BMCR 2009.09.52

Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica

, Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica. Gambier, OH: XOXOX Press, 2009. 256. ISBN 9781880977293. $24.00 (pb).

In their Introduction to a recent collection of essays on the subject of later Greek poetry Katerina Carvounis and Richard Hunter observe that ‘Silver Latin’ is currently experiencing a ‘golden age’ ( Ramus 37 [2008] p. 2). Signs of life are everywhere. Texts, commentaries and excellent monographs concerned with post-Augustan literature appear with heartening regularity. In addition to Seneca and Lucan, Statius has been a particular beneficiary of this revival of interest. Not far behind him come Valerius Flaccus and Silius Italicus.

But if this revival of interest is to extend beyond practising Latinists, we need more translations. As usual, Statius has been well served. In addition to the new Loeb volumes edited and translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey, we have verse translations of Thebaid by A. D. Melville (shamefully allowed to go out of print by Oxford University Press), by Stanley Ross (Johns Hopkins University Press) and, best of all, by Jane Wilson Joyce (Cornell University Press). And Betty Rose Nagle has translated the Silvae (Indiana University Press). For Valerius Flaccus we have had only Mozley’s dated prose translation in the Loeb series and a verse translation by David R. Slavitt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). For Silius Italicus we have only Duff’s prose: a good verse translation of Silius is sorely needed.

Into this field now comes a new verse translation of Valerius Flaccus by Michael Barich. Barich’s aim is to offer ‘an accurate and appealing version in English verse’. To achieve this goal he has chosen ‘a fairly strict version of blank verse’, arguing that ‘the iambic rhythm suits extended English narrative well, and the relatively short line of the pentameter favors a rapid narrative movement’ (p. 9). The translation is not line for line, but Barich supplies the original line numbers, a feature that is useful for students.

How then does Barich’s version compare with that of his only rivals in English, Mozley and Slavitt? Let’s start with the address to the emperor in Book 1:

tuque o pelagi cui maior aperti
fama, Caledonius postquam tua carbasa vexit
Oceanus Phrygios prius indignatus Iulos,
eripe me populis et habenti nubila terrae,
sancte pater, veterumque fave veneranda canenti
facta virum: versam proles tua pandit Idumen,
namque potest, Solymo nigrantem pulvere fratrem
spargentemque faces et in omni turre furentem.
ille tibi cultusque deum delubraque genti
instituet … (V. Fl. 1.7-16)

Mozley offers this:

And thou too, that didst win still greater glory for opening up the sea, after the Caledonian ocean had borne thy sails, the ocean that of yore would not brook the Phrygian Iuli, do thou, holy sire, raise me above the nations and the cloud-wrapped earth, and be favourable unto me as I hymn the wondrous deeds of old time heroes. Thy son shall tell of the overthrow of Idume – for well he can – of his brother foul with the dust of Solyma, as he hurls the brands and spreads havoc in every tower. In this honour he shall ordain sacred rites and shall raise temples to thy house …

This was first published in 1933. Even then words like ‘thou’, ‘thy’, ‘unto’ and ‘didst’ were archaic. The use of such language might be justified in this particular context on the grounds that this is a prayer, but Mozley regularly uses ‘thou’, ‘thy’ and so on.

Let’s look at Slavitt:

And you, great pioneer
Who breached the Caledonian seas you claimed as ours,
Vespasian, gracious lord, raise me up as I raise
My voice, and favor with your attention my reverent hymn
Of the deeds of old. Your Domitian sings
In pride of his brother Titus’ martial exploits, his arms
Covered in glory that shines through the dust of Jerusalem’s ruins.
They both honour your line, as the temple he has erected
Does you credit.

This version has the merit of using contemporary language. And Slavitt’s introduction of the names of Vespasian, Domitian and Titus is obviously a gesture towards clarity. On the other hand, Valerius chose not to follow the precedents set by Virgil, Ovid and Lucan, chose not to use the ruling emperor’s name, leaving it to the reader to infer the identity of the addressee and (in this case) his sons. Perhaps that choice should be respected. But other elements are more troubling. Vespasian is not addressed as ‘pioneer’ and the poet does not say that he claimed the seas ‘as ours’. More disturbing is the omission of the reference to Caesar’s crossings of the English Channel, implicit in the words Phrygios prius indignatus Iulos. Note too that in the reference to the establishment of a temple the tense has been changed. Valerius makes a prediction ( instituet), while Slavitt gives us an accomplished fact (‘he has erected’). And there is of course no basis for the words ‘they both honour your line’ and ‘does you credit’. A Latinless reader trying to appreciate the nuances of this address to Vespasian will make no progress here.

But unfortunately, this is characteristic of Slavitt’s version. He makes what seem to be careless mistakes (the maris … Hiberi 2.24 is not the Irish Sea) or, worse, he inserts his own comments on the narrative. Thus in the catalogue of Argonauts there is a character called Polyphemus (1.457). Lest the reader confuse this sailor with the familiar enemy of Odysseus, Slavitt inserts the following: ‘No, / this 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 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.’ Clearly this translator is getting bored.

What then of Barich’s version?

And you, whose glory is the greater now
That you have opened up the sea to men
Since Caledonia’s Ocean bore your sails,
Which scorned till now the Phrygian sons of Iulus,
Remove me from nations and from the world of cloud,
O hallowed father, and favor him who sings
Of olden men the deeds that merit awe.
Judaea’s fall your son recounts in song,
For this is in his power, and how his brother,
Blackened by Jerusalem’s dust, scattered
Burning brands and raged on every tower.
For you he’ll found a family shrine, good Father,
And worship as a god …

Perhaps the first thing to note is that Barich’s version takes substantially more lines than does Valerius or Slavitt. His choice of iambic pentameter will explain the overrun. On the other hand, Barich’s accuracy is striking. The names of members of the Flavian dynasty are not inserted into the text and the reference to the Julian family is there. The establishment of a shrine and cult is correctly located in the future, not the past. And of course Barich avoids Mozley’s archaisms. Just as importantly, the passage reads well. Valerius’ syntax is complex here and that complexity is matched in Barich’s version.

Let’s consider a very different kind of passage, Medea’s opening soliloquy in Book 7.9-20:

nunc ego quo casu vel quo sic pervigil usque
ipsa volens errore trahor? non haec mihi certe
nox erat ante tuos, iuvenis fortissime, vultus,
quos ego cur iterum demens iterumque recordor
tam magno discreta mari? quid in hospite solo
mens mihi? cognati potius iam vellera Phrixi
accipiat, quae sola petit quaeque una laborum
causa viro. nam quando domos has ille reviset
aut meus Aesonias quando pater ibit ad urbes?

Here is Mozley’s version:

What mishap, what wilful deluding error holds me so I lie ever sleepless? Not such for sure were my nights ere I had seen thy countenance, gallant youth. What madness makes me recall it again and yet again, though oceans lie between us? Why are my thoughts upon the stranger only? Nay, let him rather even now receive his kinsman’s Phrixus’ fleece, his only quest and sole cause of his toil. For when will he see this abode again? Or when will my father visit Haemonia’s cities?

As before, Mozley’s besetting sin is archaism. Words like ‘thy’ and ‘nay’ would have been out of place in a 1930s verse translation, let alone a prose crib.

Here is Slavitt’s version:

How stupid this is! What madness or folly, that I am possessed
By thoughts of a man that I cannot put out of my mind, a stranger
From across ocean’s endless expanse! What have you done?
What have I let you do? I used to be able to sleep
Like a normal person. If only he’d take that fleece of his kinsman
And be on his way. That sheepskin of Phrixus is all he wants.
He hasn’t come here for me. And soon he’ll be gone forever.
He’ll never come back, nor will we visit Haemonia’s cities …

The first thing to note here is that the tone is wrong. A word like ‘stupid’ (= stultus) has no place in a translation of an epic poem like that of Valerius (or Virgil or Lucan). Moreover, Medea’s mood is reflective more than self-admonishing. The speech consists mainly of questions and attempts to answer or dismiss them. There are also the usual Slavitt additions: ‘I used to be able to sleep like a normal person’ is not only banal but absent from Valerius. Note too that in the last line ‘we’ is wrong: ‘we’ is not a translation of meus … pater. And the error is important because Medea is thinking not of the possibility of a nice Thessalian visit, but of the possibility of her father negotiating a marriage.

Here is Barich:

What chance, what folly leaves me sleepless so,
Quite willing? No such night before I saw
Your face, brave man. Why madly call to mind
Again and again his hazards on the great sea?
Why does my heart think only of the stranger?
No, let him take the Fleece of kinsman Phrixus,
The only thing he seeks, sole reason for
His efforts. When would he come back to this
My home, or Father go to Aeson’s city?

The difference in tone between Barich’s version and Slavitt’s is striking. There are no exclamations here. Rather we have quiet questions and considered answers. (The other obvious difference [Haemonia’s/Aeson’s] presumably results from the translators’ use of different texts. Barich bases his version on Ehlers’s Teubner edition; Slavitt does not say which edition he has used.)

In writing this review I have concentrated on the differences between the various modern versions of Valerius’ poem. But this is to underplay the strengths of Barich’s translation. It has greater virtues than not being Mozley or Slavitt. Barich not only conveys the tone and sense of Valerius’ poem better than his predecessors, but he can actually write verse.

In some ways it is unfortunate that Barich’s version was published by a small independent press. But publication of a translation of Valerius Flaccus by a press that regularly publishes contemporary poetry is remarkable. This is clearly a press which has confidence in the Latin poet and his translator. I think that that confidence is justified.