Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.04.18

David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie (edd.), Plautus. The Comedies. Volume 3. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Pp. 400 + xi. $15.95. ISBN-0-8018-5068-1 (pb).

Reviewed by Fred Franko, Hollins College,

For those with neither the time nor the inclination to read a full review, I give the following summary: this volume is a necessary part of the complete four volume set; on its own, it provides neither a representative nor an intriguing sample of Plautus; the two good translations, Poenulus and Mostellaria, are reprints from 1970; the other three translations range from competent to poor; the introductory material is uneven and provides little help to those unfamiliar with Plautus.

Any translation of a Greek or Latin author will have at least three groups as its potential audience: (1) the general public, consisting of literate, curious readers who probably have little Latin and less Greek; (2) undergraduates taking courses in classics in translation, a group ranging from the enthusiastic to the uninterested; (3) professional classicists, that is, instructors or graduate students seeking to reacquaint themselves with old friends or clarify obscure passages. For translations of dramatic scripts there will be a fourth important audience, namely, actors, directors, and other devotees of the theatre. These four groups desire different things from a translation and no single translation can please them all. The general public seeks entertainment and enlightenment. The second group requires a text that will be useful for teaching, that is, one that can stimulate interest and convey some sense of the author's style and technique to young minds probably encountering the classics for the first time. Professional classicists do not always seek a literal translation; they seek accuracy and insight, for the best commentary on a thorny passage is often an inspired translation. Finally, those interested in the theatre want a piece that one can visualize staging and hear spoken.

This volume best addresses the needs of performers and the general public. It is clearly not intended for professional classicists; there is, for example, no indication of the text followed, save one reference to the Loeb edition in a footnote on page 89. These translations will bring little new insight to those acquainted with the material. I am not certain that this volume would make a suitable text for undergraduate readers. The lack of explanatory footnotes and the paucity of stage directions means that the words themselves, rather than the translator's parenthetical remarks, must convey the flow of the action. This requires a more active, imaginative, and mature reader; undergraduates may get lost, as apparently happened to the group reading a part of the Mostellaria (see below). The sparse introductory comments do not provide adequate guidance to those approaching the material for the first time. But this poses no problem -- indeed, it grants much freedom -- to imaginative directors, producers, and actors. The translations, varying in quality, are certainly more stageworthy than the stilted prose translations of Plautus found in the Penguin or Loeb series. Someone wanting to stage a play of Plautus probably will want to work from this series.

This volume is probably not the one to choose for an introduction to Roman comedy, not so much on account of the translations, but on account of the selection of the plays. Mostellaria is indeed a masterpiece. The different treatment of a similar plot makes Trinummus a worthy companion to share this volume with Mostellaria. Poenulus has come into vogue thanks to the presence of Hanno the Carthaginian. But Epidicus is a complex piece, and Asinaria is not one of Plautus' better works. Contrast this roster with the richness and variety of Volume 1, which contains the popular Miles Gloriosus, the farcical Casina, the mythological travesty Amphitruo, Lessing's beloved Captivi, and the compact Curculio. While Volume 3 is necessary for the complete set, only Volume 1 can stand on its own as a representative sample.

The best two translations in this volume are of Mostellaria and Poenulus. Most of the review will focus on these two plays. As it happens, both of these are reprints from Five Roman Comedies, ed. Bovie, published by E.P. Dutton & Co in 1970. Unfortunately, Mostellaria lost its helpful footnotes and its neat colometry in the process.

Janet Burroway's translation of Poenulus begins the volume with a bang. The jaunty rhymed couplets of the prologue quickly immerse the reader in the humor and verve of Roman comedy. This translation into verse is excellent, for it conveys all the snap, crackle, and pop of Plautus' Latin. The verses are not literal, but one truly can hear Plautus, for this translation conveys many of the stylistic devices that mark his Latin. There is an abundance of assonance, consonance, and alliteration. There are frequent puns, neologisms ("his bustilacious buddy, my bitter botheration," 495-6), corruptions of names ("O my Milphiologist," 528), and plays on words ("What would you say to having your honeybunch ... Legal and tender without legal tender?" 194-6; "Why Jackal's at the temple / And probably champing at the bit." :: "Let him champ a bit," 308-9). Such a translation is a pleasure to read and extremely useful for teaching; too often I find myself muttering, "well, it's very clever in the original" or "there's a lot of puns here that don't translate well." Burroway also succeeds in defining character through different styles of speaking. For example, consider the bombastic bluster of the soldier Antamoenides:

To continue, pimpernel!
My outfit fit its slingshots out with shot,
And as I issued the order, let fly at the flyers.
To make a long sortie into a short shortie,
When the stickum struck 'em, they tumbled down as thick
As plums in summer, whereupon I took the field,
Plucked a plume from each of the incapacitate,
And impaled his encephalon. (605-12)
Occasionally the search for witty renderings goes a bit far and lapses into nonsense ("... we have a right to finis our Plotus, take our tale to its tail" 133-4). And I pity the actor faced with tongue-twisters such as: "I kindle like a candle at the sight my fond eyes fondle. How I pine to coddle and cuddle that bridal bundle!" (251-2). One minor disappointment is the lack of imagination in dealing with several obscure insults apparently corrupted in the manuscript tradition. Burroway simply transliterates the Latin "Gog" (1190), "Miggledix" (1253), and "sementiated serapis" (1614); there is no reason to reproduce the garbled Latin here when colorful slurs are demanded.

One of the attractions of this play is the presence of several passages in Punic and their mistranslation into Latin homophones by the roguish slave Milphio. Burroway's translation renders Hanno's Punic speech as vaguely English gibberish. This works fairly well for Milphio's punning mistranslations and it does retain Plautus' jokes. But the translator could abandon the Latin text altogether and opt for phony translation of a real language, much as GI English reproduces the Japanese "Do Itashimashite" ("you're welcome") as "don't touch the moustache." Perhaps Russian phrases translated into their English phonetic equivalents would provide a reasonable modern parallel for Punic phrases mistranslated into Latin during the 190s BCE. Also, those performing the play should note that Hanno's entrance should be accompanied only by the speech in Punic, not by the speech in Punic and its English gloss.1

Burroway's translation is a tough act to follow. Fred Chappel's rendering of Asinaria into contemporary American prose interspersed with song promises great things but fails to deliver. The list of characters, with Greek names shortened to contemporary American names such as Manny, Rip, and Big Mona, suggests a lively and saucy romp. But that liveliness is achieved only in the cantica, which are rendered as songs for showtunes, as in a modern musical. These songs, with their funny and quite performable verses, are the bright spot in this translation. But one wonders why only one tune is set to a melody ("Anything Goes," p. 144); why not offer more parodies of well-known songs? The success of people like Weird Al Yankovic proves that there is a market for clever parodies such as this. Also, why are these songs introduced thus: (Song: "Forty Strokes"; "Ubi fidentem fraudaveris")? No explanation is given for including the Latin phrase.

The prose is touted as "boisterous" in the preface (viii). It is not. There is no zest or cleverness here, and after five pages this translation becomes dull and lifeless, not in the way that Paul Nixon's translationese in the Loeb is lifeless, but in a way entirely lacking in wit. The uninteresting prose is often just crass. The title, "Asses Galore" is excellent, and leads to several good jokes ("One hundred asses went for a single piece of ass," 1292), but Chappell repeatedly beats this ass after it is dead with phrases such as "You'll weigh exactly as much as a genuine Grade-A Blue Ribbon Asshole" (449-50). Plautus is no prude, but his obscenity and scatological humor has wit in the Latin. The tone of phrases such as "You pustulant, piss-dripping, maggot-oozing mass of mouse turds!" (673-4) simply miss the mark. This is an obscure play, and so it shall remain.

Trinummus is a quieter piece, with senes rather than a servus callidus contriving the ruse. This translation is also quiet; it is pleasing though unexciting. The idiom is modern and smooth, but not vibrant. The high point of the play, and Daniel Mark Epstein's translation, is the deception of the swindler in IV.2. Charmides observes the swindler's approach with "Look at that hat! Is this guy all head or what? He must be some species of mushroom! I know, he's from the west. You can tell 'em a mile away." (1120-22) To see the virtues of Epstein's verses, one should compare this with Nixon's lame translation of these lines (851-2).

Epidicus is a difficult, even baffling, play to follow. Constance Carrier's translation is competent, but not a substantial improvement over Nixon's. "Translationese," that odd language uttered only by academics, creeps in too frequently, as at 764-5: "I'll hunt for Epidicus, And when he's found I'll send him to perdition." The passive construction in place of "and when I find him" and the archaic "perdition" are dull. Or, worse yet, observe 792-4: "She's prettier than any picture painted." :: "Painted -- that's what I'm going to be. In stripes, by Zeuxis and Apelles, with elm-pigment". How many modern readers will be acquainted with Zeuxis and Apelles? Moreover, the important point here is the threat of a whipping, which is obscured in the attempt to maintain the reference to switches made of elm. In general, translations wherein characters exclaim "Confound you" (749), "Oh horrors!" (757), or "That blackguard -- fifty times he's made us goats" (862) are quaint and lifeless. If Chappell's Asinaria is too crude, Carrier's Epidicus is too prissy.

Mostellaria, is the most famed of the plays in this volume. It has been translated fairly frequently and is often assigned in college courses for classics or the history of the theatre. Since I cannot read this play with the eyes of an undergraduate, I asked the six students in a classics course here to read and compare the first eight pages of this translation by Palmer Bovie with the first eight of Erich Segal's translation.2 It was a ridiculously small survey of the student market, true, but not without value. Five of the six expressed a strong preference for Segal's. They found Segal's rendition easier to understand and, in particular, hey found his stage directions and footnotes helpful and the lack of them in Bovie's rendition a source of confusion. Comments on Bovie's translation included: "boring," "awkward," "confusing," and frequent marginalia such as "huh?" "what?" and "no clue." They disliked language strained to achieve some phonetic effect, such as, "Cool! I say 'you're a fool,' yours drooly, Grumio" (40) and "... your fricaseed thrush. No thanks, very mush." (51-2). They felt the characterization was stronger in Segal's and that his rendering of Philolaches' canticum held their interest better. The one who did prefer Bovie's translation seemed rather to dislike Segal's more. I tend to agree with their assessment, but think the difference between the two translations is somewhat smaller. Both are lively, funny renditions that are worthy introductions to the genre.

Some passages in Bovie are excellent, such as Callidimates' drunken entrance, where, for example, he exclaims as he leans on Delphium, "united we falls, divided we stands" (426). Bovie is very good when he interjects material not found in Plautus, such as during Tranio's argument with the moneylender about interest and principle:

Tranio: Not one bit
Richer will you leave this place, you wont get a frit.
Misargyrides: What's a frit?
Tranio: The unformed granule at the top of
an ear of wheat. Misargyrides: Thanks very much.
Tranio: Well, I mean it's the principle of the thing.
You refuse payment of the principal. (753-6 = Latin 595)
But there is still room for improvement. The opening of Mostellaria is one of the truly outstanding scenes in Plautus; as John Wright noted, it should sound "like a couple of Italians arguing on a street corner."3 Here is Bovie's version:
Come out of the kitchen! Out here this instant, you lash
Giving me the smart side of your smooth tongue in the middle of those saucepans.
Out of the house, you wreck of your master's existence!
I'll pay you back in the country with interest, for sure.
Out of the pantry, you stinker. Why hide in there? (1-5)
Well, I have heard Italians arguing, and this does not sound like them. And while I have been insulted, and even have insulted others, I have never heard "you lash" or "you wreck of your master's existence!" When a translator in some places introduces such modernizing liberties as "spend like a god let loose on earth with a credit card" (26-7), why does he elsewhere cling so closely to the Latin as to produce stilted, unidiomatic English?

The introductory remarks for the plays, all by Bovie except for Asinaria, are uneven in length and quality. They give serviceable summaries of the plot, and occasional indications of major themes (especially the recurrent emphasis on balance and opposition in the pieces). The introduction to Trinummus, the fullest at a good ten pages, is long-winded and could have been reduced to a few paragraphs explaining how it is a comedy of manners. One problem in those remarks is that the excerpts Bovie quotes to support his claims do not come from Epstein's translation! Consequently, the line numbers refer to the Latin text, not Epstein's. One likes to see an editor working with his or her translator's material, as Knox does with Fagles. A greater problem is that Bovie does not support some of his points when a sentence or two seems required for explanation. For example, his explanation of the phrase Maccus vortit barbare is: "Here Plautus twits the Greeks for their snobbish notion that any language other than their own is 'barbarian,' while he also makes an acute comment about the process of translation, which he calls 'turning.'" (viii). And what exactly is that acute comment? Or: "Indeed, Stasimus, the slave, speaks as if he were a stage manager or producer, letting us know what Plautus is up to" (x). What exactly is Plautus up to? Such remarks remind one of undergraduate papers that assert, "Sophocles' attitude about the gods is obvious from the Oedipus Rex," without saying what that attitude is or giving any supporting evidence. These are crucially important issues and readers not familiar with Fraenkel, Slater, Segal, or others need the editor to explain these elliptical remarks more fully. One could also question some of the evidence given in support of major points. For example, the title of the play we call Poenulus is uncertain because the lines that give the information about the Greek original and Plautus' adaptation are corrupt (53-5); the editor nevertheless, hangs an important point about balance and opposition in Plautus on the supposed alternate titles of the play (5).

The typescript is clear and pleasing. Names are always given in full, a welcome feature in a play such as Poenulus, where names in the Loeb volume are abbreviated as "Ad.", "Ag.", "Ant.", and "Anta." The text is set with margins wide enough for taking notes or inserting stage directions, though, as observed above, they are not wide enough for the verses in Mostellaria, where run-on lines are frequent.


  • [1] See A.S. Gratwick, "Hanno's Punic Speech in the Poenulus of Plautus," Hermes 99 (1971), 25-45. The Latin speech is a later gloss; the actor cannot reasonably be expected to enter, pronounce his prayer of thanksgiving in Punic -- with the requisite props, gestures, tone of voice, etc. -- then repeat the scene in Latin.
  • [2] Plautus: Three Comedies (New York 1969).
  • [3] Dancing in Chains: The Stylistic Unity of the Comoedia Palliata (Rome 1974), 1.