Scholia Reviews ns 6 (1997) 13.

R. Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney (trr.), Petronius: Satyrica, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996. Pp. 184. ISBN 0-420-20599-5. US$28.00.

P.G. Walsh (tr.), Petronius: The Satyricon, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. Pp. 212. ISBN 0-19- 815012-1. UKú30.00.

Sarah Ruden
Department of English, University of Kansas

Last year's two Petronius translations are welcome. The most recent completely new translation to have come out before them is Sullivan's of 1965. Sullivan's version (updated in 1986) was excellent,[[1]] but for a text full of slang current translations are essential -- that is, if there is to be any real attempt to entertain in the spirit of the original. Branham and Kinney's choices are bold and contemporary, often bolder than the original text. '"The way you kissed that poet's ass to cop a free dinner -- "' he has Ascyltos hissing at Encolpius in 10.2 ('qui ut foris cenares poetam laudasti'). Branham and Kinney have considerable trouble, however, in integrating various levels of style, especially as these are in many cases their own and not Petronius'. '"Gratification delayed is gratification denied,"' Encolpius 'quips' later in the same chapter (10.7: 'tardum est . . . differre quod placet'), a limp quip indeed, not intuitively true, and not even a close translation, placere in this context almost certainty being about deciding rather than enjoying. Admittedly, Petronius is a taskmaster from hell. We have no precise sense of what he was trying to do, let alone whether it was a success; there is no contemporary testimony on either point. Some translators may have struggled to make smooth and mainstream what is in essence pretty rough and far out.

Is Walsh among them? He is by now a venerable scholar. The Roman Novel and the translation of Apuleius' The Golden Ass are standard issue.[[2]] Walsh negotiated Apuleius' stylistic hullabaloo with adroit charm,[[3]] but in this present work he shows much unnecessary anti-Petronian blandness; he looks a little like a victim of his own authority, as if he decided at the beginning that he wouldn't run after this coy comedian. In rendering the speech of the freedmen, Walsh is marvellously insensitive. For Echion's striking patch of Vulgar Latin at the beginning of 46, Walsh cannot bring himself to include a single word that is not standard English, though there are a couple of harsh features like 'bastards'. (Branham and Kinney have a well-placed 'ain't', and several 'g's dropped from '-ing'.) And here, according to Walsh, is Trimalchio. '"What profession," he went on, "do we consider most difficult after that of letters? I myself imagine it is that of the doctor, or of the bank teller."' (56.1). Is this the boxing promoterish character who dominates the cena? The Latin here is quite awkward, with medicus and nummularius both identified as an artificium, as in 'doctor' and 'money-changer' each being called a 'trade'. Branham and Kinney get along so much better with Trimalchio ('"Who do you think has the hardest job after writers?" Trimalchio asked, "I think doctors and moneychangers do"' is what they do with the above passage) and the other freedmen that I am more tolerant of these translators' skylarking and anachronism, which are not all that frequent or offensive, and sometimes ingenious. '"My life in the fast lane ended"' in 64.3 for 'quadrigae meae decucurrerunt is one solution I particularly like.

An attraction both translations share is exquisitely pretentious doggerel, the hardest part of Petronius to bring into English for those who will not surrender to the ickiness of the original. Seldom does either of these two translators lose a single element of a line, and this requires considerable skill in the traditional verse forms they rightly favor. (Petronius' poetry is in general at least metrically decent.) For 109.10, Branham and Kinney write (with curious punctuation) on behalf of Eumolpus:

'"Poor head, you gleamed with hair,
than sun and moon more fair;
bronze-bald, as tuber round,
rain-born in garden ground,
now mocking girls you dread
to teach how soon you're dead,
there goes part of your head."'

'infelix, modo crinibus nitebas
Phoebo pulchrior et sorore Phoebi.
at nunc levior aere vel rotundo
horti tubere, quod creavit unda,
ridentes fugis et times puellas.
ut mortem citius venire credas,
scito iam capitis perisse partem.'

Walsh has Trimalchio 'quoting' Publilius in this vein (55.6):

'"'Neath Luxury's grin the walls of War soon fold.
Peacocks from Babylon clothed in feathered gold
To please your palate in their cages feed;
Numidian fowl and capons serve your need,
The very stork, loved guest from foreign creek,
With matchstick legs and loudly rattling beak,
Tending its young 'neath fond maternal wing,
Freeing from winter, signalling soft spring,
In your foul cooking-pot has laid its nest."'

'luxuriae rictu Martis marcent moenia.
tuo palato clausus pavo pascitur
plumato amictus aureo Babylonico,
gallina tibi Numidica, tibi gallus spado;
ciconia etiam, grata peregrina hospita
pietaticultrix gracilipes crotalistria,
avis exul hiemis, titulus tepidi temporis,
nequitiae nidum in caccabo fecit tuae.'

It would have been nice here to get the heaped polysyllables and the alliteration, but you can't have everything.

Branham and Kinney and Walsh are also alike in continuing an encouraging trend in Petronius translation. Petronius shares only, I believe, with Aeschylus the status of an author commonly assigned in translation but opaque in many places even to experts. The disastrous state of Petronius' text is a special difficulty; he would be easier to interpret if we had a better idea of what he wrote. Petronius' translators have been incorporating more and more of their uncertainty and their methods of dealing with it into their work, significantly reducing the condescension and obfuscation students have had to put up with in the past. Arrowsmith would blithely rewrite what he didn't understand.[[4]] Sullivan was much less inclined to do this, and Walsh and Branham and Kinney less inclined still, and much more to give extra help. Arrowsmith, for example, writes, '"The gods have stuffed their ears . . . "' for the mysterious 'dii pedes lanatos habent' in 44.18; Sullivan translates literally but without a note. Walsh adds to a literal translation an endnote; and Branham and Kinney say that the 'gods are angry' -- what the phrase must mean, in the simplest terms. If there is a general difference in the handling of problems like this between these latest versions, it is the one exemplified here: Walsh prefers to translate literally and to endnote, whereas Branham and Kinney tend to write the most likely interpretation into the translation -- not that they are poor in references; there are generous footnotes on most pages, but fewer notes than in Walsh are about the translation process.

I have to conclude that the objections I can find to these translations are those of a Petronius fanatic rather than of a dutiful critic concerned only with the public getting better access to ancient authors through conscientious, readable books. I can recommend both of these for courses in Latin literature in translation, keeping in mind the best advice I have heard about reviewing translations: 'Be picky, but don't go insane.'


[[1]] J.P. Sullivan (tr.), Petronius: The Satyricon; Seneca: The Apocolocyntosis (London 1986).

[[2]] P.G. Walsh, The Roman Novel (Cambridge 1970; Bristol 1995); P.G. Walsh (tr.), Apuleius: The Golden Ass (Oxford 1995).

[[3]] See the review of S. Ruden in BMCR 7.2 (1996).

[[4]] W. Arrowsmith (tr.), Petronius: The Satyricon (New York 1959).