Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2012 £4.00
Reviewed by Eleanor Livingstone, Helena Nelson and Jon Stone
It’s not unusual to come across versions of Catullus, the most translated of the Latin poets nowadays, but it’s the shorter poems I’m used to seeing, whereas at 19 pages long, this is maybe the longest poem Catullus wrote. It’s neatly presented in pamphlet form by KFS with a very modern and colourful front cover.
Given that there are other contemporary translations of Carmen LXIV into English, I was interested to know what impulse had prompted Simon Smith to the substantial task of producing this new version. It’s not surprising people attempt to translate shorter poems by Catullus, filled as they are with wit and passion, but this is something very different and I would have appreciated a foreword explaining the poet’s motivation.
Carmen LXIV is not a straightforward read, engaging as it does with various strands of Greek myth and legend—the Golden Fleece, the parents of Achilles, Peleus and his second wife Thetis (a sea nymph), and Ariadne of Minos, the latter being the only one I know much about. Miss one twist and you can quickly get lost, almost from the first line.
The poem opens with trees, not just any trees but rather “descendants from Pelion’s pinnacles”. After the mountain top start, a reference to Neptune in the second line is the first indication that the trees in fact are in the form of a boat, or are being used as a boat, possibly the first of its kind because it astonishes the sea nymphs as it ploughs through the waves in pursuit of the golden fleece. Then follows an account of the first meeting of Achilles’ parents:
For that day and that day only mariners gazed
upon sea-nymphettes rising above foaming
ocean swell, full-frontal, topless, nipples erect.
Then, Peleus flared with passion for Thetis,
then Thetis did not cast aside wedding a human.
The necessary permissions for mortal to marry non-mortal are granted and after a few lines of general rejoicing for Peleus and Thetis, it’s already their wedding day and mortals, sea-nymph and reader all find themselves back at the bridegroom’s home, where
all Thessaly frequented the house, bursting
the palace with delirious company,
each one offering tributes, shiny happy faces
The reader’s attention is drawn to the marriage bed, the centrepiece of all the splendour, and on it a “needle-pointed throw” portraying Ariadne as she wakes on the beach at Dia to see Theseus’ ship disappearing over the horizon. The poem has moved from a joyous wedding feast to an abandoned bride. A couple of pages further on, Catullus pauses to ask: “So why do I stray widely from my first poem?” but continues nonetheless with Ariadne’s story, in her voice and his, for several more pages. It’s a bit disconcerting when, with merely a section break to draw breath, a reference to “another place on the coverlet” brings us back to the wedding feast in Thessaly. Later the recitation of a prophesy anticipating Achilles’ gory triumphs is laid on as part of the wedding entertainment.
There’s an interesting layering as the poem ends on yet another note with the poet moralising about changes between the legendary past and his own time—which of course has become our past—where contemporary humans are out of touch with the gods:
Thus they never descend to our celebrations,
nor tolerate direct contact with broad light of day.
I searched online and while I didn’t find any commentary by Simon Smith on this translation, I did find a review by him (assuming it’s the same Simon Smith) of other translations of Catullus. I was interested by his conclusion to that review, to the effect that Catullus and his world were very different indeed from ours. So perhaps Smith wanted to capture and reflect that strangeness—other versions certainly read more easily. He may also have been trying for a closer translation. My Latin is very rusty but I could see that in places Smith was more literal than some other recent translators have been. For example when Catullus refers us back to another place on the tapestry, Smith refers to Iacchus, the name used in the original, whereas other translators have changed this to the more familiar Bacchus. Also, when the tapestry is first mentioned, in Smith’s version, it is implied more than mentioned, at least until we move on to the next section. I assumed this was more literal again, but my small attempts at translation suggest possibly not. Either way, my reading of this pamphlet certainly left me with more questions than answers.
While I found other translations of Carmen LXIV easier to follow and more pleasing on the ear, such as those by James Mitchie and Ryan Gallagher, I wouldn’t have sought them out if I hadn’t encountered Smith’s version first. Researching the original as well as this translation has been challenging but rewarding, so I’m glad to have been introduced to this pamphlet.
I am weak. I want a synopsis of the story on the back cover. Because I got lost in this elaborate narrative poem, even though I recognised some of the characters. I felt as though I ought to want to read it more than I wanted to read it. Even now I feel sheepish, as though it would have done me good to have connected with this more fully than I did.
I assume Simon Smith must have been aiming to be as literal as possible. Otherwise, I can’t see why some of the actual English should be so unwieldy:
Oh you, born into the best of epochs much missed,
all heroes we salute you, sons of the gods
and noble ladies I salute you one more time!
I can’t sort out the subjects and objects in that sentence with any kind of ease, and instead of concentrating on the storyline, I kept getting stuck in what I could not help but think clumsy expression:
Sad thing, where Erycina cast barbed worry
in her heart, who she obsessed with infinite pain,
forever and a day since the rash Theseus
exited Piraeus, its sweeping harbour-mouth,
reaching Gortynia, the outlaw’s kingdom.
What on earth did that mean? “Who she obsessed”? Should that not be “whom she obsessed”? I don’t for one minute begin to think it’s easy translating this sort of thing. Here are the same few lines translated by Brendan Rau (not because I think he’s better but because this was easily available to weaklings on the net):
O wretched woman, whom Venus has maddened with unremitting
sorrows by sowing in your heart thorny cares since that time
when Theseus, having left the curvaceous shores of Piraeus,
boldly touched upon the Cretan palace and grounds of an unjust king!
and here it is in Latin:
misera, assiduis quam luctibus externauit
spinosas Erycina serens in pectore curas,
illa tempestate, ferox quo ex tempore Theseus
egressus curuis e litoribus Piraei
attigit iniusti regis Gortynia templa.
It looks as though Simon Smith is going for literal faithfulness. Rau uses “Venus” – much easier for non-classicists than “Erycina”. And “Cretan palace” is a whole lot more accessible than “Gortynia”, though it clearly is Gortynia in the original. But why Cretan, Mr Gau, if Gortynia is in the Peloponnese? And does it matter, Mr Smith?
My Latin was never all that hot, but I like the sound of the Latin lines I quoted above. I do not feel the same about them in English. I could use Simon Smith’s translation as a crib, I think, if I had time to dedicate to reading the whole poem in Latin. I am not sure it would be worth it (O ye of little faith and school Latin), although the poem gets very interesting towards the end. There’s a description of the Parcae (the Fates) weaving the future, and the form of the poem changes into stanzas (though there are no stanza breaks in the original) with a regular repeating line: “Quickly running spindles weave complexity” (“currite ducentes subtegmina, currite, fusi”).
I note that this translation was done during a residency at Hawthornden Castle in 2009. It was clearly a task of considerable challenge and fascination. It would have been terrific to have been there, at Hawthornden, and have talked to Smith as he grappled with this mammoth (and strange) narrative poem. Even here, I got a strong sense of the rush of the verse, its intense impetus, its quickly running spindles weaving complexity. It seems to me an excellent thing to record the experience, and an equally excellent thing that publishers such as Knives Forks and Spoons Press will carry such a publication through.
‘Carmen’ simply means verse or song, and this pamphlet contains only one long poem by the Roman poet Catullus—not exactly an epic but easily as long as ten or more regular poems. Compared with Catullus’ more famous compositions, Carmen LXIV is also rather more conservative; there are a couple of close-up inspections of female breasts, but nothing like the (accusations of) whoring, anal sex or piss-swilling that you might remember from other hits.
It’s also rather heavy going. Without the benefit of having read any versions of this poem before, or a synopsis (the publisher provides none on the back cover), I found following the narrative of the translation required a savagely furrowed brow. There are three main reasons for this: firstly, the poem makes use of framing devices, as well as skipping backwards and forwards in time. Most of the middle of the poem is the non-chronological recounting of various incidents in the story of Theseus, as told in needlework on a marriage-divan at the house of Peleus, whose marriage to a sea-nymphette is what the start and end of the poem are concerned with. Then, within the fragments of Theseus’ story, there’s more than two pages of a character delivering a teary monologue.
Secondly, some of the metaphors and descriptions are so ludicrously extended, whether describing a crowd dispersing or a woman undressing, that it’s easy to get lost in them. Try this for size:
As an oak from the tops of Taurus waves its branches,
or a cone-heavy conifer, bark seeping amber,
a hurricane angrily ripping apart
its body—dismembered, upended, crashes,
reducing all to matchwood in its path far and wide,
so Theseus leveled the weighty man-beast
It fits somewhat into the mould of Catullus’ overwrought pining in his poems to Lesbia, and may well be somewhat satirical, but over the course of 16 pages, it’s certainly testing, especially when, on other occasions, the fast-forward button is leant on:
Then, Peleus flared with passion for Thetis,
then Thetis did not cast aside wedding a human,
then the Father knew Peleus was made for Thetis.
Thirdly, as far as the translation goes, some of the grammar and punctuation seems to be at the mercy of rhythm, rather than sense. The first page doesn’t see a full stop until the eleventh line, despite several clauses all tumbling over one another, while in the first quotation above a second dash is surely called for after ‘upended’ to close off the two descriptors. It’s pretty much the same throughout—commas litter the page, their grammatical purpose often woolly on the first read-through, requiring you to take on a chunk of the text several times to glean the necessary information from it.
That said, much of the description is excellent, and once you’ve picked your way through the general structure of the poem, the various sections are far more satisfying. It becomes, oddly enough, something that can be dipped into in a leisurely way, like many a contemporary pamphlet. Catullus’ closing sentiment, that the gods no longer attend our celebrations because we have become corrupt and immoral, is a weird mixture of left and right-wing finger-wagging, but perhaps that underlines just how difficult it is, in any case, to approach classical poetry with a contemporary mindset, and what a commendable service translators like Smith perform in allowing us access to this material.