BMCR 2006.11.12

Gulielmi Shakespeare Carmina quae Sonnets Nuncupantur Latine Reddita (ed. Ludwig Bernays)

, , , Gulielmi Shakespeare carmina quae sonnets nuncupantur latine reddita = Latin elegies after William Shakespeare's sonnets = Lateinische Elegien nach den Sonetten Shakespeares. Dozwil: Edition Signathur, 2006. 237 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 22 cm. ISBN 3908141435 CHF15.00.

Alfred Thomas Barton (1840 – 1912), a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, devoted many years to producing a quite elegant set of translations of the complete sonnets of Shakespeare into Latin hexameters and elegiac couplets. As a gesture of pietas, the year after his death John Harrower published the complete set at London, and (rather remarkably) ten years later the sales of Barton’s poetry were sufficient to justify a reprint edition. In 2004 Barton’s sonnets, in the form printed by Harrower, were published on the Web by Claude Pavur S. J. of St. Louis University. Hard on the heels of that electronic edition comes a new print one, by Ludwig Bernays (henceforth B.). B. pays Barton the compliment of a scientific edition, outfitted with a Vorwort of his own, a reproduction of Harrower’s Praefatio, rather copious annotation, and a concluding essay on “Shakespeare in klassischem Gewande” by Markus Marti (text in both German and English). B.’s annotations focus on detailed observations, and his most important contribution is that he goes back to Barton’s own holographs and sometimes prints textual readings superior to those given by Harrower (although one wishes he had been more explicit in spelling out the sources on which he drew, specifying their present location). Further, the Latin text and Shakespeare’s originals are given on facing pages, and the English text includes the variant readings contained in Thomas Thorpe’s unauthorized 1609 printing of the sonnets: it would seem that Barton worked from a variorum text, and at some points preferred to translate readings taken from Thorpe (a few examples are “sweet” for “swift” at VI.3, “then look I” for “It looks like” at XXII.4, and “and then my state” for “and then elate” at XXIX.10).

Barton’s translation work was clearly a labor of love, but some, perhaps, will ask whether all this effort was misplaced. To be sure, a certain historical context for Barton’s translations was provided by the introduction of verse composition in examinations (requiring the translation of set passages) as part of the 1879 tripos reform at Cambridge, reflecting an increased interest in linguistic detail and stylistic imitation. Translations provide an excellent arena to pursue these pedagogical enthusiasms. So there is inevitably a donnish dimension to what he accomplished. But it would be wrong, I think, to dismiss his translations as mere academic exercises or some kind of esoteric puzzle-solving (an analogy suggested by a remark in Marti’s essay). When conducted at Barton’s level, such translation work is can assume the quality of an art-form, albeit a highly specialized one, in its own right, and so B. very properly regards this collection as a legitimate object for scholarly treatment. The result is a volume that can be warmly recommended.

I should like to conclude by extending my thanks to Mr. David Butterfield of Christ’s College for giving me a crash course in the modern history of Latin verse composition at Cambridge.