Translating makes a dirty, thankless business — except, of course, to those for whom the work is its own reward. The translator stands to readers rather as the piano player does to patrons in a frontier saloon, ignored if folks are having a ripping good time and shot if they’re not. It’s the realm not only of educated guesses, but of halting hunches as well, even when the translator is a scholar. Few arts are more inexact. This sticky predicament gets compounded when the work rendered into modern idiom hails from one of the ancient languages; critics may assail a translation on philological or historical grounds, but proving that it’s utterly wrong becomes more tricky with every century separating us from the date of composition. A better informed, more nuanced guess is still a guess. Yet somebody has to do it. Without able, ingenious translators our cultural life would be hugely impoverished, our view into the past extended no farther than the horizon we can see behind us. We would all be provincials.
Sarah Ruden, a younger scholar and poet who has already taken an estimable swing in the big leagues with, among other works, that monolith of Latin literature, Virgil’s Aeneid, now takes on The Golden Ass by Apuleius, a quirky Roman author of the second century a.d., and though her call to wade into the baroque prose of an early novelist may not strike us as an obvious move to make after the heady heights of Virgilian verse, the result is a rollicking ride well worth the fare. To know a bit about Apuleius and his time is to understand why.
Apuleius arose out of that period in classical times known as the Second Sophistic, an age when the cleverest wordsmiths in Greek found the language of their time worn out and desiccated, and so they yearned to resurrect — zealously if artificially — the eloquence of the Golden Age of fifth-century b.c. Athens by closely emulating in their works some of the rhetorical forms of those bygone days. This movement amounted to a cultural fashion, and as such it sent out ripples among Roman authors, who still took many stylistic cues from the Greeks, and Apuleius was one of the flowers of the trend. And what an odd trend it was. In the shrewdest hands some fine objects got crafted, though the workaday products coming from the witless could be less than stirring — literary jumbles of “verbal stunts” (as Ruden says) about very little, virtuoso style matched with thin substance. It would be as though we found ourselves convinced that the English we used every day had become too tired, frayed, and inexpressive to serve our literary purposes and so resolved to write henceforth solely with the rhetorical flourishes of, say, Shakespeare, only to discover that we had little to talk about but mouthwash, Facebook, and Cheetos.
To his and our good fortune, Apuleius was not among the uninspired. He possessed the talent to employ his verbal exuberance to the utmost. Had he not opted to concoct tales of the fantastic and bizarre — however much he freely borrowed some of the plots of those tales from other authors, a common practice of the time — he probably could have written about his own life by itself and kept readers entertained for millennia. A man educated in the cosmopolitan manner, he had come from an outpost of the empire (modern Algeria), traveled broadly, hovered about mystery cults, and found himself in a few scrapes worthy of a novelist’s invention, including a lawsuit brought against him after he married the rich mother of one of his friends. Probably his was a life and character fit only for crime or authorship.
The Golden Ass (or, as it was titled earlier in its career, Metamorphoses) comes down to us as an early example of so-called meta-fiction, a story in one sense about storytelling; stories are told within other stories. But there’s no need to get theoretical to enjoy this series of outlandish incidents and its bawdy, brazen dramatis personae. We might call it a fairy tale for grown-ups. It’s a story by turns hilarious, coarse, and tender, a bit of sophisticated playfulness at the center of which a man named Lucius finds himself, by a magical trick gone wrong, transformed into a donkey and forced to wander doggedly from place to place to find the magic that will restore him to human form. But that goal takes on secondary rank as he’s improbably presented with one crude or lewd or ribald or violent episode after another and listens to tale upon tale, some of which — like that of Cupid and Psyche — have gone on to live independently of their setting here. His troubles are solved in the end, movingly, through divine direction and humble submission.
But much of the joy of this translation hums under the hood. Ruden is a consummate classical scholar who has made herself thoroughly conversant with the Latin text and so she knows that a strict, lexicon-led rendition of this work would issue in a translation all at once stiff, dull, and wrong; the words would be right, more or less, but the tone would be woefully, comically off. For Apuleius had created a narrator, she says, who is “sometimes urbane, sometimes naïve, sometimes ironic, self-pitying, and sympathetic all within a single sentence”; further, this is an author who “bridges loony gaps between registers with rhyme or alliteration” and uses “smooth rhetorical periods and delicately woven poetic imagery [containing] obscenity or violence, a dissonance as weird but as entertaining as a groundhog in a frilly dress.” In other words, a tall order for a translator.
So how does one go about refabricating the tang of the original? By aiming for tone over rigid accuracy. With timely advice from a well-read husband, she took up and, in places, strategically mimicked authors in English now known by many for their “slatternly ornamentation” and boisterousness — P. G. Wodehouse, Kipling, and George MacDonald Fraser — a method as inspired as it is sound. (I would add Captain Marryat.) We read “Now, I was making my way home from a dinner party somewhat late, and I was, well, more or less plastered — I won’t try to disavow my guilt in this,” and we think we hear Jeeves shimmer into the room the next morning to prepare one of his potions for Bertie’s hangover. And yet it’s right because it works. Oh, and Ruden also says she “had to blow off pretty comprehensively the creative-writing professors who told me that semi-colons 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,” for which she ought to be awarded a Pulitzer and probably would be were it not for the fact that the committee is enthralled to such splendidly, preternaturally stupid advice.
This book is not, to put it mildly, one to post on a marquee under “Wisdom Literature of the Western World.” There’s wisdom here of a sort, but it’s not, be warned, of the facile, didactic kind, and so this story would not be properly featured on the reading lists of those wishing to encounter Greek and Roman minds in all their airy, placid aloofness in order to pluck petals of moral or philosophical insight. The Golden Ass reminds us abundantly that for all their accrued sapience, the ancients could be marvelously, side-splittingly ridiculous. One reads this for diversion, or, as we might say, one reads it for some of the same reasons one reads Don Quixote, another picaresque romp — for the sheer unabashed fun of it, not for “life lessons.” It’s a story, not a homily, and Sarah Ruden has re-bestowed it with artful aplomb.
– Mr. Simmons is the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. He is working on a book about Thomas Jefferson.