Wednesday, March 16, 2016

How Not to Translate Apuleius

It is never too late to acquire a classical education, right? Bill and I have recently had a hankering to read some Latin literature.  We're visiting Rome in the spring and looking for some travel reading.

Browsing in a local bookstore, I picked up The Golden Ass by Apulieus.

Apuleius rang a bell. I don't know anything about him or this book but it sounded exactly like the kind of classical text I was looking for. But I was disappointed by the first line. After a paragraph of introduction I found this opening sentence: 

"I was on my way to Thessaly -- for on my mother's side our family goes back there, being proud to number among our ancestors the distinguished philosopher Plutarch and his nephew Sextus -- I was on my way, I say, to Thessaly on particular business." [translated by E. J. Kenney, 1998]

What an awkward sentence -- I had to read it twice in order to believe my eyes. I know who Plutarch is, but should I know who is Sextus is? Will I need to look him up in the notes? Will this book be full of obscure references like that? I'm the kind of reader who panics easily. I'm only on the first line and I'm panicking. 

So I was pleased to find a different edition a week later.  This one is translated by Robert Graves. Could be interesting.

Here's how Robert Graves translates the opening --

Business once took me to Thessaly, where my mother's family originated; I have, by the way, the distinction of being descended from the famous Plutarch. [trans. 1950]

Now this is a book I can read. "Originated" is so much better than "number among our ancestors". Sextus was obviously inessential. And who has not had business that took us somewhere? Could be the opening of a traditional ghost story.

Easy, colloquial, contemporary even. Very promising for the rest of the tale. This one is going in my bag.


  1. You folks my like Sarah Emsley's post on wordpress ( it is all about Jane Austen of Pride and Prejudice; as well as poet Anne Sexton or perhaps neither. Good to view that you are still blogging, I did wonder if the quipping had stop.

  2. Thanks for the link, Ainee. Yes, we have been remiss about posting. Quiet life here these days -- not a bad thing. Glad you haven't given up on us.

  3. Wow that modern translation is really disappointing indeed. What a terrible start.
    Glad you found the Robert Graves version and I hope it holds up.

  4. I'm sure I'm just being hard on poor Mr. Kenney -- I found a rave review of his translation in an academic journal. But his opening line really did make me doubt if I would go on. Will let you know how I make out.

  5. Very funny!
    I hazard a guess that the Kenny translation is closer to the original text, word for word. It sure looks like the Latin I studied in high school. S.A.