Academic journal article Antichthon

Catullus in the Playground

Academic journal article Antichthon

Catullus in the Playground

Article excerpt

Every authentic poem contributes to the labour of poetry . . . its continual labour of reassembling what has been scattered.

John Berger.1

In his manifesto Personism, Frank O'Hara celebrated his own work with the announcement: 'the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.'2 In fact, he says, he was about to write another poem when he realised he could just pick up the telephone instead. Perhaps it is lucky telephones had not been invented when Catullus was writing his poems, which also seem to belong between two persons instead of two pages.

Yet despite the address to a 'you' that characterises many of Catullus' poems, readers do not, as they do when reading a letter addressed to them, typically place themselves in the position of the person addressed. Rather, readers identify with Catullus himself. As G.T. Wright puts it, with full awareness of the a-historicity of such identification:

It's strange to think of Catullus as having my feelings without my background. He'd hardly read anything, not a line of the Romantic poets or Shakespeare, didn't even know English, which is almost a prerequisite for a poet whose subject is me. Somehow he managed, in spite of these classical failings, to blunder into our song.3

Wright here acknowledges difference, even as he insists on identification. George Steiner argues, paradoxically, that this awareness of difference is necessarily concomitant with a sense of contemporaneity:

The true translator is he or she who . . . plunges us into the strangeness of the archaic world, into its distance and darkness and who almost blinds us with the contemporaneity, with the actuality of 'a light that screams across three thousand years' (Logue's talismanic image).4

It is, of course, more usual for translation theory to posit faithfulness to the original text and its original context on the one hand, and a contemporary style and readability on the other hand, as opposites between which the translator somehow must negotiate a compromise. As Sarah Maguire summarises the dilemma in an article 'Translation' in Poetry Review:

Debates about translation have been raging since the Romans, and, crudely, they all come down to the same decision: whether to "domesticate" the translation or to "foreignise" it. In other words, as a translator you have to take a decision - a decision which is as much ethical as it is aesthetic - as to whether your translation should be as close as possible to a poem in English, or whether it should clearly announce its different, foreign qualities.5

Although she discusses the possibility of negotiation between these two positions, it becomes clear that essentially she is in favour of 'foreignising' the work as the more 'ethical' approach, asking:

Does the translator wish to negotiate with, or to dominate, the poet she's translating? Is her main aim to enhance her own reputation, or does she want to introduce a new voice into English poetry by attempting to render the poet's own "living body" as vitally as possible?6

Concluding that the aim of translation ought to be 'to enage as fully as possible with the poet you're translating, and her culture', she looks back on the Roman translation of the Greek poets as an appropriation. She quotes Friedrick Nietzsche's unequivocal condemnation of this tradition (which would include Catullus' use of the verse of Sappho) in terms of imperial conquest:

In those days, indeed, to translate meant to conquer . . . in the sense that one would delete the name of the poet and insert the translator's name in its place. And all this was done with the very best conscience as a member of the Roman Empire, without realising that such actions constitute theft.7

However rather different associations are suggested by the term 'domesticate' than are suggested by the term 'conquer', and it is this term 'domesticate' which caught my attention as a way of considering what I myself was doing, with the publication of new versions of Catullus poems in my collection Catullus for Children. …

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