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Henryk Sienkiewicz

Sienkiewicz was noted for his inordinate ability to paint word pictures of places and events and thereby to bring readers to worlds otherwise unknown to them. An example of this is his description of the Forum Romanum, the very center of ancient Rome. Historically, the description, which comes from Chapter 2 of Quo Vadis, is also very accurate.

As their litters were carried into streets that were crowded, the throng's hubbub hindered conversation. From the Vicus Apo!linis they turned into the Roman Forum. On clear days, before sunset, the Forum was filled with crowds of people idly strolling about among the columns, to share the news and hear the latest gossip, to see the litters of the illustrious passing by, and to look into jewelers' stores, book shops, booths where money changers plied their trade, shops where silk was sold, or where one could buy articles made of bronze and so on. There were many such in the buildings crowding the side of the square opposite the Capitol Hill.

Half of the Forum, that lying right below the cliff whereon stood the imperial palace, was already enveloped in shadow, but the columns of the temples situated higher on the slopes shone in golden tones against the deep blue sky, while those lower down cast long shadows on the marble slabs. And everywhere the buildings and columns were packed together as if too close for comfort, so many that one's line of sight lost itself among them as in a forest. They rose one above the other, progressed to the right and left, climbed the hills, hugged the palace walls and each other. Like tree trunks, taller and shorter, thicker and thinner, golden and white, some blossoming under the architraves with acanthus flowers, some with curled lonian horns, yet others capped by simple Doric squares. Above this forest, glistened colorful triglyphs. Over them, sculpted images of the gods leaned forward from the pediments. And above them yet, chariots, drawn by winged steeds, four abreast, seemed posed to fly into the deep blue yonder, which hung serenely over the city of crowded temples.

Through the center of the Forum and along its sides flowed a river of humanity. Crowds strolled under the arches of the Julian law court, sat on the steps of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, and sauntered around the Temple of Vesta, looking, on this great marble tableau, like swarms of multicolored butterflies or beetles. From on high, from the Temple dedicated to Jupiter, Optimo Maximo, down the great staircase, flowed fresh waves. By the Rostra they listened to impromptu orators. Here and there one could hear the shouts of street merchants selling fruit, wine, or water mixed with the juice of figs, of confidence men recommending marvelous nostrums, fortunetellers, diviners of hidden treasures, and interpreters of dreams. ln places, the sounds of zithers, Egyptian harps and Greek flutes mixed with the noise of shouts and the hum of conversations. Here and there the sick, the pious and the troubled were carrying offerings to the temples. Flocks of pigeons, eager for the offered seed, darted about the stone slabs and among the people, like mottled and dark stains, and took to the air with the rustle of wings, only to glide down again and alight in areas vacated by the throng. From time to time, the clusters of people parted to make way for litters wherein one could glimpse the elegant visages of women, senators or knights whose set features seemed as if worn by life. The multilingual populace voiced their names, adding nicknames, jeers or praise. Among the formless groups, detachment of soldiers and civil guards made their way with measured steps, assuring public order. Greek could be heard as frequently as Latin.

(translation by Peter K. Gessner)
The Temple of Julius Caesar
Basilica Julia
Modern recreation of the Basilica

The intricacies of translation
by Peter Gessner

There have been at least five translations of Quo Vadis published in the United States. Obviously, each translator is tempted by the ambition of rendering the original into English better than the those who sought to do so before. Translating is partly an art: the most literal translation not only may be ungainly, but also misleading,

In the translation above, for example, the second sentence of the third paragraph begins with "Crowds strolled under the arches of the Julian law court...". A literal translation of the original would read: "The throng wondered under the arches of the basilica of Julius Caesar," and that indeed is how Binion and Malevsky (1887) and Curtin (1898) did translate it. However, that term "basilica" is currently used in the United States almost exclusively with references to a type of church, and so it is misleading.

Given that there were no churches in the Forum Romanum during the reign of Nero, the sentence might be taken to refer to a temple. Indeed, that is how Kuniczak (1993) translated the it, to wit: "Crowds pushed among the arches of the temple of Julius Caesar," adding, by way of explanation, "now an official god," words not to be found in Sienkiewicz's text.

As it happens, there was a temple to Julius Caesar in the Forum, but Roman temples did not have arches. Sienkiewicz had visited the site of the Forum Romanum and studied it: his description in the original is very accurate. So, because he used the term "arches," it is clear he was not making reference to the temple. He meant the Basilica Julia, the arches of which are still in evidence today. It was called "Julia" because it had been built by Julius Caesar for the hearing of civil cases. That is, it was a law court. The structure was called a basilica because of its architectural form, derived, originally, from that of Greek royal courts where in the local king (Greek: basileus) would sit in judgment at one end of a hall. The structure would have a long broad central nave flanked by colonnaded aisles. The far end of the nave terminated in an apse, or semicircular projection, covered with a vault. In the apse stood a raised tribune, or platform, on which, in Roman times, sat the praetor or judge. Later, when this and other basilicas were appropriated for Christian churches, this became the location of the high altar. How big was the basilica Julia? It was an imposing building with a nave that was 236 feet in length and 85 feet in width.

Creation of a translation that accurately renders the original author's intent can require the translator not only to be fluently bilingual but often also to have extensive knowledge of the matter discussed, as the paragraphs above attest. It's a tall order.

The above was first published in the October 1997 issue of the Monthly Bulletin of the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo


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