Spending more than a year reading a book word by word tested the patience of Joel Relihan, a Wheaton College classics professor. The end result was the first American English translation of a certain Latin classic in about 40 years.
Relihan translated Apuleius' "The Golden Ass (Or, A Book of Changes)," a 300-page book available from Hackett Publishing (www.hackettpublishing.com). He says his daily routine involved "sitting at a table, surrounded by books, with a computer in front of you, and typing it in."
And while he never considered quitting along the way, "there are times when (Apuleius) would drive me crazy."
"He's a rhetorical author, and the story is written to excite a certain amount of wonder in the audience," Relihan says. "But that doesn't mean he thinks all of the details through."
Set in the second century A.D., the story follows a young man whose fascination with witchcraft results in his transformation into a donkey, Relihan explains. The donkey spends a year trying to get the antidote to the spell.
Although unfamiliar to most readers, the story is considered one of the "big name Latin classics," Relihan says.
"I was kind of surprised to find out that many of my colleagues know nothing about 'The Golden Ass,'" he says. "In classical circles, everybody knows it."
Apuleius' story was "lost for a long time" before "one good manuscript" was found during the 1400s, copied and imitated, Relihan says. He embarked on his translation of the work after having done some translation for Hackett Publishing in 2000.
"Hackett is eager to have a complete catalog of philosophical and classical texts. They liked my work," Relihan says. "I've found that I have a skill, I have a knack, for translation. I think I do it well."
Relihan, 52, now in his 15th year at Wheaton, says his routine would start at breakfast. "I'd sit down to work with a cup of coffee and I'd start to look at the first sentence. I'd try to come up with a good translation."
Each work day would include a lunch break and finish by 5 p.m. He would work four or five hours a day, five or six days a week.
"I kept a log for a while: how much did I get done that day," Relihan wsays. "Two pages a day was a very good day."
Relihan had planned to take a sabbatical in the spring of 2006 to do the translation. However, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which postponed those plans until after his surgery.
Relihan says Wheaton officials were very supportive. "Most people don't get a semester off for an operation and recovery, and then go back on sabbatical," he says. "I consider myself really fortunate."
His Latin roots date back to the fall of 1969, when he started high school in his hometown of Elgin, Ill. "In reality, I've never stopped. I've never left school, and I've never not read Latin," Relihan said.