ElAnt v3n3 - Translating Plautus: A Review Discussion Private

Volume 3, Number 3
December 1995


Elaine Fantham,
Department of Classics, 
Princeton University,
NJ 08544,
e-mail: fantham@pucc.Princeton.edu

Plautus: The Comedies , ed. David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995: Volumes I (pp.x +373) $15.95, paperback, $45.00, hardcover, ISBN 0-8018-5071-1 and -5070-3 respectively; Vol. II (pp.ix + 396) same price, ISBN 0-8018-5057-6 and -5056-8.

Plautus: Three Comedies. The Braggart Warrior, The Rope, Casina , translated with an introduction by Robert Wind, University Press of America 1995, $26.50, paperback only. ISBN 0-8191-9815-3

The first two volumes of Plautine Comedy have just appeared in the new Johns Hopkins Compete Roman Drama in Translation , with ten plays and eight translators providing a fair indication of what may be expected from the two volumes still to come. David Slavitt, a veteran translator of Ovid, Virgil and of Senecan tragedy in this very series, has not contributed any translation himself, but the other editor has contributed both a translation of Aulularia and a short introduction to each volume. About half the versions offered here are reprints: Constance Carrier's Amphitryon and Erich Segal's Miles Gloriosus in volume I, and James Tatum's Bacchides and Truculentus in volume II.

With Amphitryon (reprinted from Five Roman Comedies [1970] ed. Bovie and The Braggart Soldier (reprinted from Plautus: Three Comedies , 1969); volume I includes two newly commissioned versions, Richard Moore's The Captives and Henry Taylor's The Weevil and the script composed by Richard Beacham for his production of Casina , A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Wedding .

Volume II includes along with Tatum's Two Sisters named Bacchis and The Savage Slave (combined with Casina in Plautus : the Darker Comedies , Johns Hopkins 1983) Constance Carrier's The Rope , Bovie's The Pot of Gold and another new commission, The Entrepreneur , a translation of Mercator by George Garrett.

The mixture of old and new was an excellent idea. not just for preserving good versions that are becoming hard to get, but also for demonstrating Plautus' versatility by the sheer variety of settings and styles and avoiding his identification with the English of a single translator. Apart from Nixon's lively versions in the six Loeb Classical Library volumes, some of these plays have not been translated into modern English, while the following are available for comparison in E.F. Watling's two volumes, (Penguin/ Viking 1965), and Lewis Casson's Six Plays of Plautus (Doubleday Anchor 1963):

Amph .,(Casson); Aul ., (both); Capt ., (Watling); Cas ., (Casson); Men . (both); Mil ., (Watling); Most ., (Watling): Pseud ., (both); Rud ., (both) and Trin . (Watling)

Reading these largely successful translations has prompted me to ask two kinds of questions: one about the audience and purpose of the series, the other about the criteria for making translations of these complex comic scripts. It is in the hope of prompting some further discussion that I now set out principles which may seem obvious to some readers and perversely wrong to others.

First, since Slavitt and Bovie do not indicate a target audience who would this audience be? College and school libraries would want the whole four volume set, but individual students might hesitate: the complete Plautus would be essential for graduate or profess-ional students of drama or the history of comedy, but an extrav-agance for the ordinary undergraduate doing a survey course. He or she might choose to buy only one volume, but since the editors have rightly mingled the best known and the lesser plays such a reader would do better with a Watling volume or one of the existing combinations of Plautine and Terentian comedy. So we should think rather of teachers, especially of English or Theatre or Comparat-ive literature, interested in comic technique and the evolution of humour. For myself, however, I would not be happy to see any research into say Moliere or Ben Jonson or modern drama depend on knowing an ancient dramatist through translation and I see the main outlets for these volumes in the classroom or in a college theatre.

It would seem to follow that the set will need to inform its readers about the stage setting and conventions of Roman comedy, and its curious status as a secondary genre, adapted from the new comedy of a rather different culture. As it is, this is left to each translator, who may comment incidentally on these larger issues while introducing his play, but is usually more concerned to explain his or her methods and choices in translation. (Richard Beacham and James Tatum both do well on this score). I cannot help feeling that it would have been better to include a general intro-duc-tion of 15-20 pages on Roman comedy and its conventions in the first volume, rather than limit Bovie's separate 4-5 page intro-ductions to each volume to the specific plays included there. At least the editor could have listed Menander , Plautus, Terence , the 1975 Greece and Rome survey of W.G. Arnott: or a half dozen recent books on Roman comedy, such as F.H.Sandbach's The Comic Theatre of Greece and Rome (London 1977) R.L.Hunter's An Introduction to Greek and Roman Comedy (David Konstan's Roman Comedy (Ithaca 1983); Niall W..Slater's Plautus in Performance (Princeton 1985); the second edition of Erich Segal's Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus (Oxford 1987) and now Richard C.Beacham's The Roman Theater and its Audience (Cambridge 1991). Perhaps it is not too late for them to do so in the final volume. Let me add here two other minor formal complaints: wouldn't it be better in plays ( Amphitryo , Pot of Gold which have come down to us with gaps in the Latin text, to do what Tatum has done with the opening of Bacchides and openly reconstruct a text around the surviving fragments, instead of offering a dis-jointed page? Also why do some, (Carrier, Beacham, Taylor,Tatum) but luckily not all, translators provide only the line numbers of their English texts? Since this edition does not give acts and scenes as running heads (e.g. `The BraggartĂ­ 3.ii) the translations with modern line numbers further complicate the task of anyone wanting to relate them to the Latin text.

Like all comedies, these were composed for performance, (with room for improvisation, expansion or abridgment) and should be read less as literary texts than as spoken scripts: physical stage directions are essential, but psychological comment (like much in Moore's Captives ) may be more subjective or tendentious. By the same token some of the translators might have been well advised to imagine or test out in readings how their versions would sound , for pace is all important, and a comic text can fail by being either over-elaborate or over-plain if there is not enough variation of tone.

This brings me to the last general issue. How should we represent Plautus in our generation? His plays are composed in verse, norm- ally on three levels (the exceptions are Miles and Mercator ) using Iambic senarii for the basic action, longer trochaic or imabic verse for scenes of excitement or vivid description, and polymetric cantica for solos or occasionally duets of high emotion or charact- erization: we know that these, if not also the longer verses, were chanted or sung to the pipes. We have lost the music but trans-la-tors need to choose three corresponding levels of diction: little is lost if plain iambic senarii are given as prose (as in Tatum's or Beacham's versions): indeed prose is lighter and less disturbing than insufficiently flexible blank verse (as in Bovie's Pot of Gold , especially if it is slowed down by the excess of monosyll-ables in our tongue. On the other hand the metrically conspicuous and verbally marked trochaic septenarii need an equi-valent in verse, and invite rhyme, the kind of regular verse with internal rhyming that Segal does so well:

To touch you, to clasp you, to clutch you--she cries for 
	     complete consummation
 and unless you relieve her I truly believe her to be very near 
O Achilles so fair, won't you answer my prayer--save this 
	     pretty one all the word pities.
Oh produce something kind from your merciful mind-- noble 
	     king-killer, sacker of cities. (M.G. 1052-55)

The translation may be free but the pace is splendid and the spirit far closer than say Carrier's various plainer metres in Sosia's battle narrative. To my ears accentual metres of anapaestic or dactylic type are more animated, more like the often resolved Plautine iambs, than English blank verse, and feminine endings (with or without rhyme) are needed to offset all those monosyllabic masculine cadences. It would be interesting to know whether younger readers, less familiar with the elaborate rhymes and metres of W.S.Gilbert (or Benjamin Bickley Rogers) found such effects obsolete.

It may be that the great quantity of free verse and short simple popular lyrics have made complex rhymes and metres begin to seem archaic. Two things I am sure of, that unrhymed free verse can be either colourless or rhythmic and vivacious, and that no version of Plautus should be allowed to sag in the name of fidelity to phrasing or grammar.

It is for this reason that accuracy of translation seems relatively unimportant, in comparison with point and spirit. Richard Moore is quite right to say in his preface "that the primary demand would not be on my Latin but on my theatrical imagination" (I.185) though unfortunately the same preface is erratic in its reading of both names and character. What does matter is control of the linguistic register. The comic slave can and should spout polysyllabic verbal creations and surrealist metaphor, but it embarrasses when he is too specifically modern in his idiom.

If the translator wants his text to last a generation (and it will probably not last much longer) he or she must not try too hard to be up to date, or salt his speech with current slang like "he's gone ballistic," because this can quickly become as conspicuous and obsolete as sixties' slang seems to us. And topical or anachron-istic jokes are fine in a live performance where they can be topical to the audience, but alienate on the page: two examples from Garrett's Entrepreneur --the major offender-- are "I run into an old friend from Zacynthus / at the airport and ask him what he knows," and "here she comes now, Miss Slowmotion 35 B.C." I am sorry to pick on Garrett, who obviously has a sense of fun, but unlike the more experienced translators he lets his characters slip and slide alarmingly between registers within a single scene: Acanthio slides from "gotta" to "got to," for no reason, Syra turns from Old Black Mamma ("Lordy, Miz Dorippa ..."and "Yassum") to Prep-School ("I mean, its perfectly clear that that woman is/ your husband's new girlfriend") and Charinus, while capable of calling his father "father," "daddy" or once "Sir," and using smart continentalisms like Ciao and Arrivederci and naively sentimental terms like "my chicky-babe" also uses "fucking," "shit" and "piss" with a crudity alien not only to namby pamby Plautine sons but even to Plautus' toughest slaves. Those tedious young men speak quite good formal Latin, and slaves, call-girls and old lechers evoke sex or lavatory humour through imagery or innuendo.

Nothing makes the reader feel more insecure than these problems of language, but I realize the difficulty of the task. The passage of time and shift of country have left me incapable of producing a unified humorous idiom in either British or American English.

It is time to do more justice to the translators themselves: Carrier is an accomplished translator of poetry, and does best in the more sentimental or serious passages, which Amphitryon and Rudens with their serious female parts and honourable Amphitryo and Daemones, provide abundantly, less effectively in the slanging matches of Mercury and Sosia or Labrax and Charmides. Bovie's sober Aulularia cannot match the dialogue at cross purposes of Euclio and Strobilus or Lyconides, but e.g. Watling does not do much better. Moore despite a certain insensitivity to Hegio and strange notions about his past relationship with Stalagmus produces a lively Captivi , differentiating pseudo-slave from pseudo-master, and providing Ergasilus with orotund and appetising speeches, whereas unfortunately Taylor's prose and free verse adds no spice to the relatively dull Curculio . Most adept by far are Segal, Beacham and Tatum, and I hope we shall see Segal's versions of Menaechmi and Mostellaria appear in the next two volumes.

It cannot have been easy to decide how to combine the plays: obviously the best known plays carry the less familiar ones, and long plays need to be ablanced by short ones. Bovie draws attentiont o a unifying principle in volume I; the role of impersonation: while the real Sosia and Amphitron and impersonated in their play and the real Tyndarus and Philocrates in the exchange of prisoners in Captivi , and the non-stage character is impersonated in drag to terrible effect in Casina , imaginary persons are impersonated in the short Curculio , and longer Miles which contains three such: the "sister" the "wife and maid", and the "captain." Thus volume I provides a manual of comic imperson-ation. Volume II does not have so obvious a unity, but an appealing variety of roles: all five plays have young lovers and deal with money, most have foolish fathers, and contrasted on stage female roles, with a fine range of courtesans. I look forward to both new and familiar translations of the remaining eleven plays (including the fragmentary Vidularia ) and congratulate the Johns Hopkins press on their handsome presentation.

Most academic writers are insecure in the use of contemporary street slang, which has the added weakness that it rapidly goes out of date: instead the translator's diction should attract attention only when it is witty or parodic. These are mostly good brisk versions, and the happy but unforeseen coincidence of the new set of translations of Miles Gloriosus , Rudens and Casina by Robert Wind has provided a worthy standard of comparison.

Wind, who has learnt high standards of performable translation from experts like Douglass Parker and William Arrowsmith, offers a good introduction to Plautine comedy and the comedies from which it was generated (pp vii-xiii) with some shrewd comments on the paradoxes of Roman household relationships, which allowed socially subord-inated slaves (and wives) to exercise more control over circum-stances than one would expect from their legal standing. My only objection is to his statement that "none of the original plays that Plautus adapted surives to show us exactly how much and in what ways Plautus changed the originals" (viii) We have had for nearly thirty years a papyrus of Menander's Double Deceiver that can be matched to the parallel scenes in Plautus' Bacchides . The changes Plautus has made, (suppressing a sober exchange between father and son in favour of expanding the personal comment in the son's soliloquy and dialogue with his supposedly disloyal friend), have been discussed by Handley ("Menander and Plautus: A Study in Comparison" London 1968) Sandbach (o.c. 128-33), and Hunter among others. But this is specialist quibbling. Wind understands and conveys the difference between the world of Plautus and of his Greek models, and his translations are lively libretti adapted to performance.

Although Wind's set of three plays costs more than each Johns Hopkins volume of four or five plays (because they include reprints?) they are good value, as some samples can demonstrate. Omitting discussion of Wind's Miles Gloriosus (because noone can compete with Segal) I offer without identification parallel versions of two passages from The Rope , then as many from Casina .

First then The Rope , and the distinctive fishermen, choral and solo, that give this play its special seaside atmosphere: here is part of the chorus (290-94)

A1 Every day, in every way,
a poor man's life is tough.
Without a trade, no cash in aid,
he's out of lots of stuff.
he's on the spot, with what he's got, 
that's how it has to be.
Speaking of which, we're not quite rich
(turning completely around) See!
These hooks and these poles, these fishlines in rolls
are all our livelihood.
We come daily,from town to sea,
to catch our daily food.


If you're poor, we can tell you, your life will be tougher,
No trade, no profession? Get ready to suffer.
Make do with the little we've got, that's our set up,
noone takes us for bankers, no, not in this get-up.
Hook line and sinker, that's our wealth, more's the pity.
We cover the waterfront, out from the city.

And now for Gripus' pipe dream when he thinks he has found a treasure:(928-37)

B1   Now here is what I've got in mind to do:
Go to Daemones, offer him spot cash
(And up the offer if its necessary)
For freedom. Then I'll build a little house
And buy some land and slaves to till it for me,
And then a fleet of ships--before you know it,
I'll be the richest man in Greece--one men 
Bow down to. And I'll have my private yacht
And sail around like old Stratonicus.
And when my name's a household word--why then 
I'll found a city--let's see, Gripusville?
With walls two feet thick, ten feet high-- and that
Will be the center of my empire. Lord
Lord, its enough to take your breath away.
But now I think I'd better find a place
To hide this trunk. Meanwhile my majesty
Will have to make do with a salty lunch.


Here's what I'll do. here's the plan. I'll go to the master, cleverly, 
everything worked out. Very carefully I'll promise him money for 
my freedom. Now when I'm free, then I'll get me a farm, a house, 
slaves too. I'll go into the transport business. Great ships. I'll be 
a kind of king of kings. Then just to please myself, I'll build me a 
pleasure boat and do like any great artist: I'll go on tour so 
people can enjoy my nobility. And I'll build me a big town, and I'll 
name it Gripus, a monument to my fame and great deeds. And then 
I'll found me a great kingdom. Hey, I'm coming up with some 
great ideas here in my head. But I'd better hide the chest...  Yes, 
this King's about to dine on sour wine and a not too great dinner, 
the best part of which will be the salt.

In this case Carrier (B1) is needlessly free in the two lines I have marked, while Wind (B2) who generally keeps closer to PLautus, falls short partly for lack of vivid and specific detail. (Why not keep the artist's name Stratonicus? Why not keep or invent a grandiose name for the new city foundation like Gripopolis?) One or two sentences (as marked) are faithful translations but come over as weak and wordy, where Carrier is snappier and stronger. This contrasts with the first excerpt, where Wind (A1) is marginally more vigorous in rhythm than Carrier (A2), but Carrier catches the imagination with ingenious rhymes (tougher/ suffer. get-up, set-up) and vivid pictorial idioms like "hook, line and sinker," "we cover the waterfront."

I have already praised Beacham's Casina : but Wind has his own charms: let the reader now compare versions of the first few lines of Chalinus' Papageno-like mock suicide ( Cas .424-429:


If I should thrust this neck through knotted cords,
And seek in death an end to endless woes,
Why then at cost of trouble and expense to me
Mine enemies would gain yet greaterjoy.
Now why should he seek death whom death hath sought
And found and killed, root, stem and branch:
My lot still lies enurned, and drowning there
Doth give mute leave to Casina to wed, 
and wedding, bed a churl, a country man.

Contrast C2

If I hanged myself now from a noose,
the effort would serve little use.
Why pay out for a rope,
and thus give my foes hope
when I'm already dead from abuse?
That I've lost the lots can't be denied,
And Olympio's taken my bride.

In 45 words C2 (Beacham) has got well ahead of Wind (C1) in 77, and the contrast of comic form and tragic content is highly effective. His version is also far closer than Wind's Shakespearian parody, one of several in this play, but this has a richly tragic diction, and is entertaining in its own right: (apart, that is, from a strange metrical roughness in the sixth line, a line without any basis in Plautus: paratragedy should have an obvious and almost too regular metre, like the pure iambs of Menandrian mock tragedy). Yet is Wind entertaining in the same way as Plautus' text? There is no paratragic diction or versification in Plautus' monologue.

Finally a brief choice of processionals from the wedding ceremony:


Here we go, take it low,
step over the threshold with care.
By his side, blushing bride,
keep the upper hand always and dare, 
to hold sway night and day,
make him pamper you as his task.
Never cease, him to fleece.
Just treat him like dirt's all I ask!

And now compare D2:

I think he's caught the scent of our Mr Casina. Which is to say the 
bridegroomess ... Dearly beloved, the bride doth gently cross the 
threshold to join her beloved mate upon their journey through life's 
etcetera.  In his sickness and her health, she grows richer, he 
grows poorer, till death stops his heart. Do you, Casina, take 
Olympio to be your awfully regretted husband?

Here again Beacham (D1) is far shorter, and closer to Plautus (though he has lost iam oboluit Casina procul nicely indeed twicely rendered by Wind), but has sacrificed wit to rhyme, (the last line is particulary awkward) and misses the sense of ritual abused in parodic echo. The ritual language is abused in Plautus, and this tone is beautifully caught by Wind (D2) with rhyming echoes of old familiar formulae. For a live performance I would choose Wind here, yet he has changed the imperatives addressed to the bridegroomess to descriptive presents, in order to come closer to the model of the protestant wedding service, and allowed himself humour parallel to, rather than present in, the playwright.

Remembering Plautus' own versatile concept of vertere I think it only fair to allow for the variety of translations that satisfy for different reasons, just as they suit different purposes. Wind's volume is economical, portable, (why are so many US paper-backs so bulky?) and would fit excellently into a survey course or provide good libretti for stage performances. The Johns Hopkins complete plays offer a unique opportunity to know the less popular scripts and so to have a more comprehensive idea of Plautine themes and variations. It is an advantage that the editors have offered us so many different translators, eliminating the risk of identifying Plautus with one particular idiom or verbal personality. Despite minor regrets about the modest scope of the general introduction, I welcome these volumes as a great asset in college libraries and to students in a variety of courses. It is to be hoped that the last two volumes will very soon put Menaechmi , Mostellaria and Pseudolus into our eager hands, together with plays that deserve to be better known and available for critical analysis.

Elaine Fantham
e-mail: fantham@pucc.Princeton.edu

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 3 - December 1995
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606