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Translating Caesar's 'Gaul'

Julius Caesar’s own account of his nine years at war may be “the best bad man’s book ever written,” writes University Librarian Jim O’Donnell in the introduction of his new translation of Caesar’s work, “The War for Gaul.” 

Caesar was a bad man, certainly, writes O’Donnell, but the book he wrote was magnificent – “clear, vivid, and dramatic, a thing to be remembered and read for the ages.”

Here, O’Donnell, a distinguished classicist and professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, discusses why he’s inviting readers – “brave readers” – to take an unflinching look at an unnecessary war, led by a politically ambitious and amoral man, who, among other things, was a master of language.

“There is no denying that this is a great work of literature, one of the greatest,” writes O’Donnell, “and at the same time, there should be no denying that it is a bad man’s book about his own bad deeds.”

Question: Most people don’t think of the legendary Caesar as also being a great storyteller (who apparently exceeded in time management). What about his book is significant? 

O'Donnell: First of all it's a great yarn. Let your imagination play with what it was like for a bunch of landlubber soldiers who'd never seen open water outside the Mediterranean try to navigate by the thousands across the English channel and only then learn about what tides and currents can do. Caesar is very dry about it all, but vivid nonetheless. 

But it's also a book that obvious gets a lot of its interest from the fate of its author. The Caesar we meet in the story and the one who writes down the year's doings every winter back in Italy wasn't yet the Caesar of history, so we get to see him on the make, spinning his yarn to play back home, staging what are almost 'media events' to impress the voters. It's a "you are there" moment of huge importance in world history.

Q: You’ve written that Cormac McCarthy would be an ideal writer of the story of Caesar in Gaul. How do you distinguish yourself from other translators of Caesar?

O'Donnell: I keep it short, like Caesar: clean, crisp. I thought it was time to strip away some of the chatty helpfulness of other translations and let Caesar write the book he wanted.

Q: Your translation includes a map of Gaul and comes with year-by-year introductions for each part of the story. How do these elements work in the retelling of Caesar’s story?

O'Donnell: Caesar is the magician who wants us to look where he wants us to look. I'm the guy who wants you to see how he's doing his tricks and what he's really up to. The introductions are meant to put you in his mind as he wrote, juggling military and political realities and looking to make some serious money out of his time in Gaul as well. I think you can enjoy the book more if you know all the things he doesn't want to tell you while he's telling you the ones he does.

Q: What did you learn in the process of translating Caesar’s story? Were there any surprises along the way?

O'Donnell: The book we get from the ancient manuscripts is in eight 'commentaries', basically one for each year of his time in Gaul. But he never wrote one for the last two years, so that got filled in later by one of his colonels, a man named Aulus Hirtius. By the time I got to that part, I'd been translating for a good while, rocking and rolling with Caesar's prose, when suddenly –  when you start that last book – it's like going off-road in the mud in a Volkswagen beetle. The story is there and that's important, but I hope my translation makes it as clear as the Latin does that Caesar is the great writer here and Hirtius is, well, a better colonel than he is a writer. My notes try to show just how clunky he can be and to let the reader then really feel how great Caesar –  the writer – was. (Caesar the general and politician? Make up your own mind.)

O'Donnell will lead a talk about his new translation of Caesar's "Gaul" at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, at 7 p.m., Wednesday, April 10.