Review: The Poems on Catallus, Translated by Peter Whigham

Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84 – c. 54 BC) was a Latin poet of the late Roman Republic

Review by Michael A. Arnold

Have you ever found something that makes you really think? I was in a second hand bookshop recently and saw a copy of Catullus’ poems, translated by Peter Whigham, under the always attractive Penguin Classics label. It was not going for much, about £2, so I picked it up with a ‘why not?’.

Catullus is a poet I’m actually quite familiar with (my own bilingual copy of his poetry has the scuff marks, and that oddly greenish tinge to the page edges that comes from many readings over many years) so I was really curious to see how another translation would capture Catullus’ voice and world. Catullus was an aristocrat, or I suppose a socialite, around the time the Roman republic violently collapsed, and was replaced by the emperors and imperialism probably more famous to us today. He was so wealthy and well connected he seems to have personally known Julius Caesar – as acquaintances, they were certainly not friends.

It’s always interesting to read these poems knowing they were written at a time of massive political instability. While some Catullus poems do address it directly – the majority of the poems are urbane: more interested in personal lives, nights full of bar drinking and hook-ups, mediations on life, the arts, death and love – both the ecstasy and the pain. A lot of the time Catullus reads like a modern, contemporary poet, only one that writes in Latin.

And that is a problem. Catullus wrote in Latin, and in the act of translating a poem from one language to another it is almost impossible to replicate everything about the original perfectly. In reading a translation, you are only reading someone’s reading of the original. This can lead to reasons to dislike a translation which are not really problems, but instead better thought of as disagreements. Take for example one of Catullus’ most famous poems:

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
     nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Which is translated:

            I hate and I love. And if you ask me how,
            I do not know: I only feel it, and I’m torn in two

The use of ‘I’m torn in two’ does not mean the same thing as ‘excrucior’, and does not at all capture the evocative power of that one word. ‘excrucior’ means something like ‘I’m being tortured/tormented by it’ with the implication of a crucifixion – which ‘excrucior’ is etymologically linked to. Also ‘I’m torn in two’ simply sounds too nice; ‘excrucior’ is full of hard sounds: starting with ‘ex’, and then two hard K sounds (all Latin, Cs are Ks – at least in Classical Pronunciation), meaning that when said out loud it takes a little breath to go from the first syllable of the word to the second, as if the speaker, and so the poet, was literally being tortured on a rack or on a cross. This is not just a problem with Peter Whigham’s translation, and I must stress this, but a problem with the act of translation itself. Some things just cannot be perfectly translated.

It must also be said that the above translation is not completely faithful to the original either. When it comes to translating there are two schools of thought, one where the original is translated as closely as possible, preserving as much of the original’s syntax as possible; the other believes that a translation should be an interpretation of the original, or keeping as much of the ‘spirit’ of the original as possible, while basically making a new poem. Peter Whigham seems to be more of the second camp, as a much more accurate translation of the original Latin might be:

I hate and love. Why will I do this, perhaps you’re asking?
I do not know. But I’m feeling it, and it’s crucifying me.

But Peter Whigham’s translation is not going for a strict adherence, so it could be studied. He is instead trying to capture the energy and spirit of Catullus’ poetry.

With this in mind, a lot of the other choices across this collection make sense. It makes sense to recreate poem 8 in free verse, for example. In poem 8, Catullus is trying to comfort himself after breaking up with his girlfriend, and the many line breaks creates a frantic, quick pace that perfectly mirrors the quick, slightly crazed rhythm of the original not-quite-iambics. This is what was meant by an ‘interpretation’, opposed to what might be considered a strict translation of the poem from one language to another.

It does not make the same amount of sense to render poem 101, a really touching poem about the death of Catullus’ brother, into free verse however. This actually detracts from the power of the poem because it removes Catullus’ tight control over the rhythm of the original, which reads like a formal elegy read at a funeral. This poem also provides another example with the problems found in translating from one language to another: Peter translates the last three words of the poem as ‘Hail & farewell’, which simply does not have the same rhythmic force as ‘Ave atque vale’. ‘Atque’, a more obscure version of ‘and’, is being used instead of ‘et’ or the suffix ‘-que’ on the end of ‘vale’, because of its resonance and alliteration with the vowel A. ‘Ave et vale’ simply does not work as well on the ear.

Poem 101 is probably much better suited to a blank verse, since that form is more conservative, and can more easily express sorrow through a regular meter, while also having a slightly objective feel because there is no rhyme scheme, or any other poetic technique being used. More variety in form and style would also be far more fitting for Catullus anyway, because until you reach the epigrams at the end (which are often short, very aggressive attacks and put downs of various public people at the time) Catullus employs a variety of different styles, forms and meters. That is one of the small pleasures of reading the original. There just did not seem to be enough technical variety in Peter Whigham’s translation, which is either a flaw, or a missed opportunity, or a ‘disagreement’; or whatever you want to call it.

There are also some very odd choices in the collection. Take for an example the first poem, which starts:

            To whom should I present this
            little book so carefully polished
            But to you.

This is translating:

Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli, tibi

The translation completely missing out the image in the second line with ‘pumice’, pumice stone, which in ancient times was used to painstakingly rub out the edges of books. Implying the ‘lepidum’ (this word is missed entirely, meaning something like stylish) new (‘novum’, another word skipped over) little book has been finished with a lot of hard work, suggesting the act of crafting the perfect poem is just like crafting the perfect object. This good metaphor is lost, and in the first line only three words are actually translated – the second line suffers a similar fate.

Someone reading this book alone, without knowing anything about Catullus, could close this book with a very inaccurate impression of what Catullus’ poetry is really like.  This is not to say this book is bad. I don’t think it is, but I do not think it is good either. I could not recommend anyone read it without having a knowledge of Catullus’ work beforehand – but then again, I had a knowledge of Catullus’ work beforehand, and my perspective is obviously going to be affected by that. Someone who owns this book but does not know Catullus’ poems in Latin, or do not know Latin (and this book is aimed squarely at people who do not know Latin) might find in this a very modern poet however, and might like this book in a very different way to how I like my bilingual copy.

Because of this, I am convinced that books in translation, or at least poetry collections, should include the original text. This could not only alleviate, some of the objections that might be aimed at translations like Peter Whigham’s, but also let the reader feel a closer connection to the original text, help people learning the original language have a text with a translation to reference, and also have a text for people who can read the original to have access to more books that language, and it could encourage people to learn other languages too, which is surely never a bad thing.

Whatever can be said about this book, Catullus’ poetry still has a way of seeming to be modern – even though the original text is over 2,000 years old now. And while some scholars can make arguments about Catullus’ Roman-ness, or his non-Roman-ness, and both are true, but perhaps a modern, fully accessible Catullus is enough for an average person who walks into a bookshop and buys a book of poems?

I don’t know. I didn’t end up buying the book either.

About the Reviewer

Michael A. Arnold is a graduate of the University of Sunderland and Northumbria University. He is based in North East England, and has previously published essays and short fiction. His influences include George Orwell and Robert Frost.

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