David Koehn: “Reclaiming Catullus”

“The original is unfaithful to the translation.”
Jorge Luis Borges, On Henley’s translation of Beckford’s Vathek, 1943

The ‘availability’ of Catullus is both a challenge and an opportunity. My original thesis in translating Catullus was that Catullus, the pleasure of Catullus, has been subsumed by the classicists and the philologists. Prof. Rebecca Resinski of Hendrix College corrected my course here. She took exception because I made it sound “like classicists and philologists have swallowed Catullus up and have been keeping him from others.” There may be some truth to that—but I clearly overstated.

Rebecca pointed out that the burden of ownership rests with the contemporary poet. She added that “Catullus is there for the taking; why haven’t more of them taken him up? Wariness about things old and canonical? Changing curricula de-privileging Latin? Habits of reading that lead many contemporary poets to read mostly other contemporary (or relatively recent) poets? Some of or all of these things, and more?”

She even added that classicists get a giggle out of folks like myself taking an interest in their kind of work. As she says, “we are enthusiastic about non-classical responses to ancient authors. It’s the relief of seeing something that we love have a life outside our academic circle.” So Rebecca and I have agreed that my thesis ought to be amended to suggest the pleasure of Catullus has not been “subsumed by” but rather “abandoned to” the classicists and philologists! Semantics aside, what is real is that Catullus has all but disappeared from the hands, mouths, and ears of contemporary poets.

As an example of where this loss is not the case, take classical Chinese poetry. The poems from Li Po to Du Fu live in the minds, hearts, and hands of contemporary poets because poet translators have put them there. I myself translate these poems.

Translated, re-interpreted, and re-translated—these classical Chinese poems live not only in the Chinese department of the university but in the popular life of the contemporary poet. Catullus, the most modern and sensitive of all the Latin poets, has not benefited from such care—at least not in the last thirty years.

And Catullus has proven he needs to be re-invented every twenty years or so. Consider why there have been thirty-plus different well-read (and as many lesser-read) translations of Catullus into English since 1600. Whether Lamb’s metrical versions of 1887 or Copley’s hip versions from 1966, each age re-invents Catullus for its own palate.

Catullus appears to elude Frost’s suggestion that “poetry is what is lost in translation.” Despite the misery of translators through the ages, the genius of Catullus emerges and then re-emerges throughout literary history. Catullus seems irrepressible in any age. Yet in our own modern era he still seems trapped in the turn of the 19th century—unexplored in our own.

As Kinnell asserts in his preface to his translations of Villon, “In these very greatest poems we sometimes find the opposite phenomenon to what Frost described. We find to our amazement that poetry also has an irrepressible translatability. Their wholeness or grace, their vision, sense of life, are so urgent and overriding that the surpassingly great poems seem almost (but not quite) to transcend their words. With them, the ‘poetry,’ even if very little of it, is precisely what does come through in translation.”

In my opinion the most recent translations have failed to help Catullus make this leap from the history text to the contemporary quill. My translations of Catullus focus on reclaiming Catullus for the American poet of the 21st century. Some of the simple techniques I employ include dropping traditional Latin names whenever possible, and modernizing vernacular to match the spirit of Catullus in our era.

Other decisions I have made when translating Catullus adhere, again, to Kinnell’s approach, as when he says, “Translation is a possible art and a necessary one, and I think that we do really want to know, insofar as it’s possible, what Dante and others in the past thought and felt. The translator should try to understand how they thought and felt and try to completely suppress himself, or to put it the other way around, try to flow into that person he’s translating and do it faithfully.”

But this does not mean adopting false tone nor trying to assert meters in English that can only exist in the other tongue. Kinnell is cutting to the quick of why poets translate: we want to inhabit the lives and words of the poets we admire and, in tongues not our own, translation is that only vessel.

I rarely set off in a serial manner telling myself, “today I will translate poems 1-5.” I have had to find very personal motivations for exploring one poem of Catullus or another. Usually I find my emotional, psychic, and spiritual self caught in the atmosphere of the tropes at work in a particular poem of Catullus and I use that feeling to situate myself in relation to a specific poem. For example, I have a long history with 32. 32 brought me to Catullus when I picked up the Bobbs Merill/Roy Swanson translation out of an old textbook box in my high school. 20 years later, 32 became the first poem of Catullus I would translate. I used that history when working on 32, though none of that “motivation” appears in the final version.

I used my relationship with my mentor, Rebecca Resinski, the Professor of Classics at Hendrix University, to serve as my proxy for the relationship between Catullus and female subject of poem 32. In this way I stumbled my way into the poem and found a tack that provided creative energy to drive the resulting translation. I am not one who thinks any one translation best—even more so, I think no one translator gets every poem even reasonably well.

So I have found best versions across ages and translators. I think this is what eludes most modern writers and, especially, editors. They somehow falsely believe that version x or y or collection z have somehow exhausted Catullus—when in fact if you read versions a-z I think you might come up with the exact opposite conclusion.

In one exercise I took many, many different versions of Catullus 32, and assembled them into an inventory and separated them from their publication dates. I then created a worksheet for myself and other poets to match the age with the version of 32. [You can read the “quiz” in last month’s OmniVerse.]

Poets I exposed the “quiz” to, admittedly with almost no intrinsic knowledge of Catullus, could not accurately pair the age to the version. Even more pleasant, the poets reacted lovingly to several different versions of the same poem—adoring many rather than privileging one. Some versions they thought very modern were quite antique.

They were surprised how engaging so many different versions of the very same poem could be—voila the magic of Catullus. The one complaint (or one might say difficulty) the poets had was that none of the versions seemed distinctively contemporary; they all had the stink of the “pen of literature” about them—to steal from Milosz.

Sugeng Hariyanto quotes Andre Lafevere from Bassnett-McGuire, 1980: 81-82, noting “seven methods adopted by English translators in translating Catullus’s poems: phonemic translation, literal translation, metrical translation, verse-to-prose translation, rhymed translation, free verse translation, and interpretation,” all of which are wrong or right, all of which will fail or succeed, depending.

Dutiful Translation

“…structure is duty…”
Lisa Robertson, Rousseau’s Boat

Consider the size and scale of the cosmos. Consider how unimportant what we do is in the grand scheme of this universe among the many universes. Consider how freeing this sense of insignificance is. Consequently consider how important it is to be exactly where we are, doing exactly what we are doing at every moment. At every moment, we are in service to forces beyond the scope of our imaginations. To be of service does not mean to be selfless—on the contrary.

The correlative experience to total humility due to our insignificance is that the only thing we can do, the most important thing we can do, is to attend to the moment with the whole of our being, our whole humanity: our intelligence, both linguistic and mathematical; our emotions, from anger to lust to love; our attitude or spirit; our bodies; and whatever you might equate to our souls. While this may be the ultimate task of living, humans do this incredibly imperfectly—as one must expect. Though, poets, especially great poets, have proven that the greater one’s total capacity for all that makes us human, the more likely one is to attend fully to the moment.

Poetry and the translation of poetry in particular provide the exact instrument to strike this universal chord—the oboe in the orchestra. In the grand scheme, poetry provides us access to this tone of totality. Poetry in translation takes us even further beyond ourselves into a deeper realm of service to the moment at hand. Free of the bondage of our selves yet engrossed by the work we inhabit—in translation we find ourselves necessarily dialed into frequencies we wouldn’t otherwise be attuned. How else but through total immersion, passionate attention, and emotional synchrony can we translate the writers we love?

And that is what we are all up to, at all times, whether we are conscious of this act or not—we are in service to the moment, sometimes fully, sometimes half-heartedly. So when considering Catullus, what part of us should not be in sync with him? The greatest service we can provide Catullus is our full attention—and all that implies. What research should we not do? What feeling should we not feel? What thoughts should we not think? What words should we not say? What possibility should not be considered? The enormity of such a task should make us shudder.

With Catullus we are lucky and doomed. So little is actually known that most of what is thought to be true of him and his work is simply codified supposition. This too is daunting. But this also grants us a certain freedom.

This liberty should excite us. Faced with wilderness we must simply find our way—we must find our way using the guidance provided from the text, professors, mentors, loved ones, textbooks, articles, discussions, and ultimately the tuning fork of the self. When translating poetry, great literary translation brings this human instrument, this humility of service, into full bearing.

David Koehn’s latest translations of Catullus are now available in a chapbook, Tunic, out from speCt! books.