Peter Whigham, Letter to Juvenal: 101 Epigrams From Martial. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1985. Pp. 119, incl. introduction by J.P. Sullivan, the Latin text and notes by the author. ISBN 0-85646-092-3. Pounds sterling 5.95.
Tony Harrison, Palladas: Poems. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1992 (repr.). Pp. 47, incl. preface by the author, notes and a table of references to the Greek Anthology. ISBN 0-85646-127-X. Pounds sterling 5.95.
Charles Tomlinson (ed.), Eros English’d: Classical Erotic Poetry in Translation from Golding to Hardy. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1992. Pp. 226, incl. introduction by the author, table of contents and index. ISBN 1-85399-159-7. Pounds sterling 9.95.
University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg
Peter Whigham’s collection of his own translations of a wide selection of Martial’s poetry from the De Spectaculis and Books 1-14 of the Epigrammata is intended to rectify the old imbalance caused by the Index Expurgatorius, which gave the impression that Martial was the archetypal dirty old man with a lavatorially undergraduate sense of humour. What emerges from this “fresh imbalance”, as Whigham himself calls it (p. 9), is the impression that Martial was a rather dreary provincial, yearning, in verse drowning in otiose doctrina, for a funereal ‘villeggiatura’ in a Spanish necropolis called Bilbilis. The very title of this selection is based on the contents of 12.18 (addressed to Juvenal) in which Martial contrasts the simplicity of his life in the countryside with the bustling clamour of Juvenal’s life as a cliens in the decadent capital. After Horace and Tibullus, this well-worn ‘topos’, in its unremarkable translation, makes one suspect that Juvenal was better off in Rome. Bilbilis does have a sexy hunting boy, though; one ‘some bosky dell would set you lusting’ (p. 69). Would Juvenal seriously have preferred the bosky dells of Bilbilis to the sinful stews of the Subura?
Apart from the rather disappointing selection of Martial’s verse (which makes hellish reading for the Latinless reader), I am not a great admirer of Whigham’s abilities as a translator. For some years (before the appearance of Guy Lee’s translation), I used his translation of the poems of Catullus in order to introduce a Latinless Classical Civilization class to Roman poetry. The translations often did not work at all and frequently gave a misleading impression of the Latin original: in fact, one of the merits of the present collection of Martial’s verse is that the reader is often forced to look at the Latin in order to clarify what exactly Whigham’s ver- sion means. Examples of this abound. To begin with De Spectaculis 1 which opens the collection. Whigham renders the initial couplet as : ‘Memphis, forbear anent your Pyramids/nor Syria boast your highrise skyline’ (p. 27). ‘Forbear anent’—what on earth does this mean and why is this contrived archaism yoked with ‘highrise skyline’? Does the Latin or Martial’s tone here in anyway justify this? One appreciates that all good translators do not translate mere words, but translate ideas from one language to another and, in the process, interpret them. Does the idea of ‘highrise skyline’ make the line more accessible to a modern reader, particularly in the wake of the obscure ‘Forbear anent’? Perhaps, but does the translation not lose the notion of Assyrius …labor? And what of the opening Barbara (surely necessary for contrast with the climactic final couplet)? Why has this been omitted completely? Whigham has entitled this poem ‘Caesar’s Ring’ and ends with the couplet: ‘O’er mankind’s monuments towers Caesar’s Ring,/ the fame of each proclaimed in that of one’. Two intelligent readers, unfamiliar with Martial, could not tell me what Caesar’s Ring was—his backside? His fortifications? Again, the limpid clarity of the Latin came to the rescue: omnis Caesareo cedit labor Amphitheatro;/ unum pro cunctis fama loquetur opus.
This tendency to obfuscate rather than illuminate the original text is evident elsewhere. What would ‘Verona loves each vatic syllable’ (p. 30) for Verona docti syllabas amat vatis (1.61.1) mean to a Latinless reader? Significantly, Whigham needs a note to explain his translation (p. 115). In his version of Martial’s poem about the value of his Nomentan wine (1.105) which so improves with age that it can rival the finest, Whigham does his best to be clever, even importing the completely alien note of Thomist philosophy into his transla- tion: ‘With years, upon my Nomentan estate/ The yield that in the cellar’s laid unmixed,/ Aging in bottle, transubstantiates/ And tastes as per the labelling affixed’ (p. 30). Again, Whigham makes a mystery of the final line of 4.44 (on the grim aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius): nec superi vellent hoc licuisse sibi, which he translates as ‘And the gods themselves murmur at the force of their own doom'(p. 36). This makes interesting poetry (‘murmur’ is rather evocative), but what does the ‘force of their own doom’ really mean and is it an effective translation of the original? More examples of this would simply belabour my point.
Whigham has a further irritating habit: the frequent omission of the name of the poem’s addressee. This sometimes has serious consequences. In his version of 3.65, he omits the name Diadumenus and the important saeve puer(3.65.9). Consequently, there is no hint in the translation that this is a homo-erotic poem in the tradition of the poet and the cruel puer delicatus. ‘My cold jewel’ (p. 33) is simply inadequate. In his translation of the elegant couplet 5.83, the name Dindymus is omitted (p. 43), to similar effect, but is included in his version of 10.42 (p. 55). The omissions are all probably metri gratia, but they smack of Victorian sanitization, although we are informed in the introduction that Martial was an unmarried homosexual (p. 12). Whigham does call a mentula a mentula elsewhere (eg. p. 63), but occasionally shrinks from the full force of the original (eg. cacantes in 12.61.10, p. 73).
Another irritating habit is Whigham’s occasional foray into Elizabethan English. Is there really any point (apart from self-indulgence) in translating 12.34 in the following style: ‘Just half our three score years & ten/ I mind thee, Julius, spent with thee,/ the bitter & the blessed blent-/ The bless’d preponderant’ (p. 71). Whigham is also rather fond of Old and Middle English: in his translation of Catullus 63 for Penguin, I recall ‘carlines’, ‘housecarl’ and ‘huscarl’ (pp. 137-138): here we encounter the likes of ‘Rome’s fair bailiwick’ (p. 61) for something as unpretentious as moenia……pulcherrima Romae (10.103.9).
It would be churlish not to give some credit where it is due. Many of Whigham’s translations of the snappy and witty couplets in Books 13 and 14 (the ‘Xenia’ and the ‘Apophoreta’) work well, but on at least one occasion his efforts to con- trive a rhyming couplet are very clumsy. eg. ‘Those swaying hips, so sweetly lewd, would straight/ Hippolytus himself make masturbate.’ (p. 80) This selection of translated Martial is not strongly recommended, except for those interested in the process of translation and mistranslation, but it does include an elegant introductory essay by J.P. Sullivan and a strange preface by Whigham himself who begins with an ill-omened anacoluthon. The author provides some idiosyncratic notes and (fortunately) the Latin text, which departs from Ker’s Loeb text in two instances. There is one noticeable misprint: on p. 77, the poem entitled ‘Doves’ should be numbered 66 and not 56 (which is about pigs’ wombs).
Tony Harrison’s collection of translated epigrams of Palladas, a bitterly cynical ‘grammatikos’ in the Alexandria of the fourth century AD, is inspired by Peter Jay’s re-arrangement, by poet and period, of some scattered epigrams in the Palatine Anthology (previously arranged by genre). The poems of Palladas occur chiefly in Books 9, 10 and 11 of the Anthology; both Jay and Harrison have thus done Palladas a great service by rescuing him from the oblivion to which the yellowing pages of Paton’s Loeb consigned him.
The burning question is this: does Palladas deserve this untimely rescue? The answer is an unequivocal ‘Yes’, for in these sharply-pointed epigrams, we do indeed, as Harrison claims (p. 8), get a pungent whiff of the ” last hopeless blasts of the old Hellenic world……before the cataclysm of Christianity”. Nothing escapes Palladas’ scabrous tongue: philosophy (p. 13), except for Epicureanism (p. 15), human mortality (a favourite theme–pp. 14-16), the rich and greedy (pp. 21-23), the poor and needy (pp. 21-22), the ‘grammatikos’ grinding through the opening of the Iliad (pp. 24-26), the ignorant (p. 28), politicians (p. 30) and women (pp. 33-38).
Unlike Whigham, Harrison is a translator who does not obfuscate, but illuminates and often improves the original poems, to the extent that Palladas merges into Harrison. In his version of the first poem in this collection, in which Palladas reminds puffed-up humankind of her rather lowly origins (A.P. 10.45), Harrison displays this ability in his graphic translation of Palladas’ rather tame final couplet: ‘Think of your father, sweating, drooling, drunk,/ you, his spark of lust, his spurt of spunk.’ A.P. 11.289 and 290 (p. 23) give Harrison the opportunity to interpret some complicated mercantile imagery in a modern idiom–his moneylender blacks out for ever ‘still with the total ringing on the till’, whereas Palladas’ dies still totting up the interest on his fingers. Impressively, his very loose translation of 11.290, in which the Greek is obscure and difficult, clarifies and interprets the poem effectively. He attempts this again in his spirited version of A.P. 10.56 (p. 34), in which he offers an interpretation of the final troublesome line (and justification for it in his notes p. 45) which is credible. (i.e. that Palladas may well have had a wife who flirted with other men and Christianity). Hence Harrison’s use of Christian allusions (not discernible in the original) in his version of A.P. 10.49 (p. 38).
Palladas enjoys puns and word-play: so does Harrison. One of the best examples of this is Harrison’s translation of A.P. 9.173 (p. 24), in which Palladas bemoans teaching the catalogue of disasters in the first five lines of the Iliad—Harrison’s ‘Sad study, grammar! It’s whole content’s one long string of accidents!’ could not be more apt. There are further instances of Harrison’s ability to capture Palladas’ mordant wit–eg. his version of A.P. 11.381 (p. 33), in which women are granted two good moments, ‘in bed and dead’. Even if Palladas were not the author of the poem on Hypatia (A.P.9.400, p. 41), it was a good idea to include the homage to her here, particularly in the wake of Palladas’ Juvenalian views on women.
Like all good translators, Harrison occasionally nods. His version of A.P. 9.175 (p. 26) succeeds until the last couplet where he is (like Ovid) carried away by his own cleverness and produces ‘Help me, Theon, or all that’ll stand/ between poverty and me’s an &’. ‘Betterbrite’ for good old in 11.291 (p. 30) was lost on this South African reviewer. Palladas’ wicked couplet which parodies the pidgin Greek of a Gothic soldier dedicating his arms to a misnamed deity (A.P. 6.85) is translated by Harrison (and printed in naughty Gothic script) as follows: ‘Mein Breast, mein Corset und mein Legs/ Ja dedicates to Juice like all gut Griegs’ (p. 31). Funny, but over the top: one misses the marvellous name in the original.
These slips are few and far between and I strongly recom- mend this vivacious translation which would make a welcome addition to the source material used by students of late antiquity, particularly those interested in ancient philos- ophy, education and attitudes towards women.
Tomlinson’s delightful collection of translations is not only entertaining reading, but is also an excellent vademecum for anyone teaching Latin and Greek poetry to undergraduates. Valuable lessons in the technique of translation can be learnt from some of the greatest poets in the English language. All the old favourites are here–such as Christopher Marlowe’s superb translations of Ovid’s Amores and Dryden’s vigorous versions of extracts from Vergil, Ovid and Juvenal–but the collection also includes translations by Aphra Behn (trying her hand at Horace Odes 1.5, along with countless others, like Lady Montagu), Branwell Bronte (with neatly chiselled versions of Horace), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (rendering Theocritus’ Polyphemus and Galatea Idyll in suitably lush romantic style) and even a passable translation of Horace Odes 1.25 by the Young Gentlemen of Mr Rule’s Academy at Islington.
It is interesting to note whom these poets and scholars considered worth translating. Catullus, Horace and Ovid (per- haps predictably), but also Vergil, Juvenal, and Martial, and, on the Greek side, Homer, Sappho, Anacreon and Theocritus. The refreshing aspect of these translations is that they are never merely mechanical classroom exercises (as one might have expected from some of them), but they are lively poems in their own right, crafted by poets who understood how the originals worked. They also reflect the cultural and linguis- tic milieu in which they were fashioned, in such a way that there is rarely notable dissonance between the translation and the original. Occasionally, one cannot resist a smile, such as in Golding’s version of the Echo and Narcissus tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Narcissus, ‘the stripling wearie’, lies down at the side of the pool and stares at his reflection.’……For like a foolishe noddie/He thinkes the shadow that he sees, to be a lively boddie’ (p. 7). Dryden too provides some gems, such as Chloris’ oath in Theocritus Idyll 27: ‘I swear I’le keep my maidenhead till death,/ And die as pure as Queen Elizabeth’ (p. 77). Pope’s ‘gentle Reign of My Queen Anne’ (in Horace Odes 4.1) is equally charming and most appropriate for this most Augustan of English poets.
Tomlinson, the Professor of English Literature at Bristol and an accomplished poet himself, provides an informative and well-written introduction. I have one criticism: the table of contents has regrettably omitted page numbers, which makes the book practically unusable (except for the determined).