Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.06.22
David R. Slavitt (trans.), The Voyage of the Argo. The Argonautica of Gaius Valerius Flaccus. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999. Pp. 165. ISBN 0-8018-6177-2. $45.00 (hb). ISBN 0-8018-6178-0. $15.95 (pb).
Reviewed by A.J. Kleywegt, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Word count: 1159 words
After having published several volumes of his own and translations from Latin literature, including Ovid and Seneca's Tragedies, David R. Slavitt has now produced a new translation of the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus. This in itself is both remarkable and praiseworthy, since this (unfinished) epic from the first century AD is not so well known and yet has traits that appeal even to a contemporary readership. It is clear that the book is intended for a modern public and not primarily for students of Latin literature: it does not offer a philological approach nor a precise rendition of the original text, which is often complex and difficult. Scholars will not find information about the edition of the Latin text used by the author, and the numbering of Slavitt's lines does not correspond to that of the original. The number of lines in the first book of the translation is 908, the Latin text only comes to 850. This is partly, but not wholly, due to the compactness of the Latin language. The metre used by Slavitt is more or less free, though often approaching hexameters. Occasionally those appear in pure form, as in [13 p. 1; all examples quoted are from the first book] 'covered in glory that shines through the dust of Jerusalem's ruin' and [697, p. 19] 'East Wind lashes and South Wind roars in antiphonal anger'; on the other hand, there are such lines as [306, p. 9] 'Peleus, altogether pleased, kisses the boy' (his young son Achilles). Because Slavitt's translation is more poetic than philologically based, the number of divergences between the original text and the translation far outweighs that necessitated by the fundamental differences between the two languages.
Before discussing some of these divergences it may be noted that in some places the interpretation of the Latin is not in accordance with generally accepted views. In [163f., p. 5] for instance, the painting of the wedding feast on the beach (1. 137ff. in the Latin text) is universally regarded as representing the nuptials of Peleus and Thetis, whereas Slavitt here introduces Phocus and 'his wife Psamathe', although the latter is usually identified as Phocus' mother, not his consort. Again, in [820f., p. 22] the action of (probably) Alcimede (1. 755f.) is made to be part of the 'rumors' in the city; this deviation also has implications for [845, p. 23]. Furthermore, the (admittedly problematic) carmen ... exorabile of 1. 782f. becomes [878f., p. 24] 'the spell that backward and forward signals the endless / crossings he (= Charon) makes to carry the spirits this way and that'. An interesting rendering it may be, but it does not, in my view, represent the meaning of Valerius. Finally, in [740ff., p. 20] the farmers, who in the original text (1. 682) appear only in a simile, are now turned into onlookers of the storm that endangers the Argo.
The divergences referred to above represent the usual ways of dealing with a text: change, omission and addition. As the latter two also imply a kind of change, all three categories cannot always be distinguished neatly. One of the most conspicuous forms of change occurs when the text is made more explicit and clarifying, often by means of additions (for some examples see below). This of course enhances the accessibility of the text for the modern reader considerably, who may not always be acquainted with the minutiae of the Latin language and classical scholarship. Also, the geographical names have been modernized where modern equivalents exist, resulting for example in 'Lipari Islands', 'Cape Faro' and 'Gibraltar' (all on p. 28).
For omissions, it is obvious that in some instances the author did not wish to bother the reader with certain details and references that he considered superfluous or even annoying. Occasionally somewhat more is left out than seems necessary; the description of the storm at sea (1. 608ff., in the translation lines 670ff. on p. 18f.) is visibly shortened. Then the translator omits [730ff., p. 20) the three different explications of the storm that are tentatively put forward by Jason in his prayer of thanks (1. 670ff). The gruesome details of the suicide of both Aeson and Alcimede (1. 821f.) are left out, and the different categories of people admitted to Elysium through the special gate (1. 835ff.) appear in condensed form.
My comments on Slavitt's tendency to add explications and providing details which are not in the original, can be illustrated by the following examples:
In [141, p. 5) Slavitt makes Juno say 'Jason has asked my aid', words that are absent in 1. 113ff. On the same page [l. 158f.] the information 'Jove has renounced her (= Thetis), giving her over to Peleus, a mortal' was known to the reader of the Latin text and is only hinted at in 1. 133. When Idmon, having prophesied the ultimate success of the enterprise from which he himself is not destined to return, weeps for his own fate (1. 238f.), the translator adds his own words '(the tears...) his companions believed were of joy'. Following on from that, Jason's exhortations (1. 241-251) are lengthened [275-289, p. 8] by such sentences as 'I cannot read his (= Jupiter's) mind' and 'We who trust in his wisdom / may assuredly look to him for help'. In Aeson's reminiscence of his part in the brawl between Lapiths and Centaurs (1.336ff.), in which he and his adversary used a golden bowl, we are given the extra information [385, p. 11] 'but there were a fair number of golden bowls at that feast'. When the women on the Thessalian coast see the Argo sail away (1. 494ff.), they just stand and look; the translator adds [551f., p. 15] 'as sorrow and pride / slosh in their hearts together'. The ghost of Cretheus, conjured up by (Aeson and) Alcimede, warns them against Pelias (1. 741ff.); Slavitt adds 'stage-directions' [810f., p.22]: 'He hesitates here for a moment / but then resumes' and also makes Cretheus suggest  'Flee for your lives'. Neither of these elements is present in the story as Valerius told it.
The overall conclusion must be that a modern reader is given a rather complete rendering of the story, without major omissions or any transpositions. The wording on the other hand is rather free, and reflects more the style of the translator than that of Valerius. This of course belongs to the rights of a poet.
A non-native reader should not attempt to assess the literary level nor the poetic quality of the English used in this work. Still, I would like to suggest that (at least) several phrases strike an elegant and convincing note, as in [221, p. 7] 'O god, who with a nod can stir the ocean to foam' for (1. 194f.) o qui spumantia nutu / regna quatis and [372, p. 11) 'I beg Death to show us his stern pity' for (1. 326f.) miserere parentum, / Mors bona.