153 out of 410 days: Translating Bread and Circuses

In my previous post on bread and circuses, I used a translation by Kline.  I admire very much Kline’s work making contemporary translations of Latin poetry available on the internet for non commercial use.  Poetry translations suffers perhaps most of all when we default to works that have aged into the public domain. Open source is the ethic way forward.  All that said as I thought about using it in my chapter I found myself concerned about pieces of the Latin not reflected in that translation.  Translation is very much interpretation, especially with such a value laden text as Juvenal’s 10th Satire!  Here are parallel sections of Kline and a much earlier translator Ramsey:

But what of the Roman Mob? They follow Fortune, as always, and hate whoever she condemns. … They shed their sense of responsibility long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob that used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything, curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only, Bread and circuses. ‘I hear that many will perish.’ ‘No doubt, The furnace is huge.’


And what does the mob of Remus say? It follows fortune, as it always does, and rails against the condemned. … Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things—-Bread and Games!  “I hear that many are to perish.”—-“No doubt of it; there is a big furnace ready.”

I’ve decided there are a few places I can’t really live with either translation given my sense of the key portions of the Latin. Here’s the Latin:

                                                                  … sed quid

turba Remi? sequitur fortunam, ut semper, et odit

damnatos. idem populus, si Nortia Tusco

fauisset, si oppressa foret secura senectus

principis, hac ipsa Seianum diceret hora

Augustum. iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli

uendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim

imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se

continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat,

panem et circenses. ‘perituros audio multos.’

‘nil dubium, magna est fornacula.’ 

So right now my own version is looking something like this:

But what of the mob of Remus? It follows fortune, as always, and hates the damned … No longer do we sell votes.  Responsibilities drain away.  Those who used to grant imperium, fasces, legions, everything, now restrain themselves, hoping all the more anxiously for two things: bread and circuses. ‘Many will perish, I hear.’ ‘No doubt, the furnace is huge.’  (Sat. 10.73-82)

The crowd being associated with Remus the murdered brother of Romulus needs to be preserved.  But perhaps most critical is the 1st person personal plural active verb “to sell”.  Juvenal gives agency to the sellers of their votes and includes himself and his reader in that group.  I shy away from reiterating ‘mob’ or ‘crowd’ as the subject of the later 3rd person singular verbs because in the sentence I’m cutting Juvenal uses idem populus  ‘the same people’ to gloss turba; populus is a much less negative terms and might as easily be rendered ‘citizen body’.  Notice especially how the past concerns of “imperium, fasces, legions and everything” are contrasted with “bread and circuses”.  The former evokes not just magisterial offices but particularly foreign policy, the later is standing for domestic affairs, the internal condition of the state.  I particularly like the word order of the last two snippets of direct discourse, but see no fluid way to reflect that in the translation.

Obviously, in places my rending is no more literally reflective of vocabulary and grammar than the other two, but few readable translations are.

67 out of 410 days: Poetry and other Evidence

Reading for leisure is complicated when one reads as a primary professional obligation. As early as my undergraduate days I rationed novel reading by imposing strict rules: 1) only on weekends or school breaks, 2) never, ever start a book after 4 pm [to avoid being up all night]. Now, I read fewer novels, and usually old “friends”, sometimes from childhood, who’ve been read many times before. When I read something new, I like a guarantee of plot resolution. Somewhere in grad school I picked up poetry as a means of leisure reading that stands repetition and is low on time commitment. My tastes run highly rhythmic: Fenton, Auden and honest: Sexton, Addonizio.

What I haven’t read enough of is Greek or Latin poetry. Somewhere the ‘historian’ label interfered with my perception of such literature as particularly useful or engaging. A old well-grooved prejudice. One that protects poetry as a modern pleasure thoroughly divorced from my professional concerns. This is ridiculous. Ovid, Martial, Propertius and their friends tell us far more about the landscape of Rome itself and the attitudes and preoccupations of the people who inhabited it than Cicero. Or, if not more, than differently, with nuance and layers of meaning. Rich depths for the historian to plumb. With playful and pleasurable language to boot. Heck, Cicero in the pro Archia even tells us the value of the poetic perspective on history. I even like such literature, as literature.

I think, perhaps, a graduate seminar ‘Latin Poetry for Historians’ would be a fabulous course to develop post sabbatical. Something that honors the genre as an art form, while also exploring the diversity of the evidence it offers, and the complications of deploying such evidence.