An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2016

Roman Literature: Translation, Metaphor & Empire

Shadi Bartsch
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The Romans understood that translation entails transformation. The Roman term “translatio” stood not only literally for a carrying-across (as by boat) of material from one country to another, but also (metaphorically) for both linguistic translation and metaphorical transformation. These shared usages provide a lens on Roman anxieties about their relationship to Greece, from which they both transferred and translated a literature to call their own. Despite the problematic association of the Greeks with pleasure, rhetoric, and poetic language, the Roman elite argued for the possibility of translation and transformation of Greek texts into a distinctly Roman and authoritative mode of expression. Cicero’s hope was that eventually translated Latin texts would replace the Greek originals altogether. In the end, however, the Romans seem to have felt that effeminacy had the last laugh.

SHADI BARTSCH is the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics and the Program in Gender Studies at the University of Chicago. She is the author of (inter aliaPersius: A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural (2015) and The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire (2006). She is also the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Seneca (with Alessandro Schiesaro, 2015) and Seneca and the Self (with David Wray, 2009).

Recent work on Roman literature has turned to the act of translation as a fundamental and defining feature of the Roman literary corpus. The focus on translation is not new, per se; both the Romans and the scholars who have written about them acknowledge that Roman literature originated in the appropriation and translation of Greek texts. Roman literature was thus already “secondary,” “belated,” “imitative,” even as the Romans mused on the paradox of taking to their collective bosom the literature of a conquered empire. What is novel about the current approach is the understanding that Roman discourse on the origins of their literature entailed a complicated ideological battle fraught with implications for their social, cultural, and political thought. Recent scholarship has focused, inter alia, on literary production as a tool for elite self-definition; on the creative nature of what the Romans loosely called “translation”; on Roman epigraphy and how Greek source-texts are treated in Roman inscriptions.1  What is already clear is that the notions of “imitation,” “translation,” and “transmittal” that were so basic to the old denigration of Roman literature actually involved creative processes that laid down a challenge to their source-texts, provided grounds for competitive claims within Roman culture, and ultimately fed into a broad nexus of concerns about foreign influence, native character, and the dangers of empire. .  .  .

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  • 1For examples of these approaches, see Bernard Bertolussi, Madeleine Keller, Sophie Minon, and Lyliane Sznajder, eds., Traduire, Transposer, Transmettre dans l'Antiquité gréco-romaine (Paris: Éditions Picard, 2009); Maurizio Bettini, Vertere: un'antropologia della traduzione nella cultura antica (Turin: Einaudi, 2012); Alessandro Garcea, “Aulu-Gelle, Probus et le problème de la traduction des textes poétiques,” in Traduire, Transposer, Transmettre dans l'Antiquité gréco-romaine, ed. Bertolussi et al., 17–26; John Glucker and Charles Burnett, eds., Greek into Latin from Antiquity Until the Nineteenth Century (London: The Warburg Institute, 2012); Bernard Kytzler, “Fidus interpres: The Theory and Practice of Translation in Classical Antiquity,” Antichthon 23 (1989): 42–50; Siobhán McElduff and Enrica Sciarrino, eds., Complicating the History of Western Translation: The Ancient Mediterranean in Perspective (Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 2011); Siobhán McElduff, Roman Theories of Translation: Surpassing the Source (New York: Routledge, 2013); Christian Nicolas, “La note de traducteur antique et le niveau méta de la traduction, ou Quand la patte du traducteur se prend dans le fil du texte,” in Traduire, Transposer, Transmettre dans l'Antiquité gréco-romaine, ed. Bertolussi et al., 61–89; Frederick M. Rener, InterpretatioLanguage and Translation from Cicero to Tytler (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989); Diana Spencer, “Horace and the Con/straints of Translation,” in Complicating the History of Western Translation, ed. McElduff and Sciarrino, 101–116; Astrid Seele, Römische Übersetzer, Nöte, Freiheiten, Absichten: Verfahren des literarischen Übersetzens in der griechisch-römischen Antike (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1995); Anna Svenbro, “Théoriser la traduction à la fin de l'Antiquité et au début du Moyen Âge: Quelques glissements sémantiques,” in Traduire, Transposer, Transmettre dans l'Antiquité gréco-romaine, ed. Bertolussi et al., 9–16; Alfonso Traina, “Le traduzioni,” in Lo spazio letterario di Roma antica, Volume II, La circolazione del testo, ed. Guglielmo Cavallo, Paolo Fedeli, Andrea Giardina (Rome: Salerno Editrice, 1989), 93–123; Thomas N. Habinek, The Politics of Latin Literature: Writing, Identity, and Empire in Ancient Rome (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998); and Sophia G. Papaioannou, “The Translation Politics of a Political Translation: The Case of Augustus’ Res Gestae,” in Complicating the History of Western Translation, ed. McElduff and Sciarrino, 62–74.