Close Reading: Catullus 51 / Obsession

Before too long in any discussion about translating poetry, it’s a fair bet that someone will either misquote the Italian “traduttore, traditore” (“translator, betrayer”) or misappropriate Robert Frost’s aphorism that “poetry is what gets lost in translation”. Both these phrases have survived in the meme-pool because there’s truth in them; but if we apply them too rigidly then we’ll miss two other important truths: that in poetic translation (as opposed to a literal crib) the original is really the stimulus for making a new poem; and that in a sense all poetry is translation (something that will have to be unpacked in a future post).

This week I want to take a close look at a translation of a translation (or a version of a version), quoted in full by kind permission of the author. Here is James Methven’s rendering of Catullus 51:

Obsession (James Methven, 2009)

.      How does it go?

To me that man is God,
More than God – God willing – ,
Who sits facing her, eyes her, ears her
.       Careless

Laughter. Seeing this, a sensual hell guts me;
Just so, for when I light on you, Nell,
There’s nothing left of my voice –
.       My poet’s words –

My practised tongue glues, my skin
Thrills with melting fire, my ears
Drown in thicked deep-sea noise, my eyes
.       Flare dark and dazzle out.

Time on your hands, Jimmy, that’s your problem:
Time’s your guilty joy, stretched idleness your life and work:
Time, that humbles kings and rubbles cities whole
      To dust.

This poem appears roughly halfway through the collection Precious Asses, being the thirteenth of twenty-seven contemporary versions of Catullus poems. The original (ille mi par esse deo videtur) is itself a version of Sappho’s fragment 31 (φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν), beginning as a relatively close translation then departing into new material at the end. Methven’s version stays pretty close to Catullus’s (barring an interpolation and a name change) but manages to sound fresh and spontaneous. It’s often hard for a translation to avoid sounding like something not fully realized in the target language, and it’s interesting to look at how this poem manages it.

The first line is not in the original. It also introduces an immediate ambiguity. Taken literally, “it” is the “obsession” of the title (i.e. how does obsession go?), but coming just before the poet launches into one of the most famous poems in world literature we can equally read “it” as Catullus 51 (i.e. how does that famous poem go?).

What follows uses a loose form of Sapphic stanza in a nod to both Catullus 51 and Sappho 31. Part of what stops this poem sounding like a translation is the way it holds onto the outline shape of the original(s) but repeatedly disrupts it with strong enjambment (including the extreme “ears her / Careless // Laughter” over the break between stanzas 1 and 2) and by adding and removing stresses (most of the long lines have four stresses, but there are some with three or five).

In the same way that the poem sticks within a verse form but disrupts it at the same time, it also twists some of the rules of syntax and idiom – not enough to be ungrammatical, but enough to cause our brains’ parsing software to stall for a second. The progression from “eyes her” to “ears her” takes us from a mildly unusual usage to what may be a wholly original one. As well as being creative wordplay, “ears her” sounds like the sort of mistake someone would make speaking English as a second language. This points us back to the fact that we’re reading a translation at the same time that the verbal inventiveness pulls us away from the sort of pompous translationese that can make a twenty-first century translation sound like something from the 1850s.

Likewise, “glues” trips us up because, outside of some very specific idioms, glue is a transitive verb (one that requires an object, since you have to glue something) but is here used intransitively. These mild grammatical violations work well in a poem whose central lines are about being unable to speak.

Stanza three rather brilliantly solves a problem from the original by embracing it rather than trying to avoid it. A lot of translations stumble over this compound description because it can easily start sounding like a list of symptoms (which inevitably comes across as whiney). Methven’s solution to the list problem is not to downplay it but to emphasize it, placing skin, ears and eyes at the end of a line and then holding the corresponding verbs over to the beginning of the next. This not only ensures a heavy stress falls on each body part, but creates an escalating pressure for each to be slightly heavier than the last (compare the hanging participles at the ends of the first three lines of The Waste Land). A whinge has been changed into a performance by the skilful use of line-breaks.

“Jimmy” in the final stanza replaces the original “Catulle” and keeps us away from translation-speak (throughout Precious Asses, Latin names are replaced with modern English ones to good effect). But sounding fresh and contemporary doesn’t rule out heightened language or beautiful writing. The poem closes with a magnificent sound-resolution from “problem” to “humbles” and “rubbles”, then picking up the short u sound in the final, truncated “to dust”.

Sometimes, poetry is what gets found in translation.

Precious Asses, James Methven, Seren, 2009