ElAnt v5n3 - REVIEWS - The Voyage of the Argo: The Argonautica of Gaius Valerius Flaccus

Volume 5, Number 3
November 2000

The Voyage of the Argo: The Argonautica of Gaius Valerius Flaccus. translated by David R. Slavitt. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1999. ISBN: 0-8018-6178-0 (paperback), 0-8018-6177-2 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Debra Hershkowitz
University of Michigan, Michigan, USA

A new translation of Valerius Flaccus has long been needed. Until the appearance of David Slavitt's translation, The Voyage of the Argo (The Johns Hopkins Press, 1999), the only full rendering of the poem in English has been the paradigmatically loebish Loeb of J. H. Mozley, dating from 1934. S.'s new translation, faithful to the spirit if not always the letter of the original, will do much to aid the cause of that small but intrepid band of Classicists whose fondest desire is the promulgation of Flavian epic to the masses, or at least to their departmental majors. At the same time, however, as a teaching text or an instrument of Silver Latin propaganda, this translation should be approached with caution.

It is not my intention in this review to compile an exhaustive list of what I consider to be errors in S.'s translation. In many cases there are points of interpretation or style with which I disagree, places where I find the translation playing it too fast and loose, but which I cannot deny have a right to appear in print. I may consider, for example, that S.'s use of modern colloquialisms throughout his translation, reaching an extraordinary and amusing climax in Styrus' obscenity-filled rant (8. 324-47), is not the most accurate way to render the original text, but that is a matter of personal taste. A translation is, after all, essentially a creative endeavor, no matter how 'literal' it purports to be, and in any event I have worked too closely with the Latin text myself not to be overly biased about how certain words or lines ought to be handled. In his introduction, S. establishes general parameters for the nature of his translation when he states 'I am content to let my rendition into English speak for Valerius' (p. ix). But at times his translation exceeds these bounds, obscuring the voice of Valerius' epic in ways that mislead the reader and misrepresent or even mock the work. This review will therefore focus on a few examples of when the translation tries, and arguably fails, to get the better of its text.

While the Argonauts are enjoying themselves with the Lemnian women, Hercules alone remains aloof from their charms. He complains to Jason at VF 2. 378-84:

o miseri quicumque tuis accessimus actis!
Phasin et Aeeten Scythicique pericula ponti
redde…Aesonide! me tecum solus in aequor
rerum traxit amor, dum spes mihi sistere montes
Cyaneos uigilemque alium spoliare draconem.
si sedet Aegaei scopulos habitare profundi,
hoc mecum Telamon peraget meus.

S. renders the speech thus (2. 417-23):

For this have I signed on?
Give me Phasis, Aeëtes, the perils of the Scythian seas.
Give me challenge, adventure, but not this inanition.
I came for the love of danger. You toy with the dangers of love.
My heart is set on the perils of the clashing Symplegades' rocks
and the rage of mythological monsters. Telamon here, and I,
are yours to command, but only if you will assume command.

The phrase 'mythological monsters' is a clever and pleasing touch, as Valerius' Hercules often seems more pre-occupied with the potential of his great deeds to make good stories than he is with their actual performance, although the specific point of VF 2. 382, that this hero has fought snakes before (the Juno sent serpents in his cradle as a baby, and the Lernaean Hydra during his Labors), is lost. Similarly, line 420 gives an attractive, balanced, and almost Ovidian expression of the conflict between Hercules and his comrades, but unfortunately does not reflect Valerius' Latin, where Hercules simply says 'Love of adventure alone drew me with you into the sea' and leaves it at that.

The real problem with this rendering, however, is the last line. S. has Hercules renew his pledge to Jason, but Valerius has Hercules threaten to go back on any pledge he has made: 'If it is settled that you will live on the rocks of the Aegaean deep, then my Telamon will accomplish this [undertaking] with me'. The distinction is important. Unlike in Apollonius' Argonautica, where Hercules' superiority over Jason as a traditional hero is constantly stressed for thematic effect (the establishment of Jason as a new model of a sort of anti-heroism), in Valerius' version the two are presented on much more equal footing, for equal thematic effect (the rehabilitation of Jason as a traditional epic hero). Throughout this speech Hercules is careful not to insult Jason (compare his sarcastic speech to Jason at the same moment at AR 1. 865-74), but even his patience has limits, and by altering the last line, this point is obscured. This is the only time in the poem when Hercules indicates that he is ready and willing to resume his superior, Apollonian role should it prove necessary, lending all the more emphasis to the change in his attitude elsewhere.

Later on, when the crew debates whether or not to continue on their journey without Hercules, who has disappeared in his search for Hylas, Telamon angrily recalls how the others used to consider Hercules an asset to the mission (VF 3. 699-702):

non hi tum flatus, non ista superbia dictis,
litore cum patrio iam uela petentibus Austris
cunctus ad Alciden uersus fauor: ipse iuuaret,
ipse ducis curas meritosque subiret honores.

Telamon is referring to the well-known incident when the Argonauts voted for Hercules to be their leader, and accepted Jason in the role only at Hercules' insistence. The only problem with his rhetoric is that none of this actually occurs in Valerius' Argonautica, where Jason is accepted as the natural leader of the expedition from the start, but rather in Apollonius' version of events (AR 1. 341ff.). S.'s translation 'corrects' Valerius' apparent inconsistency (3. 765-8):

Remember when we embarked,
we all rejoiced and were grateful that Hercules would join us!
There were no ridiculous boasts back then…

Far from covering up an embarrassing blunder, S. has eliminated a striking and important moment of poetic memory, a central device in Valerius' selfaware intertextual arsenal. Valerian characters often display indirect knowledge of their previous literary experiences, one of the many ways Valerius' text exploits its own belatedness within the literary tradition. Admittedly the lay reader may not know the Apollonian episode, but nonetheless, to gloss over the inconsistency in the translation does a disservice to this highly allusive work.

At times it is hard to understand why S. has omitted or altered certain words or phrases. It seems unnecessary, for instance, to change abstulit inde oculos natumque et tristia linquens | proelia sanguineo terras pater adluit aestu (VF 4. 131-2), to 'He turned away, a father leaving his child to suffer | in a cruel and bloody fight he was destined, this time, to lose' (4. 126-7), and in doing so, to eliminate the link between Neptune's wave of blood in sorrow at the coming death of his son Amycus and Zeus' rain of blood in sorrow at the coming death of his son Sarpedon (Il. 16. 459-60). Likewise, many linguistic and syntactic Vergilian parallels are needlessly lost. So, for example, the order and choice of words in S.'s rendering of

at regina uirum (neque enim deus amouet ignem)
persequitur lustrans oculisque ardentibus haeret (VF 6. 657-8)

From the top of the wall, the princess' bright eyes follow the hero
in whom the fire of Juno is raging hotter than ever (6. 725-6)

ignores the initial reminiscence of the similarly lovesick Dido at Aen. 4. 1 ( at regina …), and blunts the force of haeret, which recalls Dido's clinging eyes at Aen. 1. 717-18 ( haec oculis, haec pectore toto | haeret… ). The translation's failure to acknowledge small - but not insignificant - parallels of this sort displays a carelessness on S.'s part in his treatment of the Argonautica's intertextual relationships with its literary antecedents. (The above passage is also careless in its presentation of the parenthetical clause, which refers to Medea but which the translation apparently assigns to Jason.)

Another type of an unnecessary and misleading translation change occurs at the end of Medea's speech to Venus. The goddess, disguised as Medea's aunt Circe, is busy infecting the girl with yet more love-madness, the effects of which become increasingly apparent in Medea's words. S. has Medea complain that 'I am engaged to be married to a man for whom I feel nothing, | and everything conspires against me' (7. 282-3). This refers to her betrothal to the barbarian prince Styrus, and while it is indeed true, it is not what Valerius' Medea actually says, tristes thalamos infestaque cerno | omnia (VF 7. 249-50), in which she refers, unwittingly and with proleptic importance, to her marriage to Jason. Medea's fears for the future are mixed up with a frightening vision of her companion - uipereos ipsi tibi surgere crines (VF 7. 250) - but S.'s altered rendering of this as 'You could be a Gorgon with snakes in your hair' (7. 284) makes the point of her Pentheus-like clarity of vision easy to miss. Medea has finally seen through Venus' disguise to her true essence, a Fury who is driving her mad (the reader has already encountered the goddess in this form during the story of the Lemnian women in book 2). Valerius reinforces this by describing Venus giving Medea furialia oscula (VF 7. 254-5), mistranslated by S. as 'fateful kisses' (7. 289).

Equally misleading is S.'s handling of the moment during the voyage to Colchis when Jason, seeing a bolt of lightning fall between the Symplegades, declares his willingness to commit his ship to the Rocks. S. translates the brief speech 'Whatever god you may be, I will trust in you and follow | wherever you lead, in the faith that this is no cruel deception' (4. 684). The Latin, however, reads sequor, o quicumque deorum | …uel fallis (VF 4. 674-5). Not only does Jason make no mention of trust, but he also makes it clear that, if anything, he has real no faith in the omen at all, but follows it because in his current situation he has no other choice: 'I follow, o whoever you are of the gods…even if you are deceiving me'. This tendency on the part of Valerius' characters to recognize deception, and then to act as if no deception is occurring, is a central theme in the epic, and even though, for once, Jason is not being misled, the fact that he suspects that he is is important. By obscuring the force of uel, S. has completely reversed the tone and meaning of Jason's speech.

Catalogues in particular seem to tempt S. to overstep his established boundaries, and to replace Valerius' voice with his own. In Book 5, Jason, still on friendly terms with Aeetes, attends a banquet where he - along with the reader - is introduced to Aeetes' military allies. Following this catalogue-in-disguise (5. 649-86; VF 5. 576-617), the scene switches to the divine realm, where Mars angrily discovers that Jason is being wined and dined in Aeetes' city and that the Golden Fleece has been promised to him, and hurries off to give Jupiter a piece of his mind about it (5. 687-94, VF.5. 619-23). After Mars sees what is going on, and before heading on his way, S.'s text asks, 'How has this epic adventure | fizzled away to a trivial social occasion?' (5. 691-2). This is an insightful paraphrase of the metanarrative action of this moment in the text, exactly the kind of metapoetic playfulness which is one of Flavian epic's most exciting features. My problem with the question is that there is nothing corresponding to it in the original passage. By appearing here it misleads the reader about the narrative and misrepresents the nature of Valerius' genuine metanarrative commentary in his epic. S.'s interjection is the stuff of literary analysis, or an avowedly more free-and-easy, John Hendersonesque type translation: it is what Valerius' text may be interpreted as saying, but it is not what it says.

More egregiously, throughout the catalogue of Argonauts in Book 1 S. intersperses his own comments (some clearly in his own voice, and some harder for the reader to discern as such) about the length and the tedium of the passage:

Who else? The muster roll goes on,
a rich cluster of proper nouns to roll in the mouth (1. 431-2).

Tired? Beginning to flag? Valerius has his second
wind and is off on a tear now. He lists Mercury's sons… (1. 494-5)

Who's left? (1. 507)

(No, [Polyphemus] isn't the famous Cyclops; this is the other, the son
of Eilatus, king of somewhere or other. The names that once
had meaning are wearing away to the bare phonemes. Time's
passage is stupefying, and epics, if they delay,
cannot prevent forever the ruin they ought to defy.)
We're nearly done… (1. 516-22)

Finally (can you believe it?) Argus… (1. 538)

Again, as literary criticism these comments are perfectly reasonable. Epic catalogues are notoriously dull, and even Valerius' greatest proponents would not argue that his offers a particularly innovative slant on the form. But as part of a translation these comments are objectionable because they may lead the reader to think that even Valerius found his catalogue boring (which may well be true, though if so the narrator's voice keeps that information to itself), and also, unintentionally I'm sure, that the translator is more clever than his material, and that he - and his readers - are subsequently entitled to poke fun at it. Comments like these in translations of the catalogues of the Iliad or the Aeneid would have readers up in arms, and do just as great an injustice to Valerius' Argonautica as they would to its antecedents. Whatever conclusions the reader draws about this catalogue or about the epic in general are up to her, and between her and the text. It is not the task of the translator to instruct the reader on how to react to the text, but rather to mediate and, as much as possible, facilitate this interaction, and it is this which S. claims to do - and, to his credit, more often than not does do - in his translation.

All in all, S.'s Voyage of the Argo is a welcome addition to the slowly growing collection of Silver Latin translations. Novices should read it cautiously, and would have benefited from a slightly longer introduction to the poet and his times than the single short paragraph on p. ix. For the already converted, knowing which text the translation is based on would be useful. Despite my reservations, I am sure that this translation will inspire more people to read and learn more about Flavian epic, and that for that reason it will be welcomed with gratitude by those who have long wished for Valerius' Argonautica to be available to a wider audience.