National Review / Digital
The Old Is New Again


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.”</blockquote>

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.</blockquote>

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.

February 21, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 3

  • What the Egyptian unrest says about, and portends for, the region.
  • Comparing French and American responses to the Middle East upheavals.
  • If both seek the presidency, it could split the Republican party.
  • We’re wasting billions on rockets to nowhere.
  • Let’s stop Obamacare without blowing up the constitutional order.
Books, Arts & Manners
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .