Ab urbe veni.

You may well have seen a story about the recent discovery in London of a Roman stylus with a long and amusing inscription, but if so you probably wondered, as I did, what the Latin said — it’s hard to make out from the published images. Fortunately, I was able to find a MOLA story that provides it:

A unique Roman stylus, with the most elaborate and expressive inscription of its kind is set to go on display for the first time in a new exhibition at the Ashmolean: Last Supper in Pompeii. It was discovered by MOLA archaeologists during excavations for financial technology and information company Bloomberg’s European headquarters in London, on the bank of the river Walbrook – a now lost tributary of the Thames. The iron stylus – used to write on wax-filled wooden writing tablets – dates to around AD 70, just a few decades after Roman London was founded. […]

The inscription has been painstakingly examined and translated by classicist and epigrapher Dr Roger Tomlin. It reads:

‘ab urbe v[e]n[i] munus tibi gratum adf(e)ro
acul[eat]um ut habe[a]s memor[ia]m nostra(m)
rogo si fortuna dar[e]t quo possem
largius ut longa via ceu sacculus est (v)acuus’

‘I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift
with a sharp point that you may remember me.
I ask, if fortune allowed, that I might be able (to give)
as generously as the way is long (and) as my purse is empty.’

In other words: the stylus is a gift to remind the recipient of its sender; the sender acknowledges that it is a cheap gift and wishes that they could have given more. Its tongue-in-cheek sentiment is reminiscent of the kinds of novelty souvenirs we still give today. It is the Roman equivalent of ‘I went to Rome and all I got you was this pen’, providing a touching personal insight into the humour of someone who lived nearly 2000 years ago.

So there you have it. And while I have your attention, I have a problem with a phrase my wife asked me about in the David Magarshack translation of Anna Karenina she’s reading. It’s in Part 5, chapter 21 (emphasis added): “He [Karenin] proposed bed and lavished on his fiancee and his wife all the feeling of which he was capable.” She said it seemed unlikely that the strait-laced Karenin would have directly proposed sex, and I agreed; I dashed off to see what Tolstoy actually wrote, which was “Он сделал предложение и отдал невесте и жене все то чувство, на которое был способен”: ‘He made an offer and gave his fiancee and wife all the feeling of which he was capable.’ In this context, “made an offer” is equivalent to “proposed marriage”; what I am wondering is whether there is an archaic idiom “propose bed” in this sense (the OED doesn’t mention it), or whether Magarshack utterly misunderstood the Russian (which seems unlikely).

Comments

  1. AJP Crown says:

    The word epigraphy makes me want to write an online biography of a porker.

  2. When a pig and a giraffe love each other very much…

  3. A quick look through google books seems to show that for Dickens et al. the phrase “to propose bed” just meant “suggest everyone go to sleep”.

  4. So Magarshack misunderstood either the English phrase or the Russian text. Didn’t anyone at Penguin say “That looks weird”? Evidently not. Those Russians, you can expect anything from them!

  5. Strait-laced, as in, laced tightly and therefore unbending and rigid; you can’t be straight-laced because laces that are straight are not functioning as laces. They are simply bits of string.

  6. Fixed, thanks — good catch!

  7. Sarah Cuthbertson says:

    Thank you so much for the MOLA story! I was puzzling over the Latin till my brain hurt.

  8. Glad to provide relief to a fellow sufferer!

  9. PlasticPaddy says:

    Why not ab urbe ven.? Phrase (with venerabile) is used by later authors.

  10. ktschwarz says:

    And here I thought Language Hat was taking a deliberate stand for straight-laced. M-W, AHD, Macmillan, and New Oxford American Dictionary have all accepted it as a variant (though Microsoft Word hasn’t). Oxford’s usage note:

    As strait is now old-fashioned and unfamiliar, however, people often interpret it as the more usual word straight. Straight-laced and straightjacket are now generally accepted in standard English, and the spelling straight-laced is more common than strait-laced in the Oxford English Corpus.

    Ben Zimmer blogged for OUP on strai(gh)t-laced, free rei(g)n, and vocal c(h)ords back in 2007.

    Three different questions:
    Would I use straight-laced myself? No.
    Would I change it to strait-laced in text that someone asked me to edit? Yes, definitely.
    Can I reasonably conclude that someone who uses straight-laced isn’t well-read in English? No, not now.

  11. I agree with Ben on all counts; in other words, if someone else uses it, that’s fine, but if I use it, I consider it a slip and change it.

  12. Why not ab urbe ven.? Phrase (with venerabile) is used by later authors.

    Google finds no instances of “ab urbe venerabile.”

  13. PlasticPaddy says:

    So sorry LH. For urbs venerabilis in ammianus Marcellinus, see e.g., here.

  14. It seems to have been used only by Ammianus (though Alfonso V much later used the phrase in writing about Barcelona), which makes it unlikely to have been what is meant here.

  15. PlasticPaddy says:

    My problem with ab urbe veni is (a) examples i can find with ab urbe + motion verbs are with going, like exire instead of coming, like venire (b) the engraving uses a pompous period later, so why use a three word sentence here? But I am not a Latinist.

  16. Well, the writer of the inscription might not have been a native speaker.

  17. It’s perfectly natural. How else would you say “I have come from the city”? Vergil, Eclogues 8.109 has “Parcite, ab urbe uenit, iam parcite carmina, Daphnis.”

  18. PlasticPaddy says:

    Oops. I said I was not a Latinist ☺

  19. Or Ovid, trying to conjure up mentally the presence of his family and friends during his exile in Tomis:

    … inque Getas media iussus ab urbe venis.

    Epistulae ex Ponto II.X.50

  20. Also keep in mind that in Latin epistolary style, the thing to do was to use the perspective of the recipient, e.g. to use the past tense for things the writer is doing like has litteras in Tusculo scripsi where we would say “I am writing this letter in Tusculum” (I made this example up, because I don’t have the time to look for a real example). So using “come from” is in line with that usage.

  21. John Cowan says:

    There is also straight and narrow, which < the redundant strait and narrow < Matt 7:14 “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” I definitely prefer the most recent version.

    As for cord and chord, they are simply spelling variants. The OED2 says that the h was added in the 16C, but is now used in the mathematical and musical senses and variably in the anatomical ones: vocal chord is probably reinforced by the musical meaning, which does not apply to spinal cord.

  22. On none of the above topics, this confused me in the Karenina quote

    lavished on his fiancee and his wife

    There are two women in Karenin’s life, and he’s on course to become a bigamist?

    Or there’s one woman to which he is both married and not yet married?

  23. There is also straight and narrow, which < the redundant strait and narrow < Matt 7:14 “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” I definitely prefer the most recent version.

    I agree – because you have “straight” as a pun meaning both physically unbending and morally right (vs “bent” meaning corrupt) and because I like the idea that it’s using “gate” in the Scots/Northern English meaning of a path, variant spelling of “gait”, rather than the normal meaning of a big door.

  24. this confused me in the Karenina quote
    lavished on his fiancee and his wife

    He lavished all the feeling of which he was capable on her, both when she was his fiancee and later when she was his wife.

    Cf. the great “Four Weddings and a Funeral” exchange:
    – How’s your gorgeous girlfriend?

    – She’s no longer my girlfriend.

    – Ah, dear. I wouldn’t get too gloomy about it. Rumour has it she never stopped bonking Toby de Lisle in case you didn’t work out.

    – She is now my wife.

    -Ah. Excellent. Congratulations!

  25. On none of the above topics, this confused me in the Karenina quote

    lavished on his fiancee and his wife

    Whatever confusion there may be is equally present in the Russian: “отдал невесте и жене.”

  26. Whatever confusion there may be is equally present in the Russian

    I was wondering if the ‘proposed bed’ in the Russian was punning on ‘proposal of marriage’; hence temporarily fiancee as well as permanently wife. In which case I was going to say in English it doesn’t work (for me) because it would be quite unexceptional to ‘propose’ many things besides marriage.

    both when she was his fiancee and later when she was his wife

    No: that would have to be talking about an extended period of time; but the action is only talking about this particular evening.

    Similarly the exchange in 4W&1F only works because there’s a twist in the timespan.

  27. I was wondering if the ‘proposed bed’ in the Russian was punning on ‘proposal of marriage’; hence temporarily fiancee as well as permanently wife.

    No, the Russian is perfectly straightforward: he proposed.

  28. This is one of those occasions when I would dearly love to be able to ask the translator what he was thinking.

  29. SFReader says:

    “Sdelat’ predlozhenie” in Russian always meant making marriage proposal, not requesting sex.

    I think the only time it was used to meant something else was in translation of the 1993 Hollywood movie title – “Indecent proposal”

  30. “Sdelat’ predlozhenie” in Russian always meant making marriage proposal, not requesting sex.

    And Magarshack certainly knew that, since he knew Russian from childhood (having been born in Riga), which is why his rendering is so bizarre. The only think I can think is that he wrote it as a little private joke, meaning to take it out before sending in the translation, and then forgot, and nobody at Penguin noticed.

  31. Maybe “proposed bed” began as a sloppily corrected typo or misspelling, which was then misinterpreted during transcription.

    something like “He proposeb^Ced and lavished …”

  32. Maybe it’s a printing error in the Russian and the actual sense is something like “He made a proposal to her – that he would lavish on her, both as his fiancee and as his wife, all the feeling of which he was capable”. My vague sense is that this could happen through printing the past third person singular instead of the present infinitive but my ability to speak Russian is legendary (partly history, mostly never existed).

  33. No, I’m afraid there’s no chance of that.

  34. Having now read the whole chapter in a different translation, and knowing the context, I think AntC is wrong about this:

    No: that would have to be talking about an extended period of time; but the action is only talking about this particular evening.

    The context is a very rapid description of Karenin’s entire life history, and how he ended up married to Anna. It takes three paragraphs to go from his birth to his marriage – I really don’t read it as describing only the events of one particular evening.

    The sentence before it is “But Anna’s aunt had through a common acquaintance insinuated that he had already compromised the girl, and that he was honour bound to make her an offer” and the passage after is “The attachment he felt to Anna precluded in his heart every need of intimate relations with others. And now among all his acquaintances he had not one friend. He had plenty of so-called connections, but no friendships..”

    I’m standing by my initial interpretation that this is a description of a long period of time. The sentence that Hat quotes covers the entire period from Karenin making his offer to pretty much the present day.

  35. Similarly the exchange in 4W&1F only works because there’s a twist in the timespan.

    No, it works because “she’s no longer my girlfriend” is a literally true sentence with a most-likely negative interpretation that is in this case wrong. As in “What’s become of my beloved? What have you done to Miss Fnutt?” “Fnutt will never walk the streets again.” “Why not?” “She’s bought a scooter.” (Goon Show, 1985)

  36. I like mollymooly’s interpretation. Did Magarshack write a draft by hand and have someone else type it up? Perhaps he wrote “proposed then” or “proposed indeed” or crossed out and rewrote the last few letters of “proposed” (proposed sed) and the typist took it as “proposed bed,” and no one caught it.

  37. Yes, that seems as plausible as anything else I can come up with. I wonder if anyone else has noticed this little problem in the decades the translation has been published?

  38. Hello languagehat. I’ve followed this thread with great interest and I’m thrilled to see such vibrant discussion of Magarshack’s text. From the research I have done into Magarshack and his work as a (Penguin) translator (see my Russian dinosaur appearance http://russiandinosaur.blogspot.com/2016/03/when-magarshack-met-penguin-guest-post.html from a few years back), I’m fairly certain that Magarshack wasn’t leaving a deliberate joke – he took his work too seriously – and I’d be surprised if his wife, Elsie, would have let an error of this magnitude slip through (she was effectively her husband’s in-house proof reader). Magarshack did need Elsie’s input but, even with it, some awkward renderings (even if just syntactically) can still be found if you start paying close attention to his work. Theoretically, really significant flaws would also have been picked up by a Penguin editor at the proof stage. (Worth noting is that the Penguin editors didn’t know Russian, so style was *the* main criterion they were checking. I’m afraid I can’t comment with such certainty about Magarshack’s Anna translation, though, as this wasn’t a UK Penguin Classic.)

    One thing I do know, though, having interviewed Magarshack’s daughter several years ago, is that Magarshack employed a typist later in his career. It came to light all too late (after Magarshack had died, I think) that the typist had been using some of her own poetic licence when typing up his scripts. It seems, to the horror of Magarshack’s family, that the typist had been making up her own text in places. (An off-piste-typist!) This might be one of those very examples – Erik M. could be right! I hope that penny’s worth helps 🙂

  39. Wow, that’s the likeliest explanation I’ve seen, and I’ll bet it’s right — what a valuable contribution! Thanks very much for that insight.

  40. John Cowan says:

    I’ve been an off-piste typist in my day, but then I have the copy editor skill and I know my corrections are correct. I wouldn’t do that with a translation, though.

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