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Oscar Wilde's Translation of Petronius: The Story of a Literary Hoax Rod Boroughs Pembroke College, Cambridge IN 1902 A NEW ENGUSH TRANSLATION of Petronius's comic novel, the Satyricon, was issued in Paris by the publisher Charles Carrington in an edition limited to 515 copies (The Satyricon of Petronius: A New Translation with Introduction and Notes). This handsomely designed volume, printed on fine quality hand-made paper with excellent typography, including ornamentations and ranning plot-summaries done in brilliant red, was obviously produced as a commercial venture. It is not, however, without certain scholarly pretensions: it has a lengthy introduction cobbled together with quotations from eminent contemporary critics, as well as numerous explanatory footnotes, a bibliography ("list of books used") containing references—some very muddled—to the major editions, translations and critical studies of the Satyricon, a synopsis of the plot, and an index (of "words, subjects and authors"). While it is evident from the critical notes that Biicheler's authoritative edition was consulted for some of the more corrupt passages,1 the translation follows for the most part a very inferior text. Lake almost all the early versions of Petronius, it incorporates the Nodot supplements (which are not distinguished from Petronius in the text itself); it also renders Marchena's forgery into English for the first time.2 The translation itself is not bad, making up in pace and vigour what it lacks in accuracy and polish, although it has to be admitted that it borrows rather freely from the three previous English translations of the Satyricon , especially for the novel's poetic inserts, more than half of which are either appropriated verbatim or slightly adapted from Burnaby, Addison , and Kelly.3 (For instance, the translation of the miniature epic ELT 38 :1 1995 poem, the Bellum Civile, is Addison's.) Moreover, certain turns of expression indicate that a French translation was also extensively used.4 Whatever its shortcomings, this edition does hold the distinction of being the first new English translation for over 150 years not to have expurgated any of the Satyricon'a sexual episodes and other so-called obscenities. Its chief interest, however, lies elsewhere, in the identity of the translator. His name does not appear on the title-page, but the publisher sent out each copy with a printed slip pasted over the imprimatur which read: IMPORTANT NOTICE The present translation was done direct from, the original Latin by "Sebastian Melmoth" (Oscar Wilde). As is well known, Sebastian Melmoth was the pseudonym adopted by Oscar Wilde during his final years as an exile on the continent. The intriguing attribution, though appealing for a number of reasons, has always been doubted by Petronian scholars. It was rejected outright, for example, by Sir Stephen Gaselee in his bibliography of Petronius on the grounds that the style was simply not good enough to be Wilde, and because the publisher, when challenged, was unable to produce the manuscript.5 Gaselee's colleague, Matthew Stirling, approved of the translation but did not give any credence to the Wilde attribution, remarking that "no one has given the name of the real translator and it would be interesting to know who he was."6 Gaselee and Stirling's successors in the field of Petronian bibliography, Schmeling and Stuckey, are not convinced by the attribution either: although they refer to it as "the most intriguing English translation [of Petronius]," they concede that it is "almost certainly not by Wilde."7 Evan T. Sage, the author of what is still the only commentary on the Satyricon in English, is slightly less dismissive, merely observing that "it is impossible to determine Wilde's connection with [the translation]."8 Harry C. Schnur considers the work to be "only a curiosity" among English translations of Petronius; but while he too regards Wilde's authorship as improbable, he does introduce a slight element of doubt: "The ascription may be based on no more than Wilde's affinity to the subject matter, though it should be remembered that he did very well in classics both at Trinity 10 BOROUGHS : WILDE College, Dublin, and at Magdalen."9 Luca Canali is less cautious, describing Wilde as "[U] probabile autore di...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 9-49
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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