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The Economics of Translating Virgil: a Prospectus

Susanna Braund

University of British Columbia

Reading Virgil was an expensive proposition from the earliest times. So much is clear from the lavishly illustrated fifth century 'codex Romanus' (Vat. Lat. 3867) down to William Morris' stunning collaboration with Edward Burne-Jones on a de luxe illustrated manuscript of the Aeneid (1873-75). The same applies to translations of Virgil. A striking example from the Early Modern period is the first French verse translation of the Aeneid: Octovien de Saint-Gelais presented his gorgeous manuscript, written on vellum, to Louis XII in 1500 as a gift designed to commend him to the new ruler. It is a long journey from such unique, personalized, luxury items to the relatively inexpensive translations manifested in series such as the Bohn Classical Library (launched 1848), the Everyman Library (1905), the Loeb Classical Library (1912), the Budé (1914) and the Penguin Classics (1946).

In my paper, I shall investigate aspects of the economics of translating Virgil during the first two centuries of the print era with particular attention to the relationships of translators with their patrons, publishers and printers, in Italy, France and Britain. During these two centuries, two complementary and sometimes competing instincts are visible: a desire to satisfy the elite's need for exclusive badges of culture and an impulse to extend the vernacularization of this canonical author by producing accessible translations with more assistance for less educated readers.

My paper will offer brief examples designed to provoke further enquiries: (1) about the power relations involved in initiating or commissioning translations, for example Anguillara's unsuccessful cold calling on potential patrons (1564) as opposed to the composite French and Italian volumes commissioned by publishers; (2) about the ambitions of expensive folio editions, including those Helisenne de Crenne (1541), John Ogilby (1654) and John Dryden (1697), which was the first major translation financed by subscription; (3) about diachronic trends, whereby expensive folio editions (for example, in France, 1514, 1529, 1532, 1540, 1541) give way to smaller, more manageable quarto and octavo formats; (4) about the economic implications of choices whether to print the translation alone, or with facing or surrounding Latin text or marginal notes, or with headings or illustrations; (5) about the messages conveyed by title pages and frontispieces: there is huge variation in the prominence of the names of Virgil, the title of the work, the translator, the publisher, the printer and the dedicatee.

Session/Panel Title

Translation and Transmission: Mediating Classical Texts in the Early Modern World

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