Poem of the Month / The PACK Admires POTM: Catullus’  Posted by Joseph Spece on January 9, 2012  Reason blinded by sin, Lesbia, a mind drowned in its own devotion: come clothed in your excellences— I cannot think tenderly of you, sink to what acts you dare— I can never cut this love. —Catullus (Trans. Peter Whigham) Like this:Like Loading... Related #Catullus#Peter Whigham#Poetry Post navigation ← Amy Beeder’s “Dear Drought” Michelle Boisseau’s “Among the Gorgons” → About Joseph Spece 'Here, Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity.' View all posts by Joseph Spece → 9 thoughts on “POTM: Catullus’ ” It isn’t fair to Catullus to describe Charles Martin’s poem as a translation of his Poem 75, Huc est mens deducta. Here’s a translation: To this is my mind reduced, Lesbia, by your cheating, and so much has it wrecked itself in serving you that now it could not wish you well if you became perfect or stop loving you no matter what you do. This sticks to the sense, syntax & grammar of the Latin. What makes Catullus particularly hard to translate is his combination of formal verse & rhetorical poise with personal subject and mixed diction. Notice how many fashion faults Catullus commits! To bad — no MFA for him! Jim, thanks very much for this. Quite honestly, the sheer amount of varying translations of this short piece speak to the difficulty of its ‘translatability.’ Having to balance interpretive nuance with faithfulness to the text is no easy job, especially in verse. Your analysis of the nuts and bolts of what makes Catullus difficult to translate is very helpful: ‘his combination of formal verse & rhetorical poise with personal subject and mixed diction.’ In terms of ‘fashion faults,’ I’d have to disagree with you about Catullus’ ability to graduate with an MFA: nothing’s more in vogue now than the ‘slight.’ Because of its pointedness, perhaps, I hold tight to Mr. Martin’s ‘translation.’ Actually I didn’t mean to refer to Catullus’s epigrammatic concision as violating current official fashion but to his construction of his poem entirely out of rhetorical poise and psychological-social abstractions — notably “culpa,” which means ‘fault, guilt, defect, wrongdoing, and sometimes specifically, cheating’ and definitely not ‘sin’ in the Latin of Catullus’s time — and “officium” — “serving”, ‘service, function, duty, role, and sometimes ‘sexual service’ — and not “devotion.” What Martin’s poem gives us is Martin’s poem. Instead of bringing Catullus’s poem into English, it replaces it with a series of moves which are deemed poetic by current fashion — notably physical imagery — “blinded,” “drowned,” “clothed,” “sink”, and sentiment — “devotion,” “tenderly,” “dare”. Both are elements of poetry which Catullus commands, when he wants to. He doesn’t want to in this poem, which has its own ends in mind — of which the reader of Martin’s poem can have no inkling. There isn’t one phrase in Martin’s poem in direct contact with Catullus’s. In this process we lose Catullus’s sense and we lose his way of making this poem. Whatever you think of Martin’s poem, to call it a “translation” of Catullus is, in a word, bogus. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that. Joseph, Im not addressing the quality of Martins poem. Im questioning the appropriateness of calling it a translation in view of its tenuous relations with the Latin original — which are a matter of fact, not opinion, and so not really a matter for agreement or disagreement but for acknowledgment. We need a term — Dryden offers paraphrase and metaphrase — that is accurate to what Martin is doing with Catullus 75 — which is not accurately described as translation. That sounds wise to me, JP. If this were something from the Italian, I might be able to debate the precise merits of the translation, but I cannot do so in the case of Latin. The bone of contention here is exactly how much latitude the translator is entitled to to bring the vision of the original work to light in translation. To me, translation (of poetry specifically) always involves serious loss, be it in tone, structure, or vocabulary. Yet to be stripped of Foscolo or Tsvetaeva or Rilke completely would be a likewise loss. Meaning: I agree with you that the very first motive of a translator must be faithfulness. Yet is is, for example, R. Howard’s grasp of Baudelaire’s (and his own) sensuality and darkness that made him feel entitled to take certain liberties with LES FLEURS DU MAL, liberties that made poems come to life that seemed previously stiff (to me, at least). How much latitude is too much latitude in something as gnostic as verse? Whether we call Mr. Martin a ‘metaphraser’ or a ‘translator,’ he is doing a service to the original —the literal translation of which is a real husk. As a poet, I’ll use my own sensibilities to wager that Catullus would feel more indebted to a sensitive translator who took measured liberties (and I recall that you question how ‘measured’ Martin’s liberties are) than one who stuck to word-by-word translation, even in the face of making bone-dry lines. We are stuck in this, I think: either we translate every writer literally, and then decide who is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (‘Catullus doesn’t translate to English: what a mess he is’) or we acknowledge that translation of verse is a version of alchemy, have faith in the brilliance of the voices that have had some endurance in their native land, and work on making gold from the constituent elements with what mediums we own. Yes, exactly: Catullus’s original Latin is “a husk” — like Lesbia left him — it’s a display of ‘huskiness’ (male tough guy repression of emotions) — of abstraction being used to get distance on emotion — which is, from another angle, Catullus’s alienation from self. Here’s the Latin. It couldn’t be plainer. There is no decoration and no fancy language. Catullus wrote it this way because it works this way. Try Catullus 64 for decoration and fancy language galour. You can read this by the end of first term college Latin grammar (and it’s not a huge step from Renaissance Italian to Latin, either). Huc est mens deducta tua mea, Lesbia, culpa atque ita se officio perdidit ipsa suo, ut iam nec bene velle queat tibi, si optima fias, nec desistere amare, omnia si facias. It’s typical of Catullus that he enacts Lesbia’s enormity by violating the pentameter caesura with the ellision of amare and omnia in the final verse — a good example of just’one characteristic’aspect of Catullus’s challenge to translation. The crib I offered’akes no claims to Poesie. Just to lexical and grammatical accuracy. But that’s enough — with poetic imagination — to make it possible to glimpse Catullus’s poem — like an x-ray shows bones. No such thing is available to Martin’s reader. It’s not impossible to combine considerable fidelity to the original and comparable poetry in a translation, but it’s far more difficult and rare than what Martin does to Catullus 75 or Howard to much of Baudelaire. But Catullus, like Heine, is among the most victimized. He is very difficult, and very various — solving how to do one of his poems may help with a half dozen more, but there are about 120 of them. Highly individuated. Like poetry. I described the version of Catullus 75 included in my first post as “a translation.” It would be more accurate to call it a crib or a pony. It aimed to replicate the original’s grammar, syntax, lexical sense, diction, and sequence of presentation insofar as English grammar and syntax permit — and not allow the pursuit of “poetry” to overrule this primary object. But that done, let’s take it a step furthur: My mind is reduced to this, Lesbia, by your cheating and in your service has ruined itself thus far that now it could not wish you well if you were true or stop loving you no matter what you do. * I especially esteem Robert Duncan’s translation of Nerval’s The Chimeras — in Bending The Bow — for its firm foundation in literality. A key statement of this approach to translation can be found in the original preface to the King James version of the Bible. * The translator of “Reason blinded by sin” is not Charles Martin but Peter Whigham (in his Poems of Catullus from Penguin). It would be interesting to see James Michie’s also (U Chicago?). And Charles Martin’s, if there is one. Thanks for the correction: the translator of this  is indeed Whigham.