“How To Drink” (Book Review)

It is often forgotten that Latin was a primary European language of education and literature until the late eighteenth century.  University lectures were conducted in Latin; textbooks, treatises, doctoral dissertations, legal work, and government publications were composed in Latin; and scientific and religious tracts were written in Latin.  There was a thriving vernacular literature in prose and poetry in every country, of course, but this arrangement co-existed (sometimes uneasily) with the official standard.  Scholars and officials frequently debated the extent to which the vernaculars should replace Latin.  Yet anyone wanting to reach an international audience—which in those days meant the breadth of the European continent—needed to be proficient in the language.  Among the competitive and tussling European states, its neutrality and prestige meant that it was the only language accepted as an international vehicle.

And yet the Latin literature of the late period (i.e., the Renaissance and post-Renaissance) scarcely receives any attention.  The Reformation and its aftermath witnessed the rise of the printing press; within the space of a few years, pamphlets, books, and poems could be found nearly everywhere.  This ferment was strongest in northern Europe, particularly in Germany, which continued on paper the battles that were being waged with sword and lance.  But disorder, and the passions of the era, served as catalysts for literary creativity.

It is against this backdrop that we must view Vincent Obsopoeus’s On the Art of Drinking (De Arte Bibendi).  Obsopoeus’s name is nearly forgotten today, but his sparkling work has just been given a new lease on life with Dr. Michael Fontaine’s wonderful new translation.  Fontaine knows, as few others do, the nuances of Latin poetry of this period.  His previous translation, a modern rendering of the fearsomely difficult satirical poem The Pig War, shows that he is ideally placed for the task of presenting Obsopoeus to a contemporary audience.

In place of Obsopoeus’s original (and somewhat antiseptic) title, Fontaine has correctly opted for the more colloquial How to Drink.  This perfectly matches the content.  For this poem is a good-humored manual on how to drink alcohol:  who to drink with, whether songs should be sung, how to win drinking games, and other related subjects.  The Art of Drinking was published in Latin verse in 1536 and went through several editions.  It circulated widely, and was eventually placed on the Church’s Index of prohibited volumes, probably due to suspicion that it would encourage intemperance.

This seems excessive.  Obsopoeus, at heart, had honorable purposes.  He was no loose epicurean, no unrestrained inebriate.  Alcohol abuse was widespread in his era, and Obsopoeus knew that it was wiser to try to moderate drinking behavior, rather than forbid it.  There was arguably even a self-improvement impulse behind his poem, as Fontaine explains:

Warning us against the siren song of excessive drinking, therefore, the first two books of The Art of Drinking teach us not how to abstain from drinking, but how to get control of it [italics mine], how to win friends and impress people at social gatherings, and how to live up to our potential.  In the third book, the mask slips and Obsopoeus tells us how to win competitive drinking games, citing extensive personal experience.   

Who was this author, this Vincent Obsopoeus?  As Fontaine explains in his translation’s introduction, he was born in 1498 near Nuremberg.  He was an active translator of various classical and modern works, and may have provided instruction to students.  He married a local woman named Margaretha Herzog in 1532, but a detailed account of his life is lacking.  He seems to have been a moody and irascible personality, given to thin-skinned grudges and long-nurtured resentments.  And yet this rather difficult man has left posterity with the oldest, and probably the best, treatise ever written on the recreational consumption of alcoholic beverages.

Fontaine’s translation opts for a colloquial, informal tone throughout, and this is exactly the right choice.  As he explains in his introduction:

[M]y aim was to transmute Obsopoeus’s thought and spirit into clear and idiomatic English as it is spoken in the United States today, especially as I hear it spoken on college campuses.  This has necessitated the use of some metaphors that will jar readers if taken literally.  For example, Obsopoeus frequently addresses iuvenes, a word I translate as “college kids” or simply “kids.”  Why?  Because in 2020, nothing else will do:  “young men” or “young people” is hectoring, “guys” is off, and “youths”—the dictionary meaning—is ridiculous.

This excerpt gives the reader a good idea of the kinds of choices that translators must make when faced with an older text.  Compromises and accommodations must inevitably be made, some of which will arouse the pedantic commentary of critics.  But herein lies the translator’s challenge.  The real question seems to be:  does the translation match the tone of the original, and does it congeal as a whole?  The answer here is an unqualified yes.  Consider this passage, found on page 189 of the hardcover edition:

Finally, don’t be shortsighted.  Don’t let the years of precious time you’ve been granted pass with nothing to show for them, the way you’ve been doing, and don’t cheat your innocent parents worrying about you back home by wasting time and money.  Don’t add fire to fire or flames to flames:  let sober water temper your wine.  The origin of Bacchus, born of a mother who got burned up by a bolt of lightning, recommends this manner of drinking…Ever since, Bacchus has loved hooking up with water-nymphs.  If you follow His example, you’ll be drinking fire.

The mixing of sound life advice with ribald humor is a feature of How to Drink, and it is one that Fontaine’s translation expertly highlights.  In Fontaine’s hands, Obsopoeus comes alive; he has not so much been translated as he has been resurrected from the dead.  Nearly every page contains a phrase meant to tease a smile from the reader’s face.  A great service has been done to literature here, by restoring to recognition a comedic poet who appreciated the need for fusing philosophy with unapologetic good cheer.  I should also mention that How to Drink has been very attractively published.  The hardcover edition is small, sturdy, almost pocket sized, with some fascinating details on the names and appearances of classical drinking vessels.  The original Latin text is also provided on facing pages.  It is hoped that this thoroughly enjoyable work generates wider interest in other Latin works of the period.  There is much out there that remains undiscovered.