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B+ : good entertainment in a solid edition
See our review for fuller assessment.
[*: refers to a different translation]
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
[This review is based on the 2020 Loeb Classical Library series edition (vol. 15) from Harvard University Press, in Gareth Schmeling's translation, which supersedes and replaces Michael Heseltine's 1913 translation, as revised by E.H.Warmington (1969). Other widely available editions include the Penguin Classics edition, in J.P.Sullivan's translation (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk), and the Oxford World Classics edition, in P.G.Walsh's translation (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk).]
Satyricon was, in Michael Heseltine's 1913 translation, among the first works presented in the Loeb Classical Library -- volume 15.
E.H.Warmington's 1969 revision was a welcome update, but another half a century on a completely new edition seems appropriate (if not downright necessary), the old volume now replaced in 2020 by that translated and edited by Gareth Schmeling.
(Readers should note that while the old edition is now officially out of print, second-hand copies still circulate widely and some care should be taken when purchasing the book, especially online, so that the readers actually get the edition they are looking for, old or new.
Helpfully, the official Loeb series site makes both the (revised) 1913 edition and the 2020 edition available.)
A search for satire in Petronius should probably be replaced by a search for parody of contemporary writers such as Seneca and Lucan. The present editor would set aside any label of satire and read the work as a resourceful clash of understanding and misunderstanding reality.Satyricon is fragmentary, with chunks of episodes; as Schmeling notes; "the episodes are not always organically connected". It is narrated by Encolpius and begins with him in dialogue with a teacher of rhetoric named Agamemnon -- who complains about how teachers have to play for an audience, undermining, among other things, the loftier standards they aspire to. These early, rhetoric-focused scenes also give some sense of how Schmeling approaches translation, with word-choices that are often not quite as expressive as Heseltine's. So, for example Agamemnon notes how teachers: "have to act like madmen and play their part with lunatics" where Heseltine had, for qui necesse habent cum insanientibus furere: "They are in a madhouse, and they must gibber", and in Schmeling Agamemenon argues: "Elevated and what I would call a pure style is not full of highly colored and bombastic phrases" where Heseltine has, for non est maculosa nec turgida, that great style: "is never blotchy and bloated".
Many of the characters Encolpius encounters have a high opinion of themselves and their knowledge and talents -- and, often, moan about how they and these are misunderstood or under-appreciated. The wealthy Trimalchio, the host of the elaborate dinner that makes up the biggest single piece of the novel, the Cena Trimalchionis, can afford to spout his ignorance without much concern that he'll be called out on it, but the struggling intellectuals don't have it as easy -- one of Petronius' points that's repeatedly hammered home over the course of the novel. The poet Eumolpus -- very certain of his (dubious) talents -- makes for the most amusing example, then, observing not only that: "passion for the intellect never made anyone rich" but also finding his poetry not only under- but downright unappreciated. As Encolpius soon learns first hand, in some of the novel's most comic scenes, the reactions to both actual examples of Eumolpus' poetry or even just the knowledge that he is a poet is enough to provoke strong, even violent reaction.
Trimalchio might not be taken seriously by many of the guests at his grand meal, but he is treated differently and deferred to, no matter what he holds forth on. Given the speaker, one might have doubts about the assessment, but it's noteworthy how that he considers it a given when he poses the question:
"What profession," he asked, "do we think is the most difficult after that of writing ?"Trimalchio seems to respect scholarship and learning -- after all, as he boasts: "I have three libraries, one Greek, a second one in Latin, –" -- but, of course, his many mistakes and mix-ups regarding even popular myth and history show he is anything but learned and certainly indifferent to details. As Schmeling suggests in a footnote: "Trimalchio's confusion about items of Roman history are more entertaining than actual history". Beginning with the debates about rhetoric, Petronius clearly makes the point that the craft of writing is a challenging one, but he repeatedly shows that the author's lot is also per se a difficult one -- not least how even admired work is twisted by those incapable of properly appreciating it.
Despite the various characters' defenses of rhetoric, poetry, and learning more generally, in the numerous debates or what amount to lectures in the novel, Satyricon is also very much an entertainment. Much is of a sexual nature, as Encolpius has a "boy-partner", Giton who is variously also lusted after by sometime-companion Ascyltos and then Eumolpus. (Schmeling explains that: "Boy-partner is my rendering of frater. By this I indicate the younger-boy homosexual lover of the pair. The word frater is also used to mean "partner, homosexual lover of the same age"." Heseltine generally opts simply for 'brother', the role and relationship being clear enough from the context and action.) Encolpius' repeated efforts to win over and hang onto Giton in the face of considerable competition serve for both some of the more dramatic action and comedy (as well as some of the more explicit scenes)-- culminating in the shipboard scene where (melodramatically rather than seriously, one must assume):
Giton in a very brave act turned the menacing razor to his genitals, and threatened to cut off the cause of so many troublesWarmington's 1969 revision of Heseltine promises that: "All hitherto untranslated or "bowdlerized" passages have now been translated" -- and so, for example, he also has: "Giton turned a razor against his genitals" where Heseltine had him turn it only "on himself" -- but still shows some restraint, whereas Schmeling's translation is freer and (not always successfully) more modern. The shifts can be seen in, for example, the translations of frigori laecasin dico: Heseltine's original has it as: "I let the cold go to the devil"; Warmington's revision is: "I let the cold go to hell", and Schmeling flat-out goes for: "I say fuck off to the cold". (Schmeling is probably right in trying to capture the force of laecasin -- from the Greek, λαικίζειν --; like many expletives, it's hard to get the right feel across in translation.)
Even sometimes where Schmeling gets it right it can sound a bit off. A hapax legomenon (a word of which there is only one recorded use) makes for a particular challenge, and Heseltine's translation of "Apoculamus nos circa gallicinia" -- as: "So we trotted off about cock-crow" -- seems a safe but weak choice. Warmington's effort -- "So we bummed ourselves off about cockrow" -- can feel a bit forced, but is helpfully footnoted, providing a good explanation of the word-choice:
If we have this word right, it is some slang for going away, formed of apo, Greek ἀπό "from," and culus "arse," or Greek ἀποκυλίω, ἀποκυλίνδω "roll away" ?Schmeling clearly follows this reading, but without a similar explanatory footnote his (clever) version -- "At about cockrow we hauled ass" -- is rather jarring. (If the rest of the translation had a similar tone -- a possibly interesting approach -- it might work, but as is it just stands out as uncomfortably different. One of the few other examples is a translation of "Quid ergo est ?", which Heseltine (too) simply makes: "Well, well" (with Warmington unable to come up with anything better, leaving it unchanged), while Schmeling went for: "What's the big deal ?".)
Nevertheless, particularly in the final sections, in which Encolpius has a number of opportunities for sex but can't rise to the occasion among other often very explicit scenes, Schmeling's renderings generally read less awkwardly than the older, more dated versions.
As a final comparison of (the Loeb) translations, an example from the (word-)playful apophoreta -- "a short text attached to a departure gift for the guests" -- from Trimalchio's banquet gives a good sense of each:
“muraena et littera”: murem cum rana alligata fascemque betae accepit[The Latin text in the 2020 edition omits the 'accepit'.]
The Cena Trimalchionis -- Trimalchio's grand feast -- is enjoyably amusing, both in its excess (and Trimalchio's tendency to (great) exaggeration) and creativity, especially regarding some of the fantastical food-courses and how they are presented. Encolpius claims: "It would be tiresome to go through everything that happened", but what he does relate is good fun and moves along at a good pace. There's solid drama to later episodes involving Giton -- though the flight that brings Encolpius, Giton, and Eumolpus aboard a ship suffers some from missing the manuscript-parts that have been lost -- "where Encolpius seems to have robbed Lichas, stolen a sacred robe and rattle dedicated to Isis, and seduced his wife", as Schmeling suggests in a footnote (i.e. a lot happened -- and a lot that also bears on this action).
Eumolpus' "monstrous flow of verbiage"-- the long Civil War poem he recites -- remains a somewhat odd bit of the novel, very different from the many shorter stories that are related; presumably it was a better fit in the complete novel. As Schmeling notes in his Introduction, Satyricon: "is a mixture of prose and poetry" (with many of the characters poets), but he has also followed Heseltine and Warmington in rendering all the verse, including the Civil War poem, in prose. This is reasonable enough -- though one might wish for someone to have a go at trying to make English poetry out of this Latin verse.
Many of Schmeling's footnotes (191 for the text-proper, along with 785 regarding the Latin text) are explanatory but several pass judgment where explanation might have served readers better, as when he observes: "The description of Trimalchio's confusion in retelling myths is brilliant" rather than explaining the myth and/or mistake. (In this case -- "Dedalus is shutting Niobe in the Trojan horse" -- the stories might be familiar enough; nevertheless .....) Another instance offers some explanation of a scene but then also concludes: "This is supposedly amusing", which readers surely can be left to judge for themselves. (Occasionally, the more editorial comments in the footnotes are welcome, as in the suggestion that: "the reader will witness throughout the Cena not so much a dinner as a dinner theater".) Overall, more explanatory footnotes would have been welcome -- as well as more that, as in Warmington's revision, explain some of the word choices in the original and translation.
This new edition of Petronius would seem to have the more reliable and up-to-scholarship-date Latin text, and thus be more useful to the serious Latin reader. (The textual difference are not major, but the annotation and sourcing are presumably of use to the serious scholar.) For the more casual reader -- such as this reviewer -- the translation itself is not quite as great an improvement as might have been hoped for (and, again, the more explanatory footnoting of the Warmington is missed). Nevertheless, the awkwardness of the translation tends to be limited to a few specific jarring choices, and overall reads well enough, with particularly the more explicit scenes successfully handled.
The hope for a definitive edition of Satyricon is perhaps too much to ask for, given the difficulties of the text (including the fact that it is a fragmentary text). This new Loeb edition doesn't render the earlier (revised) edition entirely obsolete (as one might have also hoped for), but it's a solid volume that will certainly do for most readers. What improvement there is over the Warmington revision is probably of most use to the serious Latin scholar, while the casual reader might miss some of Heseltine and Warmington's more creative turns of phrase (and Warmington's footnotes). Certainly, Schmeling's rendering is good too -- but it also merely joins a large number of other solid translations, rather than supplanting them.
- M.A.Orthofer, 25 June 2021
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Gaius Petronius Arbiter lived in the 1st century.
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