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The Books of Catullus Translated by Simon Smith (Carcanet Classics)

The Books of Catullus Translated by Simon Smith (Carcanet Classics)

When Bernard Dubourg contributed his article on translation to Grosseteste Review (Volume 12, 1979) he asserted a very important and necessary truth:

“The technique of translation, of which no one can properly define the terms, serves to conceal the fact that a good translation contains a greater number of possible senses than the original, being the result of two labours instead of one, and it’s for the reader to profit by it.”

It was Ben Jonson who wrote about the way our use of language reveals who we are when he said “Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind.” Just as no one person can read the mind of another the shark’s fin of language cuts its way through the water carrying with it the knowledge of what is held in bulk beneath: the fin of words is suggestive of a weight below the surface. The associations accumulating around words have shifted over centuries and we can only read from our own position in the NOW: we bring to bear upon our close scrutiny of language the sum of our own reading. We cannot read as Sir Philip Sidney did when in the late 1570s he became the first poet to translate Catullus into English with his four line version of poem 70 from Book III:

“UNTO no body my woman saith she had rather a wife be,
Then to my selfe, not though Jove grew a sutor of hers.
These be her words, but a woman’s words to a love that is eager,
In wind or water streame do require to be writ.”

However, it is possible that he may have read Thomas Wyatt’s version of Petrarch from some half a century earlier in which the poet’s attempt to hold tight his lady’s love is compared with the impossibility of seeking to “hold the wynde” in a “nett.” When we arrive at Simon Smith’s version of poem 70 we are firmly in a modern world in which the language bounces off the walls of everyday association:

“My woman would marry none, so she says, other
than me, not if Jupiter pressed his case.
Declares: – what a woman pledges a keen suitor
is better scripted for air and quick streams.”

The opening assertion of possessiveness (“My woman”) is followed by such confidence with the use of the word “none”; and this is so quickly followed with self-doubting humour in “so she says”. And there’s the rub of course! The lady’s words are the centre of focus and the extreme comparison with Jupiter sounds hollow. Script is air and airs are of course now streamed making them available for all! These poems by Simon Smith are bursting with sharpness and, as in the work of Frank O’Hara, whom Smith clearly reads with critical engagement, the seemingly informal or even offhand is in fact “accessory to an inner theatre”
Nine years earlier than that Dubourg article on translation the American poet, editor and translator, Cid Corman, opened the Zukofsky number of Grosseteste Review (Vol. 3, no. 4) with some comment upon Catullus:

“The question at issue is not whether Catullus would have liked these versions or not – though I might like to think so – or whether they have the same weight or speed as the original. These versions ARE originals. Related, yes, beyond any doubt. A semblance of Latin syllabics in English and English itself extended anew – as if the language itself were being renewed in our mouths.”

In his introduction to this entirely new version of the Latin poet Simon Smith points us forward to what should be immediately recognisable when he says that the poetry of Catullus “forms a significant strand of our shared poetic DNA” and that “a poet working in English must first translate Catullus in order to understand his or her own work and the work of their generation.” In Dubourg’s terms these new translations of Catullus reveal to us two poets at work and the correspondence between the two opens up a freshness of speech which is a delight to hear.

Ian Brinton, 18th April 2018

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