honorem militiae quamquam octogenarius urbe summotus est missusque ad praefecturam cohortis in extrema parte tendentis Aegypti. Id supplicii genus placuit, ut levi atque joculari delicto par esset.  Verum intra brevissimum tempus angore et taedio periit.[2]

I found this 1857 translation online, by Maclaine:

Junius Juvenalis, the son or the alumnus (it is uncertain which) of a rich freedman, practised declamation till near middle life, more for amusement than by way of preparing himself for school or forum. Afterwards, having written a clever satire of a few verses on Paris the pantomimus, and a poet of his, who was puffed up with his paltry six months’ military rank, he took pains to perfect himself in this kind of writing. And yet for a very long time he did not venture to trust any thing even to a small audience. But after a while he was heard by great crowds, and with great success, several times: so that he was led to insert in his new writings those verses which he had written first:

What our great men won’t give you, the actor will.  Why
frequent the high antechambers of the Camerini and Bareae?
It is the Pelopea that appoints our Prefects, and the Philomela our Tribunes. (vii. 90-92)[3]

The player was at that time one of the favourites at court, and many of his supporters were daily promoted. Juvenal, therefore, fell under suspicion as one who had covertly censured the times; and forthwith under colour of military promotion, though he was eighty years of age, he was removed from the city, and sent to be praefectus of a cohort on its way to the farthest part of Egypt. That sort of punishment was determined upon as being suited to a light and jocular offence. Within a very short time he died of vexation and disgust.”[4]

The remarks about this text in the Loeb are frustratingly vague.  Maclaine also is vague, but he tells us a little more.  There are, it seems, a number of these biographies, attached to various manuscripts, and he dismisses the lot.  He continues:

Another of these notices states that Juvenal was born at Aquinum, in the reign of Claudius; that he returned from exile, survived the reign of Trajan, and finally died of old age in a fit of coughing.

In a third we are told that when he returned to Rome, finding his friend Martial was dead, he died of grief in his eighty-first year.

A fourth says it was Domitian who exiled him; that he never returned, but that after correcting and adding to hi. Satires in Egypt, he died there of old age in the reign of Antoninus Pius.

From a fifth we learn that he was advanced to the equestrian rank through his own merit; that the place of his honourable exile was Scotland, and that the motive was that he might be killed in battle; that the emperor in a despatch addressed to him with the army, wrote these words, “et te Philomela promovit ” (alluding to his own epigram), and that, learning from this the anger of the emperor, he died of a broken heart.

The sixth memoir makes Trajan the emperor, Paris being still the hero of the epigram, and agrees with the fifth about Scotland.

A seventh agrees substantially with the first, except that the emperor is said to have been Nero.

These seven are published at the end of Jahn’s edition.

Jahn’s 1851 edition does indeed contain this material, together with the ancient scholia.[5]  It tells us that this first biography was edited by Lorenzo Valla, no less, as by “Probus”, and that it appears at the end of codex “P”, the Pithoeanus, now Ms. Montpellier 125 (9th c.), in a “more recent hand”; plus three other manuscripts from the 10th-13th centuries.

The other six biographies seem to be taken from a range of individual manuscripts, described vaguely, which we may guess to be late, and mostly at second-hand.

It’s good to have this material, but Jahn is now an exceedingly long time ago.  A. E. Housman’s 1905 edition is online here, with its mighty and often amusing preface, which I first read reprinted among that great poet and author’s literary works.  But he does not print the scholia or the vitae.

Fortunately I was able to locate a bibliography online in preview, from which I learn that the standard edition today is that of W. V. Clausen, A. Persi Flacci et D. Iuni Iuuenalis satura, Oxford, 1992. This “includes the ancient biography”.  The new Loeb is even more recent.  Sadly I have no access to either.

Is it really the case that Jahn is the most recent edition of much of this biographical material?  Truly?

  1. [1]The allusion is to honorary appointments to the military tribunate (imaginariae militiae genus, Suet. Claud. 25), a system instituted by Claudius in order that the holder might obtain equestrian rank. The word militiola means “a trumpery period of military service.”
  2. [2]Text from Juvenal and Persius, with an English translation by G. G. Ramsay, Litt.D., 1913, p.xvii-xviii.
  3. [3]The Pelopea and Philomela are stage-plays.
  4. [4]A. J. Macleane, Decii Junii Juvenalis et A. Persii Flacci Satirae, London, 1857, p.xiii-xiv.  Online here.  Macleane gave the quotation in Latin; I have replaced this with my own version of the Loeb translation.
  5. [5]Otto Iahn, D. Iunii Iuvenalis Saturarum: Libri V cum scholiis veteribus, Berlin, 1851. This may be found online here.  The scholia vetera start on p.169, the vitae on p.386.

The manuscripts of Juvenal

L. D. Reynolds, Texts and Transmissions: A survey of the Latin classics, Oxford 1983, is the first port of call for any enquiry into the transmission of any of the Latin classics.  On p.200-3 is the article by R. J. Tarrant on Juvenal.

Juvenal went through a period of obscurity after his own times.  Not cited by Donatus, or Jerome, he is referenced more than 70 times in the commentaries on Virgil by Servius.  Some of the manuscripts include subscriptions which suggest Servius may have been connected to their rediscovery: ms. K, for instance, contains Lego ego Niceus apud M. Serbium Romae et emendavi — I, Nicaeus, read this at the house of M. Servius in Rome and corrected it, and ms. L a version of the same.

More than 500 manuscripts later than the 9th century exist.  Unfortunately, by the 4th century, a considerable number of spurious lines  had already found their way into many copies of the text.  Difficult language was sometimes replaced by simpler expressions.  The vast majority of the medieval manuscripts derive from such corrupted copies. 

As a rule we tend to find that medieval manuscripts go back to a single Dark Ages exemplar, or perhaps a few.  In the case of Juvenal, however, we can clearly see that two ancient families of manuscripts both gave rise to medieval children.  For in addition to the majority, we have a few manuscripts which preserve a more correct and less interpolated text, although the text itself is often rather more corrupt than in the interpolated copies.

The better mss. are:

  • P:   Montpellier 125, first quarter of the 9th century, from Lorsch.  Once owned by Pierre Pithou, who used it for his edition of 1585.  The Pithoeanus is the best and most important manuscript of Juvenal.  It also contains Persius.
  • Arou.:  The fragmenta Arouiensia.  These are five leaves from a destroyed manuscript of the 10th century, written in Germany, and broken up to use in bindings.  They are now in the Kantonsbibliothek in Aarau.  It also contains scholia, which are important for several reasons.  Firstly each scholion is introduced by a quotation of a few words from the text.  These headwords or lemmata are themselves valuable for the authentic text.  Secondly the scholion itself sometimes reflects a different version of those same words, showing that the two were put together at different times.
  • Sang.:  St. Gall ms. 870, second quarter of the 9th century.  This is a florilegium — an anthology — which contains 280 lines of Juvenal.  Pp.40-326 contain the ancient scholia.
  • R:  Paris latin. 8072, from the end of the 10th century, probably French, containing long sections of the text.
  • V:  Vienna 107, end of the 9th century, containing book 1, line 1 – book 2, l.59 and book 3.107-5.96.

P, Arou. and Sang. are very closely related.  The first two are almost identical, with the text even laid out in the same manner on the page.  R and V are less reliable, and V has been much influenced by the other family.

The remaining manuscripts — hundreds of them — are hard to classify.  No stemma can be constructed because cross-contamination is so general, and even geographical groupings are pretty blurred.  This will not surprise any manuscript enthusiast.  For heavy lumps of wood and parchment, manuscripts travel about just as much as rock groups on tour, or so it seems sometimes.

Finally there are some fragments of ancient books containing Juvenal.  Two pages of a 6th century volume exist in ms. Vatican lat. 5750, with scholia, and also a portion of Persius.  More pages from a different 6th century book exist in Milan in ms. Ambrosianus Cimelio 3.  Finally a parchment leaf from Antinoe, ca. 500 AD, contains 49 lines of book 7.  None of these fragments agrees consistently with either of the medieval groups, unfortunately.

By the last decade of the 4th century, Juvenal had been equipped with a substantial commentary, which is the source for our scholia vetera (there are also Carolingian scholia), found in the three mss. P, Arou. and Sang.  Mommsen discussed the date of the commentary in his Gesammelte Schriften 7 (1909), p.509-11: Zeitalter des Scholiasten Juvenals.  The scholia must post-date 352-3, since there is a reference in the scholion on Juvenal book 10, l.24 to a praefectus urbis named Cerealis.  But much of the material must be older, or so the footnote says.  It can hardly date later than the abolition of paganism — the scholiast shows little knowledge of Christianity, and resorts to quoting Tacitus.  It is difficult to believe that the compulsory state religion could be unknown in the 5th century, and indeed the writer says that the gods are still worshipped.  The festival of the Matronalia is a state festival, as it still is shown in the Chronography of 354, but not in that of 449.  Likewise the term used for the silver coinage is not the silliqua of the 5th century, but the older terms argenteolus or nummus

Mommsen concludes  that the commentary was composed ca. 400 AD, and that later, as is usual with ancient commentaries, it was pillaged for the materials to create the scholia in the margins of the new-fangled codex-style books.