Magazine | February 21, 2011, Issue

The Old Is New Again

The Golden Ass of Apuleius, which I am in the process of translating, is like a telescope. Through this work of the mid-second century a.d., you can see a whole hemisphere and 4,000 years of literature, from the bards of pre-alphabetic Asia Minor in one direction to the New Orleans of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the other.

The Roman author (actually a cosmopolitan North African) was also an orator, with all the learning typical for that profession. He could whip out a homily based on Homer; spoof contemporary book fashions; stuff his narrative with incidents and personalities familiar from Plautus, Rome’s greatest purveyor of farce; and execute hit-and-runs on every other genre in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean.

On the other side, the telescope shows a gentle stretch down into the Western future. Either The Golden Ass or Lucian’s True History is the earliest complete comic novel we have. In the fragmentary Satyricon of Petronius and the epitome of the original Greek donkey story, we can see precedents for Apuleius’s novel, but his undertaking still looks wildly odd when set beside either the Latin and Greek canon or mainstream “subliterary” works of the time.

There were romances in Greek, but Apuleius was up to something very different from bringing two beautiful, chaste lovers together in marriage after many tribulations. His narrator, Lucius, beds an eager slave girl near the beginning of the story. The affair is important only in leading to the book’s central crisis: Lucius is transformed into a donkey after he persuades his girlfriend to help him meddle in her mistress’s sorcery workshop. From that night on, he endures a donkey’s slavery and humiliation, relieved only by fragile rescues and species-inappropriate larks, until his miraculous deliverance.

Particularly in its ending, The Golden Ass is something new. Lucius finds a savior in the goddess Isis. Restored to his human form, he devotes his remaining life to her cult as a celibate priest. In the last of the novel’s eleven books, he tells of spending whole days in blissful contemplation of her image, and of spending his whole fortune on three posh initiation rites. Though the novel competes with or dismisses Christianity (there’s a portrait of a very nasty Christian), the themes of conversion and a personal relationship with the divine feel quite modern. Very much unlike the typical ancient Greek or Roman, Lucius is no longer a creature of his clan or city or property or profession. His homecoming is inward, his god is all-sufficient, and he confidently hopes for a privileged afterlife.

But Apuleius’s Latin is anything but cloistered: It reeks of the bazaar, the festival, and the dinner party. He combines the slang of Plautus, the  sophistication of Cicero, the mannerisms of Seneca, poetic touches from epic and lyric — and some words found nowhere else. They are hapax legomena, “things said a single time” in all of existing literature.

Besides this, he seems unable to keep his squeezing, manipulating hands off any words, no matter how tender or inexperienced they are. For instance, postliminio, “by right of return,” normally described a legal state and was not very common. Apuleius turns it into a metaphor and throws it all over the place: In his text, it’s usually just Fancy-Pantsish for “back again.” Legal metaphors (like “to read someone the Riot Act”) are nothing unusual; but in every kind of expression, nobody is as excitable as Apuleius. He’s much like a 19-year-old boy on a date, for whom anything — that tuft of weeds! — or the girl’s statement that she wants to go home! — isn’t just itself but an opportunity.

#page#But Apuleius’s is the good kind of excess. With intricate discipline, he works his playfulness. He ties up loopy gaps between registers with rhyme or alliteration, tightening meaning at the same time. Smooth rhetorical periods and delicately woven poetic imagery contain obscenity or violence, like a groundhog in a frilly dress: yet another reason to sit up — but always at a swerve of the wild narrative, and therefore never irritating.

As this became clear to me in all its daunting detail, I was more inclined to think of the telescope as a torture device, forcing me to see how, by comparison, modern American literature has gone to pot. A translator tends to look immediately around her for the analogies without which there is no hope of getting anything across. The Golden Ass is the ultimate literary work, so why not look at other literature for hints on how to translate?

Unfortunately, my training as a “creative writer” made me look not just to the wrong books, but to the wrong idea and process of writing. Uselessly, I tried to come up with “original” takes on Apuleian phrasing — as if my understanding and experience of his work were the big cosmic deal — rather than to adopt something like his own methods of borrowing, cultivating, and decorating.

I graduated from a prestigious writing program, you see. Most of my teachers assured me that to communicate is morally wrong. My job was strictly to “express” (like toothpaste) what it was like to be in my head, and in my terms and nobody else’s (just leaning on that tube with my unique poundage). Using, let alone working, let alone extending, a traditional language was tawdry.

But there is hope for my Apuleius in English, since I was ravished from this academic prison by an unfashionably literary man, my husband, Tom. He pointed me to authors far outside of scholarly favor, who are condemned in public for their slatternly ornamentation (as well as their unenlightened minds) but resorted to in secret by persons of culture; authors such as Kipling. From these sources I too began to find relief, though their usual admirers are men. (My private name for this class of books rhymes with “chick lit.”)

Apuleius, like these authors, seems to have freebooted across literary seas to surprise his readers in the complacent metropolis. His terms are often strange-looking at first — as if displaced or poorly fitting, so that writing-handbook strictures about consistent register come to mind. But I learned through my study of outcast modern authors what his purposes likely were. A P. G. Wodehouse heroine decrying her bohemian fiancé’s descent into respectability warns, “Every day you will air the dog, till you become a confirmed dog-airer.” Confirmed — like an opium fiend. Similarly, in The Golden Ass, a word usually connoting warfare may be used for a domestic fracas, or a word usually connoting political intrigue for a meeting of farm animals — and on and on. Nor does the author limit this device to the potshots of parody: In his tragic insets (dense in the later books) he uses low language for the pathos of ignorance and simplicity (in a way now usually banned as condescending) and high language for shameless wickedness. 

All the time, the first-person narrator, with whom many readers identify the author, is commenting. He is sometimes urbane, sometimes naïve; sometimes ironic, self-pitying, and sympathetic within a single sentence. But for a really ingenious author, it’s possible to whip across three lanes of registers in two seconds and evoke not honks of rage but sighs of admiration.

#page#To translate a passage in Apuleius in which a Roman soldier confronts a monolingual Greek peasant in Latin and finds he must speak Greek — rendered as bad Latin in the text — to communicate, I took a little inspiration from a cross-cultural encounter described by one of Damon Runyon’s narrators. Here is Runyon:

So finally I go over to her, and I say as follows: “What is eating you, little Miss?”

“Oh,” she says, “I am waiting for Elliot. He is to come up from New York and meet me here [at the Yale Bowl] to take me to the game, but he is not here yet, and I am afraid something happens to him. Furthermore,” she says, the tears in her eyes getting very large indeed, “I am afraid I will miss the game because he has my ticket.”

“Why,” I say, “this is a very simple proposition. I will sell you a choice ducket for only a sawbuck, which is ten dollars in your language, and you are getting such a bargain only because the game is about to begin, and the market is going down.”

Here is Apuleius:

Then the truck farmer responded in submissive tones that, unacquainted with the language as he was, he couldn’t know what the other was saying. So now the soldier asked in Greek: “Where you take ass?” The farmer replied that he was taking it to the nearest town.

“But he need to service me,” the soldier said. “From the fort nearby he must bring here the luggage of our leader with the other beasts.” And straightway he seized me [Lucius, transformed into a donkey], took hold of my lead, and began to drag me away. . . .

The gardener realized that [his] appeals weren’t placating the soldier, whose animalistic aggression was aimed at annihilating him, and who’d already upended the vine-wood rod and was using the monstrous knob to knock his skull into two pieces.

Apuleius and Runyon, two kings of the picaresque underworld, exquisitely manage the tension between the high and low and between the inside and outside points of view. It’s artifice, of course, not one-tenth authentic; but who would want to trade it for something more “real”?

I’ve offered here only a tiny sample of what I had to rethink to pursue this job. In fact, I had to blow off pretty comprehensively the professors who told me that semicolons are pretentious; that adverbs are for trailer trash; that nobody who is anybody ever italicized a word, wrote a long, complex sentence, or referred to an emotion otherwise than through a sensory image. I got all the advice I needed from dead authors, and their advice was so contrary to what I had been taught that it put me in mind of Dave Barry’s Mister Language Person:

Writing Tip for Professionals: To make your writing more appealing to the reader, avoid “writing negatively.” Use positive expressions instead.

Wrong: “Do not use this appliance in the bathtub.”

Right: “Go ahead and use this appliance in the bathtub.”

And I finally understood what it was about the Harry Potter books. J. K. Rowling’s story is, on the surface, as absurd as Apuleius’s, but its artfulness — the allusiveness, the layering, the shaping — is that absurdity’s redemption. Literature isn’t real, and that’s the point: It’s all in the author’s hands, and he has the chance to delight and teach. Apuleius did both, and his latest translator is working like a slave to keep from betraying him.

Sarah Ruden is the author, most recently, of a translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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