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Odi et Amo

By (April 1, 2012) No Comment

The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus

by Brandon Brown
(Krupskaya 2011)

In my heady college days, I had a semester abroad in Spain, where I took a class on translation. Three times a week our professor, who I became convinced was a sadist sublimating physically violent tendencies into intellectual ones, put us through a series of assignments guaranteed to frustrate any fledgling linguist. His very favorites involved Orwellian government pamphlets that made no sense in the original, and poetry, where the act of translation seemed nearly doomed to either flatten out the multiplicities and ambiguities of the original, or to replace them with an entirely new set of multiplicities and ambiguities, unknown to and unchosen by the poet. Perfect fidelity to the original was impossible. Our every choice re-enacted our professor’s favorite dictum, the hoary old “traduttore, traditore” – the translator is a traitor.

But even as we recognized that the translator’s choices, his or her understandings, become part of the translation, there was a feeling that those choices and understandings should not be intrusive. The reader might be aware at some level that to read War and Peace in English is to read it in translation, but the fact of translation should not call attention to itself. Joyelle McSweeney, in her essay “Translation, the Slavish Mould, the Filthiest Medium Alive: With Special Reference to Matthew Barney, Andy Warhol, and Divine,” refers to this as the “tastefulness” theory of translation. The good translator achieves and shows mastery by remaining loyal to the text, by acting as a faithful servant who makes choices for the text’s benefit, offering discreet help.  She quotes a critic applauding Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary, “Faithful to the style of the original, but not to the point of slavishness, Davis’ effort is transparent – the reader never senses her presence.” Although we allow for the translator’s presence in the text, it is a very “upstairs, downstairs” kind of presence. Fidelity remains the watchword by which the translator’s efforts are judged.

Against this restless background of translation theory, Brandon Brown’s The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus hoves into view. Ostensibly presenting all 116 poems, fragments, and epigrams of Catullus (some considered authentic, a few spurious), Brown’s translation isn’t loyal to Catullus’s words in any normal sense. The resulting text, the “proceeding” text, in translator-speak, is not a translation as most of us would understand that word. Rather, much of Brown’s book comprises commentaries or essays which take Catullus’s poems as their starting point.

For example, take Brown’s presentation of the poems traditionally numbered 23-38, some of the most vituperative verse in the sixty poems usually considered to form the book known as “Sparrow.” Brown doesn’t “translate” most of this sequence – he re-numbers a couple of them, seemingly to exclude the less vituperative ones, and then writes a short essay on the classical and contemporary meaning of lyric poetry, and the use of iambics among Catullus’s coterie to create a derisive form by which a poet can shame members of the community who have upset him. After several paragraphs of this (with each paragraph corresponding to a poem), Brown states, “I have belabored this because it gives me an opportunity to talk about the process of translation in this book called The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus.” Where other translations remove the process of translation from the translated text, this translation “wishes to privilege the delay between preceding and proceeding marks.” Further, it resists the dichotomy of fidelity and treason, arguing that:

Instead, among other actions, the translator can choose to not. So let us return to the text at hand, the twenty-third poem in the corpus of Catullus, I do not wish to recapitulate the iambic form, or the masculinist aggression coded in such prosodic gestures (formal/musical or musico-semantic). Not even if someone [here Brown provides a lengthy list of Catullan insults/claims regarding enemies, such as “has an anus dry as a little salt cellar,” or “stole my notebooks full of hendecasyllabics”]. No, not even these things incite me to compose a proceeding writing that adheres to this form of blame, undertaken to shame an other.

I choose to not. And I don’t feel bad about it either.

So why does Brown “translate” Catullus at all if he’s not interested in presenting Catullus’s words to the world? Brown objects to Catullus’s vituperations, but he is interested in the emotions and ideas that gave rise to them: love and jealousy, fidelity in both love and friendship, oaths, the bonds that make and break a community, particularly a community of writers. Brown navigates these same emotions and pressures in his own poetic community, two thousand years after Catullus wrote. As the book proceeds, it becomes clear that he has engaged with Catullus as a means of processing those feelings in a way that resists the Catullan temptations of blame and insult.

Not always successfully, mind you. The final piece in Brown’s book is an essay that stands in for the poems and epigrams traditionally numbered 74, 80, 88-91, and 116, the “Gellius Cycle.” Each of the poems in the group heaps scorn on this person Gellius, although, as Brown states,

a provable reason [for Catullus’s scorn] isn’t given until the penultimate poem of the cycle. In this poem, we learn the reason for Catullus’s rage. Gellius was bound to Catullus by coniunctio, which is in between a bond of coinhabitation in a coterie and something like “friendship.” It is clear that Catullus understands an ethical code inherent in the concept, a code which Gellius has clearly broken. The bond was trespassed when Gellius established himself as a rival for Catullus’s lovebird.

Brown’s translation/essay goes on to explain that his own feelings of jealousy and scorn, when a member of his own coterie established himself as a rival for Brown’s “lovebird,” came into play in his translation of poems 23-38, hijacking the technique he had developed to “enact a resistance to the invective economy that is central to those texts.” As part of his translator’s resistance, Brown translated and then presented, out of context, a list of the epithets that Catullus uses in those poems. But, crucially, he added one of his own, “Bald Predator,” which is not found anywhere in Catullus.

I wrote the last epithet as a punctuative, petty, resentful phrase with reference to something happening in my own life…In other words, while playfully compromising my own politics and conscious desires for poetry, I was not able to resist assuming the very invective economy I sought to criticize. What’s worse, as was pointed out to me by both my lovebird and my rival, the epithet I construed, “Bald Predator,” suggested a misogynist reading of the triangle, in which the helpless, naïve woman was pursued by the dynamic, agile man.

But this Catullus-as-Borg moment (“Resistance to my violent, misogynist invective is futile!”) leads Brown to an epiphany regarding the act of translation:

For years I had been writing about translation, attempting to restitute the body of the translator into the process known as translation. What happened to me there at that kitchen table {when compiling the list of epithets} was something a little different: translation changed my body. My articulated politics, hopes, desires clashed with the physical gesture of writing, itself totally shaped by the forms and vocabulary of the Roman poet Catullus. It’s true that the writing which proceeds from the preceding writing does so via the body of the translator, but that body is not left in/tact. This should be obvious—but again it was only in a moment of ecstatic crisis that I could understand it.

The act of translating Catullus—an act that fails inasmuch as it was meant to resist and oppose Catullus’s “invective economy”—winds up confirming a new type of exchange. To appropriate a text is to be appropriated by it. To translate is to be translated.

Brown reminds us that Catullus, too, was a translator, although we are not sure how much of his mostly-lost work consisted of translation. But Poem 51 is a translation of Sappho, with an added stanza in which Catullus teases himself for his own laziness, and Poem 66 is a translation of a poem by Callimachus, wherein Catullus replaces ten lines that were missing even in Catullus’s day with ten lines of his own, without mentioning the lost portions of the original. Both translations show Catullus refusing to adhere to a model of discreet fidelity – he appends, comments, draws himself into the translation with self-referential digs and with ideas that find no place in the text he translates. In an essay that stands in for the translation of Catullus 65, the dedicatory epistle accompanying the translation of Callimachus, Brown writes:

I find it interesting that Catullus, who remains associated with the anachronistic but persistent mode of the lyric, constructs a practice almost always including appropriation. Translation, and certainly as Catullus himself practices it, is an artwork of appropriation. And yet much of contemporary translation as much as contemporary works of appropriation purport to cancel the somatic vehicle for lyric material.

Throughout his book, Brown attempts to reinsert the “somatic vehicle,” the translator’s body (which includes his mind – my sense is that Cartesian dualism has been thrown out the window here) by evading purely mimetic methods of translation. Brown engages in translations that are automatic (using internet text generators), outsourced (asking other people to do the translation), or that are meant to reproduce the conditions under which the original text was created.

For example, in lieu of a “straight” translation of Poem 51, which deals with feeling jealous, Brown presents a short list of potential methods of translating Catullus’s translation, ranging from a transcription from the original Greek text (with accompanying new postscript about one’s own laziness) to creating a situation in which one will experience the feelings described in the poem (intense jealousy), and then writing a poem about that. Other poems are presented in multiple translations, thereby undermining the “authority” of any one way of putting Catullus’s words or ideas into English, and otherwise making the fact of translation manifest.

It is difficult to judge a work like this. It is not a novel; I cannot tell you if I liked the characters, or found their motivations plausible. It is not a poem; I cannot tell you if I found its images arresting. And as a translation, well, even if I had sufficient knowledge of Latin to do so, comparing Brown’s text against the “original” would be beside the point. This translation is not concerned with faithfulness or duty to words, although it does speak to faithfulness and duty to people.

Brown’s work is most compelling when, in place of coy games, he engages directly with the act of translation. The epigram/poem numbered 85, the “Odi et Amo,” is probably the most famous of all Catullus’s works. Its two lines,

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

are generally translated something like this:

I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you’ll ask.
I don’t know. But I feel it happening and am tortured.

Brown’s translation runs to 84 couplets, a verse essay that breaks down and rebuilds each word in the original, providing commentary on Latin prosody, and on the ecstasies of meaning that accompany the act of translation:

I hate. I hate and. I hate “and.” I hate love. I hate questions.
I’m doing it. I hate doing it. I hate “doing.” I hate

I hate forts. I “hate” “forts.” I hate fortitude. I hate perhaps.
Perhaps I hate? No, I hate “perhaps.” Perhaps you’ll ask why hate.

The text is full of x’s. The chiastic structure in the

first line is something that can manifest in oral verse. But
the metaphor Catullus makes in the second line, to ref-

erence not chiastic structure but the “X” is something that’s
only possible in writing, which you can study and re-

call without a repeat performance. Catullus loves reading

and writing—so it makes sense for him to be a translator.

Since that’s what the translator does, two things at once. Although not
at the same time. The translator is torn apart, but later.

Brown strays from this focus on the physics and metaphysics of translation at intervals throughout the book. Poem 64 turns into a critique of colonialism by way of Avatar and Brad Pitt which, even after a few readings, I’m just not sure I get. Several short poems invoking Lindsay Lohan in place of Catullus’s Lesbia don’t make much sense unless you have read the originals or a more conventional translation of them. Instead of standing up in their own right, these poems become inside jokes. In an ideal world, perhaps it wouldn’t be too much to expect your readers to chuckle knowingly, on the basis of their intimate familiarity with the complete oeuvre of Catullus, but we live in this one.

Still, other poems transcend the original in the way that I think Brown desired. I don’t necessarily mean that they’re better than the originals, but that they enact Brown’s rejection of Catullus’s moral code in a way that neither veers off the rails nor demands line-by-line comparisons with the originals. Brown turns Catullus’s Poem 62, a wedding song that buys wholesale into Roman notions of women as semi-human property with an expiration date of around 21 years of age, using rather clichéd vegetal similes (blooming flowers, dead flowers, getting plucked, you get the drift) into a wry verse play that ends on an effectively creepy note, with the young men – here retitled “bros” – singing:

I’ve been really trying
to hold back this feeling
for so long
don’t fight it since dad owns your sex
don’t fight it since Rome owns your sex
don’t withhold your shares from the auction
don’t withhold my share of satisfaction
but do run, run
da doo run, run

Over the past ten years or so, comparisons of contemporary America with the Roman empire have become abundant. Catullus was a contemporary of Caesar; he lived on the cusp of that empire. Not just in The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, but in a number of prior works, Brown has leveraged his knowledge of Latin into indirect comparisons of Rome with contemporary America, comparisons that benefit by translating Roman words into American mouths. Here, his project is more personal. Ultimately, it is most successful when Brown is most present, when his personality emerges in the work. I hate and I love it. Why? I don’t know. But I feel it happening and I’m tortured.

Maureen Thorson is the poetry editor of Open Letters Monthly. Her first book of poetry, Applies to Oranges, is available from Ugly Duckling Presse. She lives in Washington, DC.