A Translator After My Own Heart

Finally I’m reading Livy. To understand Rome, they say, you have to read Livy. And Livy is a truly great read. His history of Rome, which he drew from sources no one else will ever see, can only be described as rollicking. You just can’t summarize it.

It’s like the oddly shaped terrain around my parents’ house in Conway, New Hampshire. Contour maps have been made of it, but they’re a joke. They miss what are, from a hiker’s perspective, enormous hills and ridges and hanging canyons. The geological features of the land are so complex that it would take years to accurately map a single acre.

It’s the same with Roman history. You can make some generalizations about it, but the way it unfolded was always the result of these quirky — indeed, zany — particulars which defy any general characterization.

But I’m very happy with the translator, Aubrey de Selincourt. In his introduction he describes Livy as a consummate stylist — Quintilian, he says, described the “milky plenitude” of Livy’s writing. But does he try to reproduce this style in English? Thankfully, no, and here’s why, in his own words:

“Much nonsense has been talked about the art of translation. Translators have claimed to reproduce the ‘spirit’ of the original: i.e. the subtlest inmost essence of his style. It cannot be done: that subtlest essence lies within the words themselves; change the words and it, too, is inevitably changed.

“Other translators have professed to write as they suppose their original would have written, had he been their contemporary and used their language. This is absurd; if Livy, say, were alive today, and an Englishman, every influence which went to make his style — and there are a million such for every writer — would be utterly different from what it was.

“No: style is too serious a thing to monkey with, or to make pretences about. To try to imitate another man’s style, even the style of the man next door, makes false writing; to try to imitate the style of of a foreign author who has been dead two thousand years is plain silly.”

[A lot of translators — many of them Oxford dons — do this to great writers like Homer and Pushkin, and I think they should be shot, even though they’re dead; they should be dug up and shot. They make Homer and Pushkin sound like windbags.]

“The truth is,” de Selincourt concludes, “that every writer, whether he is translating or not, can write in one style only: his own. I have endeavoured to understand always Livy’s precise meaning and to express it as clearly as I could; but in the following pages milky plenitude is, I fear, conspicuously absent.”