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.