Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.02.02

P. G. Walsh (trans.), Apuleius: the Golden Ass. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. lv, 277, 1 map. $11.95. ISBN 0-19-282492-9 (pb).

Reviewed by Sarah Ruden, University of Cape Town,

One of the most difficult works of ancient literature to translate is Apuleius' Metamorphoses or Golden Ass. The pull between the folk-tale elements in the plot on the one hand and the extreme sophistication of the language on the other might be too strong for the modern reader even if it could be reproduced. The Latin is as far-fetched and takes itself as little seriously as a good schlock film: Isocolonic Godzilla and his friend the Archaic Vocabulary Monster stomp on everything. A similar impression will probably never come from a translation of Apuleius into English. Our Kunstprosa is too different; in fiction, it is the anti-rhetoric of John Updike, an imagistic art concentrated on the internal lives of the characters, rather than an oral performance with the lowliest actors speaking as intricately and gorgeously as the author or narrator, and the sounds of the words rivaling in importance the world they create. Even if someone were determined to set before the public a faithful translation of Apuleius, how would he find time to produce it, when nearly every sentence of the Latin is full of laborious and other-worldly intricacies? The nearest that most of Apuleius' translators have come is a measured and formal tone and creativity in tropes, with substitutions for what cannot be reproduced. P. G. Walsh, however, does more in his new translation, employing an oddly graceful literalness.

An example is his solution to the problem posed by the first word in Apuleius' preface, At. A selection of major older translations of the Ass, starting with the venerable Aldington1 and continuing through H. E. Butler,2 Robert Graves3 and Jack Lindsay,4 shows no trace of the in medias res beginning. J. Arthur Hanson, author of the new Loeb, is too literal: he comes across awkwardly with the word 'But' and a footnote saying that 'the work opens as if in the middle of a literary discussion.'5 (Walsh uses endnotes, and these are not signaled in the text, so that the narration is not interrupted and must function in healthy independence; the drawback is that the reader sees no immediate sign of the help available; but in formatting footnotes, a translator picks his poison.) Walsh has the best solution so far: 'What I should like to do is...' (p. 1). This reproduces some of the studied abruptness of At, along with Apuleius' characteristic tone -- colloquial, modest, but sophisticated -- which is especially strong in this passage.

The beginning is not unusual in its felicity. In the translation of the famous passage on women's hair, for instance, there is the phrase 'its ... glossy sheen shines out' (p. 23), the alliteration and outrageous pleonasm coming from nitor splendidus illucet (2.9) with a legitimate reek of the Second Sophistic, like an athlete's honest B.O. But where there is no lightness or humor in the original text to give him license, Walsh lets the more extreme effects go. For Charite's address to the drugged Thrasyllus (certe lumen non videbis, manu comitis indigebis ... (8.12)), Walsh (p. 146) dispenses with the pounding isocolonic structure, and that may be because he saw that, when translators have tried to go whole hog here, the hog turned into an angry warthog. But Walsh is not, on the other hand, a keeper of tame rabbits. His style imparts a stimulating feeling of strangeness and unpredictability exquisitely suited to a story full of magic, horror and exotic religion. The style also makes it finally clear to me what Walter Benjamin was talking about in positing the translator's language as an original, created one.6 Walsh's work is not a collection of alien insects tacked onto a board, with labels, but a map into the jungle. The following is part of the description of the festival of Isis (11.9):

'While the participants in these comic diversions for the townsfolk were prancing about here and there, the special procession in honour of the saviour goddess was being set in motion. Some women, sparkling in white dresses, delighting in their diverse adornments and garlanded with spring flowers, were strewing the ground with blossoms stored in their dresses along the route on which the sacred ceremony was to pass' (p. 223).
These sentences have a fresh, rare quality, but Walsh is reasonably faithful to Apuleius' periodic structure, and gives a recreation, though not a word-for-word rendering, of the exotic vocabulary through words like 'prancing,' 'diverse,' 'adornments,' and 'strewing,' which are somewhat rare and old-fashioned, and through 'sparkling,' which is not normally used of persons. Not much more could be expected of Walsh, as English does not invite the creation of equivalents to sospitatrix, amicimen, coronamen, etc. (Perhaps the influence of cyberpunk prose, with its love of coinages on archaic models -- here Apuleius seems to take gestamen, which appears in the passage, as a model -- will make Apuleius more translatable in the twenty-first century -- but who knows?) After the second 'dresses' a comma is needed to avert the image of dresses strewn all along the road, suggesting a different sort of merry-making than Apuleius must have meant; this is only one instance of inadequate punctuation; but that is a general disease of the British Isles, and complaining about it is not going to do any good, I know.

Walsh's book is respectful toward non-specialist readers, giving a great deal of relevant background in a variety of forms: a map; a thirty-nine page introduction, including accounts of the major controversies surrounding the Golden Ass; a six-page bibliography; twenty-nine pages of accessible yet uncondescending notes, especially good in the area of intertextuality; and a combined index and glossary. Readers of ancient literature in translation are usually assumed not to need resources of this kind, and novices are sometimes left with a best-loved-stories-from-the-Bible impression. As well as for an introduction to Apuleius, Walsh's translation should be suitable as an aid to research in the classics. It is my guess that even experts on Late Latin would admit to needing occasional help merely to find out what Apuleius is saying, let alone what he means, and there is nothing close to an adequate or up-to-date commentary on the entire Metamorphoses. This translation is literal enough to come to a scholar's aid, and at the same time scholarly enough to use without embarrassment.


  • [1] The Golden Ass of Apuleius, translated out of Latin by William Aldington in the year 1566, with an introduction by Louis MacNeice, London: John Lehmann, 1946, p. xxv.
  • [2] The Metamorphoses or Golden Ass of Apuleius of Madaura (2 vols.), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910, p. 23.
  • [3] The Transformations of Lucius, otherwise known as the Golden Ass, London: Penguin Books, 1950, p. 25.
  • [4] Apuleius: the Golden Ass, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960, p. 31.
  • [5] Apuleius: Metamorphoses, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 2-3.
  • [6] Illuminations, ed. and with an intro. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, London: Johnathan Cape, 1970, pp. 78ff.