I’ve been looking at asses. More specifically, I have been weighing Sarah Ruden’s 2011 translation of The Golden Ass of Apuleius against the one I grew up with and have been sitting on all my life, Robert Graves’s 1951 version.
Strictly speaking, “The Golden Ass” isn’t the book’s proper name. More sedately known as Metamorphoses, written by the North African writer Lucius Apuleius in the second century CE, this work, often regarded as a proto-novel, follows the adventures of a young man perhaps not coincidentally named Lucius who trespasses trivially on occult secrets and—you’ll have to read for yourself how this is done—becomes the first, but not the last, to make an ass of himself.
Trapped inside his peau de chagrin, Lucius undergoes a number of outrages, overhears far more than he should, and ends up being redeemed after a year by the goddess Isis and inducted into mysteries we are not permitted to share. The Golden Ass is, in Lewis Carrollingian terms, what the name of the book has come to be called, presumably to keep it from being confused with Ovid’s. St. Augustine, of all people, is credited with assuring the world of Apuleius’s authority for the title The Golden Ass. There’s nothing at all golden about Lucius either as man or beast, and the name is likely a word play, a pun asinorum.
After two millennia of picaresque storytelling, after Don Quixote and The Manuscript Found in Saragossa and Henderson the Rain King, the one-damned-thing-after-another of The Golden Ass may not hold much interest for a contemporary reader by itself. We look for something else, perhaps Robert Graves’s own “one story and one story only . . . nothing promised that is not fulfilled,” played out among the witches and goddesses, crones and maidens of Lucius’s acquaintance.
We can mine the book (based on a Greek original, with all the action taking place in Greece) for incidental information about material and spiritual life in the early Roman Empire. Neither Graves nor Ruden sixty years later has provided us with any notes or scholarly apparatus that might help us through these leafy thickets. Graves gives us good and clever authority, an edition he claims under his own name, before giving it back to Apuleius.What Ruden offers is more immediate: a stylistic exuberance that catches the essence of an original idiosyncratic Latin prose, a well-written good read.
Here is a passage from Book 4. A gang of bandits have just brought into camp a wealthy virgin, Charite, whom they’re holding for ransom. An old woman (who will spend the next book and a half regaling the captive with a famously embedded telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche) has tried to comfort her.
Ac sic: “A ego” inquit "misera tali domo tanta familia tam caris vernulis tam sanctis parentibus desolata et infelicis rapinae præda et mancipium effecta inque isto saxeo carcere et carnificinæ laniena serviliter clausa et omnibus deliciis, quis innata atque innutrita sum, privata sub incerta salutis spe et carnificinæ laniena inter tot ac tales latrones et horrendum gladiatorum populum vel fletum desinere vel omnino vivere potero?” (Book 4, 24)
This passage is not Ciceronian rhetoric, but it’s carefully constructed to sound melodramatically distraught. The curious repetition of one phrase, carnificinæ laniena—an executioner’s (or torturer’s, it comes to the same thing in Apuleius’s Roman Empire) butcher shop—gives it all away rhetorically. Alliterations, flourishes, and repetitions tumble over one another: tali . . . tanta . . . tam . . . tam . . . innata atque innutrita, and so on.
Graves chose to point us in the right direction at the outset, rendering the simple Latin introductory “And so she said” as “She wailed,” but keeping his own language steady and oratorical with some of the repetitive effects, the lovely love and bloodthirsty bandits. Hear especially how k’s click through the whole exclamation, “kind . . . kidnapped . . . criminal . . . rocky . . . comforts . . . constant . . . cut . . . can . . . crying.”
She wailed: “To think of losing everything! Such a lovely home, so many dear friends and kind slaves, and parents whom I love so much. To be kidnapped in this dreadful way and shut up like a criminal in a rocky prison without any of the comforts which I have had all my life! Under constant threat of having my throat cut and in the power of these bloodthirsty bandits! How can you expect me to stop crying? How can you expect me even to stay alive?”
Ruden has paid a lot closer attention to the excesses of the diction that drop the outcry off the cliff from high drama into bathetic parody (“I’m tragically robbed . . . the prey of dire rapine”), with the repetitions and alliteration culminating in “beastly, beastly bandits.” In the introduction to her translation, she cites P.G. Wodehouse and Damon Runyon as models for her tone, but she has also drawn from William Adlington’s Elizabethan English:
She cried out, “What are you asking me to do? I’m tragically robbed of my excellent home—that big establishment with all the dear little slaves growing up in it—and of my faultless parents. I’m the prey of dire rapine, a chattel, shut up in this rocky prison like any slave. All the luxuries to which I was born and bred are ripped from me. I’m torn to pieces with the uncertainty: I may survive or I may be put to death here, among so many beastly, beastly, bandits, a whole city of thugs I shudder to look upon. How can I cease weeping—or even go on living?”
A few years ago, I was talking with a colleague of mine, a brilliant translator of Russian prose, about her own work and the kind of accuracy it called for. “When someone gets into a nineteenth-century carriage,” she told me, “I need to know exactly what model of carriage it is, covered or open, two-wheeled or four-wheeled, drawn by how many horses.” This is precisely the kind of accuracy that Apuleius’ translators chose to leave behind, without compromising the flavor of Roman fish sauce and Attic salt. Neither Graves nor Ruden (nor Adlington, for that matter) feels wedded to the “literal.” There is not even a single mention of the evocative butcher shop in English. Who cares? We are not in a world of echoing, subtle symbols but of strong, sometimes silly emotions and slapstick brutality.
The notion of translation as an art of making choices can sometimes be more stark in narrative than in lyric expression. The more lyric the utterance, the more distraction we accept in the disorderly republic of letters. Once we turn to narrative prose, the die is cast, a Rubicon has been crossed, we expect to surrender to a practical tyranny of accuracy and fidelity. We expect narrative to be more “literal” than lyric, although what we mean by that gets hard to say. With poetry, we let all kinds of distractions, from the sensibility of the translating poet to the regulation of formality get in the way of the absoluteness of the word. And yet, after all, the process of choice remains fundamentally the same. Graves put the familiar dilemma this way in his introduction to Apuleius: “It is essentially a moral problem: how much is owed to the letter, and how much to the spirit. ‘Stick to the script’, and the effect of authenticity is lost.”
When Lucius recovers his natural body, when his transformation is complete, his first thought is of language: “What proclamation should be my priority? What preface would be proper, in my newly recovered voice? With what kind of discourse could I fitly inaugurate my resurrected access to language?” But the priest by his side “got in ahead of me: he was not quite too stunned by the dazzling miracle to indicate (with a nod that spoke satisfactorily) that I should be given a linen garment. . . . Once this was taken care of, the priest was astonished: I looked exactly the way a human being should.”
Clothes make the man. The art of translation lies not so much in revealing the body as in covering it adroitly.