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Penguins on Parade: Juvenal!

By (May 16, 2013) No Comment

penguin-colophonSome Penguin Classics are doubly significant – not only is the ‘source material’ something that’s often been venerated for centuries, but the particular edition chosen by Penguin has also achieved something of the status of a classic. Such is certainly the case with the renowned edition of Juvenal’s satires produced by the great classicist Peter Green (first in 1967, the updated in 1974, then again in 1998): not only do readers get a careful English-language translation of Juvenal’s sixteen satires, but they also get a 70 page Introduction by Green and a whopping 100 pages of micro-typed End Notes in which every possible scholarly detail is wonkishly chased to the ground, as in this brief snippet from the notes to Satire II:


J’s description of the spread of homosexuality parodies Virgil’s references to the spread of disease among sheep. At line 81, though with some misgivings, I accept the reading of the main manuscript, conspecta. Martyn opts for contacta, which he supports by the argument that J. was deliberately echoing, with satirical intent, the plague-imagery of Virgil’s Georgics. He could just be right, though the proverbial uva uvam videndo varia fit militates against him, and in favour of the traditional reading. Braund-Cloud argues that we have the core of the poem here: the narrator’s desire to flee from Rome is countered by Rome’s conquest of the world: there are no refuges left  – only an ever-spreading contagion.

As to the translation itself, Green offers the standard-issue translator’s deference:

No translator can hope to capture the condensed force of Juvenal’s enjambed hexameters, his skilful rhythmic variations, his dazzling displays of alliteration and assonance and onomatopeia: here I can claim no more than that I have recognized the problem, and done what I could to surmount it in a wholly different medium.

penguin juvenalThe more I read the classics of Rome and especially Greece in English translation, the more I fear that this is all true, that the precise mechanics of the original really can’t be faithfully reproduced in another language – in other words, the more I tend to agree with John Dryden oft-held contention that that best translators don’t reproduce their text but re-write it. Certainly some of the best English-language translations of classical texts I’ve ever read were firmly embedded in the mental vocabulary of their own eras (Dryden himself produced one stellar example of how to do this).

Green doesn’t seem to believe it, not entirely. He fills his Juvenal with all the necessary ribaldry, with results that certainly recall something of the scandalous original, as in this portion of Satire VI:


Off goes Saufeia’s wreath, she challenges the call-girls

To a contest of bumps and grinds, emerges victorious,

Herself admires the shimmy of Medullina’s buttocks:

So the ladies win all the prizes – skill rivalling pedigree.

No make-believe here, no faking, each act is performed

In earnest, the genuine article, fully guaranteed

To warm the age-chilled balls of a Nestor or a Priam.

…which is clear and functional in its own way but suggests almost nothing of the wowing pitch and yaw of the original, the sideways-slippery feel that anything could happen next, and maybe Green is right about the ultimate reason: maybe it just can’t be done in a language like English where, among other things, word-order is so casually imperative.

Other effects Green captures with ease, foremost the way Juvenal so mercilessly piles up detail after detail in his celebrated indictments, using them to build a cage from which his poor victim can’t escape, as in this bit of Satire VIII:

Youth rates a certain indulgence, but Lateranus was still going

The rounds of the bath-house bars, with their lettered awning,

When old enough for Eastern campaigns, for garrison duty

In Syria, maybe, or on the Rhine or Danube,

Old enough to protect the Emperor’s person. Send down

clearly, a terrifying book

clearly, a terrifying book

To the docks for your general, Caesar – to the best-known tavern:

You’ll find him lolling there beside some hired killer,

With a bunch of thieves and matelots and fugitive criminals,

Among hangmen and coffin-makers and a castrated

Priest who’s passed out on the job, still clutching his drums.

Of all the countless editions of Juvenal that have appeared in English, Green’s is by far the best for its combination of stellar scholarship and at least a stab at vigorously representational translation. Since you can’t have Juvenal anymore without notes (whole passages – maybe whole satires – would simply sail right by the reader otherwise), and since definitive translatability might in this case be a mirage, it’s best that Penguin gives us this masterful edition, the best of both worlds.