Two translations of the Argonautica, by Gaius Valerius Flaccus

Second section of third chapter:

Original Latin:
Tu mihi nunc causas infandaque proelia, Clio,
Pande virum; tibi enim superum data, virgo, facultas
Nosse animos rerumque vias. cur talia passus
Arma, quid hospitiis iunctas concurrere dextras
Iuppiter? unde tubae nocturnaque movit Erinys?

J.H. Mozley translation for the Loeb edition, 1934 (prose):
Do thou, Clio, now unfold the causes that drove the heroes to affrays unspeakable;
since to thee, O Muse, has been vouchsafed the power to know the hearts of the gods
and the ways by which things come to be. Wherefore did Jove suffer such violence,
why that hands once locked in friendship should meet in strife? Wherefore was the
clarion heard, and wherefore did Erinys trouble the night?

1999 translation by David R. Slavitt (verse):
O Clio, my muse, speak now through me to disclose the sad
and all but unspeakable denouement. You know the hearts
and minds of the gods and can fathom their strange behavior toward men.
How could Jove have allowed these heroes’ hands that had clasped
in amity then to be raised against one another in battle?
Where in the score does it say that a clarion’s blast must resound,
and why should the Erinys trouble the peace of this tranquil city?

The story of Jason and the Argonauts is very well known even today, thanks mainly to the 1963 film with its famous Ray Harryhausen animations:

The most famous classical treatment of the story is the Ἀργοναυτικά by Apollonius of Rhodes, written in the third century BC in Greek. The other two classical versions are the so-called Orphic Argonautica, also in Greek and written seven or eight centuries later, and this Latin version, written between 70 and 90 AD during the reigns of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. It’s very much under the shadow of Virgil and Ovid, with lots of battle scenes and references to the mythology in which it is embedded; after a rather slow start it really kicks off with the introduction of Medea, here a very young woman who none the less is skilled in magic and poison, and her betrayal of her homeland to Jason.

I must admit I found the Mozley translation for the Loeb Classicsc almost impenetrable. Slavitt’s more recent effort is much more readable, though he rather overeggs the pudding sometimes – note that in the extract above, the two words “Unde tubae[?]” become the entire line “Where in the score does it say that a clarion’s blast must resound[?]”. The Barich translation sounds promising, and maybe I’ll look at it in future. It’s crying out for a graphic novel interpretation, though possibly would need a bit of trimming.

My reason for reading it is this. In 1565, the London Stationer’s Register records the publication of “The Story of Jaſon, how he gotte the golden flece, and how he did begyle Media, out of Laten into Englische by Nycholas Whyte”. It is generally supposed that the translator was my ancestor Nicholas White, then in the early days of his political career; unfortunately no copy is known to survive. It would have been a serious effort – the Loeb edition, in both Latin and English, is almost 450 pages, and the Slavitt translation, in English only, is 165 pages. It was certainly the first printed version of the legend in English. It would also have been one of the earliest works of verse in English by an Irish writer.

It’s obviously very speculative to try and guess what attracted White to this poem above all others. Like many classical works, it had been recovered less than a century before, the first four and a half chapters found mouldering in St-Gallen in 1416 and printed in Bologna in 1474. White must have been working from one of the more complete early sixteenth-century editions, either the Bologna 1519 or the Aldine Venice 1523 edition (local pride made me hope that he might have been working from the 1565 Antwerp edition, but I don’t think there is enough time for him to get an English translation out in the same year.)

One immediate point of attraction (for both White and me) is that Ireland is actually mentioned twice. In both cases (Chapter 2, line 34, and Chapter 3 line 730) it’s a reference to the far west of the world, sunset in the first case and night in the second. (There is some dispute about whether “Hiberi” or “Hiberas” actually does mean Ireland rather than, say, Iberia, but both Mozley and Slavitt think it does.) I am not aware of a single other mention of Ireland in Latin literature. (The Orphic Argonautica, written centuries later, actually has the Argonauts coming back home by way of Ireland; but it is in Greek.) I think that would automatically make it an appealing subject for a young-ish Irish scholar (White would have been in his late 30s when translating it).

Beyond that, I think there are interesting themes that resonate with White’s life. It’s tempting to read the theme of the military expedition to the eastern edge of the continent in context of the Elizabethan drive to control Ireland on the western edge. The sympathetic treatment of Medea’s struggle between her birth identity and her adoption of Jason’s family identity would have echoes for anyone whose life straddled two cultures. And not least, her expertise with poisons would have been interesting to a translator whose father died in a mass poisoning.

Once I finally get around to writing in more detail about Nicholas White, I’ll reserve a bit more time for getting into this subject as well – there has been a lot of recent scholarship. The poem ends abruptly (most scholars think it was unfinished, but I am not so sure) with Jason attempting to comfort Medea who now doubts that she has made the right choice. Of course she hasn’t; they have both been manipulated by the gods from start to finish, but neither of them really knows it.