Sunday, November 30, 2014

Avianus tranlated by David R. Slavitt

We're all familiar with Aesop's fables but I had never heard of Avianus before so when I came across a copy I snatched it up and read it.

The Roman writer Avianus lived four centuries after Christ. By this time the Roman Empire had become the Holy Roman Empire, but Avianus was still a pagan and his fables reflect his personal beliefs.  His stories are a little longer than Aesop's but never more than a page long and are as often as not about people as animals and their dealings with each other as well as the usual interference-for good or bad- with the ancient Roman gods.  I did not realize how tenaciously some people still held on to those pagan beliefs, even centuries into the A.D. years.

The stories are pithy and can be extremely sarcastic at times.  They are not really moral lessons for children so much as social commentaries for adults.  They can also be witty and poignant.  One such fable is of a cute baby contest that Jupiter held on earth.  For a joke he chose the monkey's baby.  Everyone laughed at such an ugly little baby being chosen.  The mother monkey cherished her baby all the more, proclaiming Jupiter's judgement as affirmation of her own love for her child.  Everyone laughed even more but then fell silent "in awe of such blind passion."

Another fable goes as such:

Ooh la, la!  The leopard preens, 
glides along, sashays, parades
its grand rosettes. No jungle scene's
so grand as when a leopard's there,
with its gorgeous pelt and that debonaire
bon ton.  "The lion's beauty fades,

to a tawny insignificance
in comparison," the beast maintains,
so pleased with himself.  But then, by chance, 
a fox pops up to say, "Come, come, 
you're handsome enough.  But dumb, dumb, dumb!
What are good looks compared with brains?"

The Translator David R. Slavitt takes some license in translating the fables and putting them in poem form.  He also doesn't shy from using modern vernacular and idioms.  So unless we can read Latin we'll never know how accurate his translation is, however, I think the spirit of Avianus' work must come through.  At least someone's quick, penetrating spirit does.  We'll have to trust Slavitt that it is Avianus' wit and candour but perhaps colored by Slavitt's own.


  1. I also had never heard of Avianus before.

    The fable that you quoted does indeed seem playful. It may very well be that the translator has captured the spirit of the original. I do wonder about translated works however.

    1. Brian: It's true. Unless we can speak the original languages we're at the mercy of the translator. I often wonder who provides the best translations of my favorite Russian authors. I tend to choose the ones that I see most frequently. I assume they're the most trustworthy.


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