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The Augustan Art of Poetry: Augustan Translation of the Classics.

The Augustan Art of Poetry: Augustan Translation of the Classics. By ROBIN SOWERBY. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006. x+368 pp. 50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-0-19928612-6.

Robin Sowerby embraces The Augustan, and not just in his title. Shared aesthetic--rather than political--values are central to this study and, if one can accommodate oneself to such an unfashionable (or unreal) divorce between poetry and politics, one should read (and think) on.

Determined, unlike Pope, to spare the blushes of Horace 'and Virgil too', Sowerby will not concentrate upon their laureate sycophancy, but upon the sucking of their artistic figs by English imitators, anxious to add a smooth sweetness to the vernacular. Indeed, 'sweetness' is a quality much appreciated in this study, both by the translating poets and by the enthusiastic author. In translating Virgil and cultivating the 'Mother-tongue' the sweetness of a Waller must be tempered by the strength of a Denham, to produce the' Easie Vigor' of a Dryden (see pp. 86-95). What Vida found in Virgil, what Johnson found in Dryden, and what Sowerby values throughout, is stylistic refinement and rhetorical decorum; a metrical polish rubbing off from golden and silver poets.

In the imperial processes of plunder and refinement there are no dirty hands; no tarnish of plagiarism adheres. As Marcus Hieronymus Vida explains in his neo-Latin verse treatise De arte poetica (1517), we must batten on the' ancients' and' make their golden sentences our own'. Even a line of 'rude unpolish' d Bard [...] from unsightly Rust I may refine, | And with a better Grace, adopt it into mine' (p. 47). Vida here is rust remover and Italian polisher, like his hero Virgil, 'Phoebus' undoubted son!--who clears the rust | From the great Ancients'. Sowerby's chapter on Vida as a Renaissance mediator of neoclassicism offers a particularly valuable consideration of Christopher Pitt's 1726 verse translation, examining also key Latin terms such as 'translatos' (literary transplanting) and 'transtulit' (translation/transference); the metaphorical grafting of 'translatio' involves a triad of appropriation, cultivation, and improvement (p. 49).

In its exploration of the relationship between neoclassicism of the Roman Augustan aesthetic and the neoclassicism of its Renaissance and Enlightenment counterpart this book has significant value, not least in the sensitive poetic analysis it generously affords. The concentration upon such close, comparative, and nuanced reading is most welcome, but it is Sowerby's own neoclassical aesthetic that proves a problem. The blurb announces 'a strong apologia for the fine artistry of the Augustans', and such is the author's belief in what Weinbrot termed 'the Classical Norm', he seems firmly to have adopted 'an Augustan perspective'. If some of Sowerby's moderns have surpassed their venerable models, his final section redraws the battle lines as he harangues twentieth-century translators of the classics (Lowell, Hughes, Ferry) for lacking Augustan artistry. 'Translation', as Kenneth Rexroth wrote, 'saves you from your contemporaries.'

In Pope's notes to The Iliad he justifies his avoidance of the word' ass': '[A] Translator owes so much to the Taste of the Age in which he lives, as not to make too great a Complement to a former' (p. 336). Arguably, Sowerby fails to acknowledge this debt to contemporary tastes. Pope recognizes the very necessary but impossible negotiations between a translated civilization and a translator's culture. Sowerby is not unaware of the historical situatedness of translation, embedded within its own culture and the formal properties of literature favoured by that culture. If then those considerations of form are dictated by the very texts which are the subject of translation, a dangerously 'loopy' circuit is approached where it can be said with Jorge Luis Borges that 'The original is unfaithful to the translation'. As Homer sang, in the 'plain English' of Richmond Lattimore's 1951 translation: 'The tongue of a man is a twisty thing [...] The sort of thing you say is the thing that will be said to you' (Iliad, xx. 248-50).

There was a fair sprinkling of typos: 'superns' (p. 18), 'scultpture' (p.35),'Rapidilty' and 'Bernard' (p. 58), etc.; and the index entry for Waller is incomplete. Despite all the preceding reservations, this is an important study of literary translations which minutely covers much ground between the Maronolatry of Vida and the '[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of Madame Dacier. Sowerby firmly keeps' his eye on the object' and turns ours back to Dryden's Virgil and Pope's Homer with a renewed zest.


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Author:Franklin, Michael J.
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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