ElAnt v3n5 - REVIEWS - Petronius. The Satyrica

Volume 3, Number 5
October 1996

Petronius, The Satyrica

Translated and Edited by R. Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney,
pp. xxxvi & 184,
University of California Press (North America)/Orion Press (rest of world), 1996, US$28.
Reviewed by
Lindsay Watson,
Department of Classics,
University of Sydney,
NSW 2006,
e-mail: c/o antiquity-editory@classics.utas.edu.au

According to the dust jacket, 'this new translation attempts to capture the comic vigour and literary cunning of Petronius' Satyrica in the idioms of contemporary American English.' The translation comprises all the surviving continuous portions of Petronius' romance, plus those testimonia and poetic fragments which 'have an evident bearing on the lost sections' plot or Petronius' performance in meter'(p.152 n.1). The work also contains a general introduction to the Satyrica , a glossary of important names, a plot summary, selected critical pronouncements on Petronius arranged diachronically, and a useful bibliography which lists some of the more important works on the author published within the last twenty-five years.

In evaluating the worth of any translation of Petronius, the primary yardstick must be the degree of success with which the translator(s) convey the author's comic verve, pervasive ironising, sophisticated literariness, and sheer narrative drive. On this score, B. and K. earn high plaudits. I quote exempli gratia two paragraphs from one of the best known sections of the novel, the tale of the Widow of Ephesus (111-112):

'There once was a lady of Ephesus who was so famous for her virtue that women came from foreign countries just to get a look at her. So when this woman buried her husband, it wasn't enough for her to grieve in the normal way by walking behind the corpse with her hair down or by beating her bare breast before a crowd of mourners; instead she followed the dead man right into his tomb. She had the corpse placed in a vault underground, in the Greek fashion, where she tended it and continued to mourn day and night. She was so grief-stricken that neither her friends nor her parents could dissuade her from seeking death by starvation. Finally, even the local magistrates went away, their pleas rebuffed; everyone had given her up for dead, this exemplary woman, who had already gone five days without a bite to eat. The poor widow's only company was a faithful maid, who shared her tears and refilled the lamp in the tomb as often as it went out. Soon all Ephesus talked of only one thing; men of every rank agreed: this woman was the sole true embodiment of wifely love and devotion.'

<a soldier guarding the corpses of crucified thieves however persuaded first the maid, and then the lady herself, to break their fast>

'But you know what appetite remains when our stomachs are full. So the same beguiling arguments that the soldier had used to make the widow want to live, he used again to lay siege to her virtue. Nor did the chaste lady find the young man unpersuasive or uncomely. The maid, too, was trying to win her favour for him and kept saying:

"Will you fight welcome love, as well?
["Have you forgotten in whose lands you dwell?"]
Well, why beat around the bush? The woman didn't starve that part of her body either. The persuasive soldier was victorious on both fronts. And they celebrated their marriage not only on that night, but the next one as well, and the one after that! (Of course the doors to the tomb were closed!) Indeed, any friend or stranger who came to the tomb would have thought that most virtuous wife had finally expired over the body of her dead husband.'

By far the most successful feature of B. and K.'s translation is the facility with which the vulgar, often abusive, discourse of Trimalchio's freedmen cronies is rendered into the rhythms of current Americanese. Some choice examples (references in the next four paragraphs are, unless otherwise indicated, to chapters of the Latin text ): 41.3, 'He replied, "Even your humble servant could figure that one out. It's no puzzle - it's plain as day"; 42.2, frigori laecasin dico , 'I tell Mr Cold to " uck off, please" ("piss off" may be more anatomically precise but is insufficiently vulgar); 44.3, 'Damn those bureaucrats! They're makin' deals with the bakers:" You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." So the little guy slaves away and the fat cats live like every day's the Saturnalia'; 50.5, magnus stelio , 'a real snake in the grass'; 57.2-3, 'What are you laughing at, muttonhead? Isn't my master's entertainment good enough for you? I'm sure you're richer and used to better parties! So help me god, if he was sittin' next to me, I'd teach him how to bleat. A real wise guy, laughing at other people! Some fly-by night bum who isn't worth his own piss!'; 58.4, 'I don't have a bad temper, but once I get started I don't give a plug nickel for my own mother! I'm gonna find you on the street -- you rat, you fungus!'; 64.3 'iam' inquit ille 'quadrigae meae decucurrerunt, ex quo podagricus factus sum ', 'Yes,' he said, 'my life in the fast lane ended when I got the gout'; 66.5, bene me admonet domina mea , 'Oh yeah, the boss reminds me'; 69.3, sic me salvum habeatis, ut ego sic solebam ipsumam meam debattuere , 'so help me god, I used to bang my mistress (and how!)'; 74.9, purgamentum , 'scum'.

There are nice touches too in sections of the novel other than the Cena . I cannot resist quoting the opening couplet of the verses which Encolpius aims at his recalcitrant member (132.8) , ' Three times I whip the dreadful weapon out, / and three times softer than a Brussels sprout...'

Since the Satyrica draws in its own highly individualistic way upon Roman satura , it is generically appropriate for your reviewer to mingle blame with praise -- especially since B. and K.'s strictures on previous translators (p. xxix) strike a note of self- satisfaction which sets them up as legitimate targets. And indeed there is much to criticise. Although such judgements must be to a degree impressionistic, there are, it appears, many places where the nuances of Petronius' Latin are insufficiently apprehended, or his meaning positively misrepresented. One notes inter alia : stuprum , 8.4: hardly 'a quickie'; the translation of muliebris patientiae scortum, cuius ne spiritus < quidem> purus est , 9.6-7 as 'you male slut, you -- with foul breath to match!' understates the sense: Ascyltos possesses, according to Encolpius, the tell-tale foul breath of the fellator ; to translate the bland poetam laudast , 10.3, as 'the way you kissed that poet's ass' is utterly gratuitous; 46, no attempt is made to represent the egregious solecisms perpetrated by Echion in haranguing Agamemnon; 62.4 'when we get to a cemetery' for venimus inter monimenta suggests a dedicated spot rather than gravestones spread out along the highway; at 67.6 'beefy biceps' for Fortunata's crassissimi... lacerti calls to mind 60's jokes about hormonally challenged Russian shot-putters (or Martial's Philaenis, 7.67.5-6); 78.7, suo iure does not mean 'as usual', but 'just as they pleased'; 80.1, 'You're not gonna be the only one to enjoy this booty you've been hovering over. I'm gonna get my share even if I have to chop it off with my sword!' is far too colloquial for the Latin; 89, the Troiae Halosis is done into doggerel worthy of the Scottish bard William McGonagall (see Appendix), and fails to bring out the lexical flatness, verbal repetitiousness, dull rhythms, and the unfocussed and pretentious phraseology of this Senecan pastiche (in general the translations of the verse sections are far less successful than those of the prose); 107, pharmace , not 'you snake in the grass', but e.g. 'vile fellow' or 'outcast' (see J. Bremmer HSCPh 87 [1983], 301-7 and Usener, Kleine Schriften IV p.287).

At the risk of exposing myself to a charge of inverted ethnocentricity, I have to say that a number of expressions used by B. and K. will probably mystify those unversed in the American patois . Instances include 13, 'what a rube' (what is a 'rube?'); 23, 'dude-buggies'; 38, 'he used to schlep wood'; 38, 'had it laid in the shade'; 57, 'I'll take one'; 132, 'hold-out'. Furthermore, I must disclaim acquaintance with Will Rogers (p.49 n.2) -- presumably not the same as Roy.

These considerations perhaps impinge more upon the saleability than the quality of the translation. Rather more serious are the errors which liberally festoon both text and footnotes, for instance p. xix, 'scatalogical'; p. xxii, 'metonymically' used for 'metonymously'; p.17 n.1, 'London' instead of 'Leiden'; p.57, the reference to the striges should be to Ovid, Fasti 6. (not 5.) 139-140; p.66 n.1, Compus Martialis ; p.93 n.1, 'form' for 'from'; p.125 n.1, 'in line 261' should read 'in line 270'; p.147 n.1, F.W Adams, Latin Sexual Vocabulary (sic); p.153 n.1, Dennis H. Hughes, Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece , p.180 veritaten ktl. .

To conclude on a more upbeat note, students of Petronius will benefit from reading the brief but meaty introduction to the translation, notably the sections on P.'s verse, the narrative voice, and above all Menippean satire, on which B. and K. have more interesting things to say than normal e.g. on p. xix: 'Menippean satire is of crucial importance precisely because it is formally disruptive and intrusive, a satiric solvent that acts as a catalyst for generic mixture and mutation but in this case within a fictional narrative framework that originates in romance. Inside this framework the Menippean mode of writing permits movements up and down the literary scales (high and low, oral and literary, verse and prose) and between genres and forms of speech that would either not appear in literary discourse at all (e.g., the freedmen's speeches [37 ff.] or the report on Trimalchio's holdings [53]) or not in contiguity with one another (e.g., Eumolpus' epic recital follows a scene of scatalogical (sic) comedy [117-118].'

To sum up: Brecht and Kinney's version of Petronius is vigorous but hardly rigorous.


For the benefit of those unfamiliar with McGonagall's dulcet rhymes, I quote the opening stanza of one of his better-known pieces, The Tay Bridge Disaster:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvory Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remembered for a very long time
(William McGonagall, Poetic Gems , Dundee/London: 1890)

Lindsay Watson
c/o antiquity-editory@classics.utas.edu.au

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 5 - October 1996
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606