Humor’s universal, but is it timeless? On Juvenal’s Sixteen Satires

Sixteen Satires

There’s always an unspoken problem with anything translated: what about the details that aren’t part of the language? Sure, anyone can translate Homer to English, but why is it that Robert Fagles is preferred to E.V. Rieu? For me, it’s a simple sounding answer: because some are to grab the nuances in the text, to give it a particular feel and rhythm. But that’s not really it: what about context? Nuance? All the things that can’t be translated?

I had all these in mind when I started reading Penguin Classics’ edition of the poetry of Juvenal.  He was a Roman poet back in the first century AD and his 16 existant satires are blistering broadsides against his society, one which he thinks is filled with decadence, corruption, vice and Greek influences (if only he lived to see the Byzantines!). He was a favorite of Dr. Johnson and several other old English authors, but they largely read him in Latin. I wasn’t, so I didn’t expect a ton from this collection. I wasn’t really surprised, either.

As a whole, it’s an interesting collection. Juvenal’s stuff occasionally drifts into complete bitterness, but some of his images have stuck with me: the pedestrian crushed by a load of rocks, reckless and above-the-law soldiers terrorizing commoners, the storm at sea in satire XII. But by and large, Juvenal just rages against anything and everything, completely full-bore. Here’s where the familiar phrase “bread and circuses” came from and it’s one of his more restrained moments.

So, this is where the problem with reading him lays: the world he’s satirizing is long gone, but for his audience it was a part of daily life. When he mocks people, I assume his audience knew who he was talking about. Reading him in 2013, we don’t. It relies on the translator or editor to provide these details for us, to help bridge the gap.

Here’s where I found translator Peter Green at his best: his notes were plentiful and helpful, if tucked away in the back (expect a lot of flipping back and forth). I found his translation decent, if a bit English in nature, and he occasionally tries to modernize it a bit: changing money amounts to pounds sterling, or the names of a few fish to one’s more commonly known to Brits. It was interesting to see Green drop some harsh language, too, which I didn’t really expect. In Penguin’s edition of Catullus, the text was either sanitized or left untranslated whenever Catullus got a little too risque (like when he said he wanted to face-fuck his critics). Still, I’d like to check out the revised edition that came out a while back and see what changed, not to mention the other translations out there.

All in all, the unrelenting bitterness can get a little repetitive and frankly, my tastes run more towards poets like Martial. But I won’t deny his historical importance, either. He inspired a great many people and I think some of his tone is sorely missing from a lot of today’s writers; it’d be great to see what he thinks of the debt crisis in Europe or of HBO’s Girls.

Rating: 6/10. Recommended for ancient history buffs, especially those into Roman poetry. But if you’ve never dabbled in the genre before, I’d recommend starting elsewhere: Fagles and Knox’s editions of Homer or Virgil, A.D. Melville’s translation of Ovid or a decently-sized anthology. But don’t write him off entirely: there’s still a place for Juvenal in the 21st century. Some things never change in society.


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