Monthly Archives: December 2016

Let us Live and Let us Love: My Translation and Interpretation of Catullus Poem 5

512px-john_reinhard_weguelin_lesbiaLesbia by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1878.

A dear friend who is also a classicist read my essay for the Seagull Books Catalog and pointed out that my translation of Ovid was so literal and awkward that most readers probably wouldn’t understand its meaning.  I spend my life eliciting grammatically precise, literal translations from my students so that I can assess their learning of Latin syntax.  But his message inspired me to stretch my translation skills beyond the literal and to come up with passages that readers could actually appreciate and enjoy.  Of course I also don’t want to stray so far away from the Latin that I completely abandon all rules of syntax and grammar, so it will be interesting and challenging for me to strike that balance.  I’ve decided to do a series of translations of Latin authors on my blog that will be dedicated to my friend who ever so gently gave me some suggestions for my Ovid translation.  Or, when I become frustrated with a particularly difficult Latin passage, I will blame him.

Since I am teaching a Catullus course in the spring semester, and he is my favorite Latin lyric poet, I will begin my translation series with one of his most popular poems. Gaius Valerius Catullus (c.84-54B.C.) had a passionate love affair with a woman named Clodia.  But Clodia was no ordinary woman.  Her family was of old, Patrician, noble stock and she was married to an older, prominent and powerful man, the proconsul Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer.  As was the case with most upper class Roman marriages, Clodia’s was arranged for political and economic gains and there was no real love or affection in the marriage.  But she does find love with Catullus, who wrote several poems about her and their relationship.  I imagine him spending hours perfecting this masterpiece composed in hendecasyllabic meter and sending it off to her in secret.  And, just in case it might be intercepted by the wrong person, he disguises his love with the pseudonym “Lesbia.”

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Let’s live and let’s love, My Clodia,
And let’s consider worthless
The gossip of crabby old men!
Suns rise and set:
When the fleeting daylight finally sets for us,
We must spend one perpetual night together.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then another thousand kisses,
Then a second hundred,
And then give me another thousand kisses
And then give me a hundred kisses.
Finally, when we have kissed many thousands of times,
Let’s mix up the number of those kisses
So that an envious man will not be able to put a curse
On us if he finds out the exact number of our kisses.

There are, of course, more salacious and explicit poems that Catullus composed about Clodia.  But I find that the subtlety and simplicity of Poem 5 makes it particularly erotic.  The standard interpretation of lines 1-6 are is the theme of carpe diem (seize the day) , with reference to our mortality but I have always viewed these lines rather differently.  The chiasmus in the first line (vivamus mea Lesbia amemus) brings to mind an image of Catullus and Clodia intertwined in bed among tangled sheets, eager for their much anticipated  sexual encounter.  He begins his poem, and his encounter with her,  slowly and languidly with the hortatory subjunctives (vivamus-“Let’s live” and amemus-“Let’s love”) and builds up to the intense immediacy of the imperative da -“give”-as he demands many kisses from her.   He is in the throws of fervent lovemaking when he uses the periphrastic (we must sleep for one perpetual night) and the anaphorae— the repetition of deinde, centum, mille—mimic the rhythm of their lovemaking.   And finally, when he has climaxed, he comes back to the more languid subjunctive forms (sciamus, possit, sciat), and suggests that the intimate details of their encounter, the exact number of their shared kisses, be mixed up so that no one will know and spoil their furtive encounters.

The hyperbole in this poem–“give me  a hundred kisses, then a thousand,” etc.–, which many have found silly, demonstrates just how much he loved her and was willing to risk to be with her.  They had to be very careful to meet secretly at the home of a trusted, mutual friend.  Catullus mentions in the first line of Poem 5 that men are gossiping about their love affair and in the last line comes back to the idea that there are those who envy the pair and wish them harm.  I imagine Catullus as a man of means, he was a wealthy Roman with high social status, who was willing to use and even risk those means to be with Clodia.  Some might accuse me of being a bad feminist, but I greatly admire Catullus, a strong man who would move heaven and earth and defy convention to spend time with the woman he loved.

I also imagine that Catullus was an infinitely patient man as weeks and even months must have gone by in between the times he was able to spend with Clodia.  When he does get to spend the night with her he doesn’t want it to end and his wish that they be suspended in one perpetual night together demonstrates how few and far between their trysts must have been. In an age of instantaneous, electronic communication and social media we seem to have lost our patience for anything and anyone who doesn’t give us immediate pleasure all the time.  I am realistic enough and old enough, some might say jaded enough, to know that an enduring love like Catullus’s is extremely rare or non-existent in an age where we so quickly swipe left, delete, unfriend, block, ignore, hide and cast aside.

Catullus’s poetry is deceptively simple and every time I translate his poems I find another layer of meaning.  Up next, I will attempt a translation of Catullus Poem 7 which is the companion piece to Poem 5 and also involves kisses.  In addition, I will explore the influence of the Greek, Alexandrian poets on Catullus’s style.   For anyone who wants to read all of Catullus’s 116 poems in translation, the Oxford World’s Classics Text by Guy Lee and the Loeb by F.W. Cornish are my favorite translations.  The Loeb translation is a bit archaic as it was published in 1913, but I find the style fitting for Catullus.

My friend who inspired these posts suggested that I translate one of  Horace’s Odes, which are nearly impossible to render into mellifluous English.  I would also like to translate some of Seneca’s Trojan Women and Ovid’s Heroides.  I would love to have more suggestions for Latin authors to translate, so please leave some requests in the comments for me!

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The Best of Bests: Kleos In Logue’s War Music

achilles_agamemnon_pompei_mosaic_namnaples_100006Achilles and Agamemnon, Scene from Iliad Book I.  Mosaic, Pompeii

As I discussed in my first post on Christopher Logue’s War Music, it is jarring to read an interpretation of the Iliad that does not begin with the first line of Homer’s epic.  Logue instead chooses to begin his poem with a concept of kleos, an idea that is central to understanding the motives of the Bronze Age heroes who agree to follow Agamemnon across the Aegean to scale the walls of Troy.

In most English versions of the Iliad, kleos is translated as “glory” or “fame” but these definitions do not fully capture the complexity of this Ancient Greek word.  When Logue begins War Music, Achilles is having an upsetting conversation with his mother about Agamemnon’s violation of xenia and his greedy, selfish behavior which has caused fighting among the Greek warriors.  In the course of speaking to his mother, Achilles mentions to Thetis the prophecy about his fate in life: he can choose not to fight at Troy, go home and live a long life but no one will remember who he was or any deeds he accomplished.  This path will not give him any kleos.  However, if Achilles stays and fights the Trojans, he will die bravely in battle and although his life will be cut short, he will have great kleos.  When we view kleos in the context of Achilles’s conversation with his  mother, we come to understand that kleos is fame or glory that lasts well beyond a hero’s life.  Men for generations will remember Achilles and the stories of his excellence (arête) on the battlefield if that is the fate he chooses.  Kleos is derived from the Ancient Greek verb kluein, “to hear” so kleos can also be defined as what other people hear about a man, for generations after his death.

In order to better understand kleos, we have to look at the Bronze Age view of the Underworld as it is presented to us in the Odyssey.  When Odysseus recalls various shades from the after life, Achilles is one of the old friends he meets and speaks with.  Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a slave or a man of humble means on earth than a king of the dead.  The Homeric view of the afterlife is a very bleak one, the heroes wander around in a type of limbo and there is no chance for reincarnation such as that presented in Vergil’s stoic version of the afterlife.

So the heroes who fight at Troy believe that they get just one life, just one chance to do something brave and heroic, something that people will remember long after a hero has died.  The opportunity for this type of fame, or kleos, presents itself in the form of valor on the battlefield.  That is why they agree to cross an ocean to help capture a city that has not done anything to personally provoke them.  Helen’s beautiful face many have launched Menelaus’s ship, but getting her back is an opportunity for the other warriors to fight on the battlefield at Troy and earn kleos.

James Redfield in his pivotal book Nature and Culture in the Iliad, argues that there is a social aspect to kleos, a man must earn his kleos from the society in which he lives.  Redfield writes:

Kleos is specially associated with the gravestone.  Society secures its memories of the dead man by creating for him a memorial to perpetuate his name, and remind men to tell his story.  He will not be utterly annihilated.  Thus the kleos of the hero is to some extent a compensation to him for his own destruction.

There is one final aspect of kleos that Achilles brings up when his shade speaks to Odysseus from the grave.  Achilles is eager to hear about the heroic exploits of his only son, Neoptolemus, and when Odysseus confirms that the young  man has proven himself to be a valiant warrior in his own right, Achilles is most pleased.  Kleos, thereforeis also carried on from father to son, it is something that is nurtured and fostered and carried on from one generation to the next.  A man’s kleos can become greater if his son carries out heroic deeds.  Part of Medea’s motivation for murdering her own children is that she will not allow Jason’s kleos to continue on through their son.  Also in the Odyssey, Telemachus eagerly awaits the homecoming of his father because it is his paternal kleos that he is eager to carry on.

Logue not only begins War Music with the theme of kleos, but he deftly weaves it throughout his interpretation of the Iliad.  Logue captures the notion of kleos on the very first page of War Music, with his fast-paced, heavy hitting poetry. Achilles says to his mother:

You had had me your child, your only child,
To save him from immortal death. In turn,
Your friend, the Lord our God, gave you His word,
Mother, His word: If I, your only child,
Chose to die young, by violence, far from home,
My standing would be first; be best;
The best of bests; here; in perpetuity

Notice that Logue uses some of his favorite poetic devices to emphasize Achilles’s kleos which will be greater than any other man’s.  Anaphora, for instance, is used to highlight the fact that Achilles is to Thetis her “only child.”  “His word” is also repeated which shows Achilles desperately clinging to the promise made by Zeus himself that he will have kleos.    Achilles’ will “be best,” “The best of bests.”  And my favorite of Logue’s literary devices, which is pervasive in War Music, is asyndeton.  Logue’s elimination of any and all connective words makes this entire speech dramatic and urgent and puts an exclamation point on the reason, the only reason, that Achilles stepped foot on the beach of Troy in the first place—to gain kleos.  And finally, attaining kleos is the one thing that keeps Achilles from carrying out his threat launched at Agamemnon to sail home and not help sack Troy.

Why don’t the Trojans just pack Helen up, open the gate and send her back to Menelaus?  Their reasons for fighting this war are not simply to let Paris keep his stolen wife or to defend their famous walls.  In Book II, Logue turns his attention to the Trojans who also desire kleos.  Hector gives a speech in which he says that he is tired of hiding behind the walls of Troy and wants nothing more than to fight the Greeks in combat:

We are your heroes.
Audacious fameseekers who relish close combat.
Mad to be first among the blades,
Now wounded 50 times, stone sane.

Hector wants kleos just as much as any Greek but he does have one additional motivation to fight Greece.  Up next, my post will be about Hector, my favorite Homeric hero, and the concept of aidos.  And in the future other aspects of War Music that I would like to explore are the role of the gods and fate and the role of women as prizes and wives.

war-music

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Review: A Very Russian Christmas

a-very-russian-christmasThis fascinating collection of Russian Christmas stories, many of which have been published here in English for the first time, is a glimpse into the celebration of this holiday from a simpler age which is long past.  Christmas in the twenty-first century has become the season of massive and ugly consumerism, a time when obscene amounts of money are spent on the latest and greatest toys and gadgets.  The Christmas tales in A Very Russian Christmas, penned by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Teffi, Chekov, Korolenko, Zoshchenko, Lukashevich, and Gorky bring us back to the holidays of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when children were thrilled to receive fruits and small trinkets that decorated the Christmas trees.   In these stories we encounter festive gatherings of different classes of people, reflections on what it meant to live a good life, and lastly, and most importantly, merry making that involves lots of vodka.  Lots and lots of vodka.  Klaudia Lukashevich describes young, Russian children who are eager with anticipation for the Christmas tree to be decorated and are so excited about celebrating Christmas with their extended family:

And now it appears—a shapely green tree, to which so many legends and recollections are tied…Hello, you sweet, beloved tree!  In the midst of winter you bring us the evergreen smell of the forests and, drenched in little lights, you delight the children’s gaze, just as according to ancient legend you brought joy to the gaze of the Holy Infant.  Our family had a custom for major holidays to make each other presents, surprises, to unexpectedly bring great happiness and joy.  Each quietly prepared his handmade gift; we memorized poems; for the New Year and for Easter we placed the handmade present under our napkins…We were engrossed in this tradition and it brought us much happiness.  The gifts were simple, inexpensive but they caused much delight.

My favorite story in the collection is, not surprisingly, from Chekhov who is the undisputed master of the short story.  In “A Woman’s Kingdom,” he gives us the character of Anna Akimovna who, despite living in a lavish mansion and being surrounded by wealth and luxury, suffers from a deep loneliness.  Anna’s parents and uncle are deceased and at the age of twenty-six she is an heiress and the reluctant owner of a large factory.  Other than an old aunt who lives in the lower part of her home, Anna has no other relatives and has not married or had any children.

When Christmas comes around Anna is surrounded by people who pay their respects to her as a member of the upper class and as a prominent owner of a successful factory.  Many people beg her for money which makes her feel uncomfortable and perplexed as to how best to help the lower classes.  Chekov vividly sets the perfect festive scene in his story as Anna dons her most beautiful dress, greets dozens of guests, and has a lavish dinner with rich food, wine and vodka.  Even though Anna is surrounded by people and engages in a variety of holiday activities that would be the envy of many, she is always the loneliest person in the room.  Throughout the course of Christmas Day as Anna is taking part in the festivities, she begins to think about one of the factory workers she has recently met and experiences feelings of hope about the prospect of getting married.

A lawyer who is an old family friend visits for Christmas dinner and Anna shares her feelings of loneliness with him.  He offers this humorous and hopeful advice to Anna:

The fin de siècle woman—I mean when she is young, and of course wealthy—must be independent, clever, elegant, intellectual, bold and a little depraved.  Depraved within limits, a little.  For excess, you know, is wearisome.  You ought not to vegetate, my dear; You ought not to live like everyone else, but to get the full savor of life, and a slight flavor of depravity is the sauce of life.  Revel among flowers of intoxicating fragrance, breathe the perfume of musk, eat hashish, and best of all, love, love, love…To begin with, in your place I would set up seven lovers—one for each day of the week…

Anna’s retort is that she is “lonely, lonely as the moon in the sky, and a waning moon too…”  The only thing in the world that will make her happy, Anna believes, is a deep and abiding love that comes with a marriage.  Chekov makes the point that all of our feelings and emotions—hope, love, kindness, compassion, loneliness— are heightened and even exasperated during the holidays.  Anna feels her loneliness more keenly as she greets her guests, but she also feels more hopeful that she will find true love.  As Christmas Day ends, however, and the clock strikes midnight, Anna loses hope for marrying a factory worker and becomes resigned to her loneliness.

I especially enjoyed the Christmas settings in these stories which described celebrations among family and friends, interesting holiday traditions, cold and snowy weather, and a spirit of hope.  New Vessel Press, one of my favorite small presses, has published their first hard cover book filled with stories from Russian masters who show us what it means to celebrate a very Russian Christmas.

I would like to wish all of my readers, followers, fellow bloggers, and bibliophiles a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

 

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, Novella, Russian Literature

Review: The Heart of the Leopard Children by Wilfried N’Sondé

leopard-childrenThe Heart of the Leopard Children is Wilfried N’Sondé’s first book to be translated into English.  It was written and published in French and this English edition has been translated by Karen Lindo.  This title is part of the Global African Voices series by the Indian University Press whose mission is to publish “the wealth and richness of literature by African authors and authors of African descent in English translation. The series focuses primarily on translations of new works, but seeks to reissue longstanding classics that are currently out-of-print or have yet to reach English-speaking readers.”

The unnamed narrator in this novella emigrated to Paris from the Congo when he was a small child.  His parents were hoping to escape poverty in Africa, but the deplorable conditions in the housing project where they live with many other immigrants is not much better than their original home.  The narrator is sitting in a jail cell because he has been accused of a violent crime.  In between beatings from the police, he reminisces about his younger days which he spent with his best friend Drissa and his girlfriend Mireille.

My full review appears in the January 2017 issue of World Literature Today.  To read my full review click on the link: http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2017/january/heart-leopard-children-wilfried-nsonde

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Rage—Sing Goddess: Some initial thoughts on Logue’s War Music

war-music

Homer’s Iliad begins: μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος and the best translation I have ever seen of these first words of the epic is from Robert Fagles: “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles…”

I was disappointed, at first, how Logue chose to begin War Music, his modern reimaging of the Iliad.   As a classicist I naturally expected some version of the first line of the Iliad. The Fagles translation is my favorite because he just nails the translation of Homer’s first line—he puts “wrath” first, which is what Homer very deliberately does in the Ancient Greek. And every ancient epic after that in the tradition of the Iliad follows suit and puts the most important word, the word that sets the tone for the entire poem, as the very first word. So not to see this line at all was a bit startling. But,  I was immediately drawn in and excited by the exchange between Achilles and his mother. Logue manages to bring Achilles extreme form of rage to the forefront in just a few words. I quickly realized that Logue captures the spirit, the essence and the central concepts of Homer’s war poem and he does it with his own unique poetic style that, at times, is quite startling.

In the opening dialogue with his mother, Achilles is telling Thetis about the quarrel he has had with King Agamemnon. When his mother interrupts him we get the first small glimpse of his anger with a short, abrupt dialogue that is typical of Logue’s style:

Will you hear me or not?
Dear Child…
Then do not interrupt.

And when Achilles and Agamemnon almost come to blows:

Achilles’ face
Is like a chalkpit fringed with roaring wheat
His brain says: Kill him. Let the Greeks sail home
His thigh steels flex.

And when Achilles asks his mother to help destroy his own Greeks:

Let the Greeks die.
Let them taste pain.’
Remained his prayer
And he for whom
Fighting was breath, was bread,
Remained beside his ships
And hurt his honour as he nursed his wrong.

Xenia is an important part of the mores of the ancient Greeks during the Bronze Age and the main conflict in the epic poem is caused because of a violation of this custom.  Xenia is translated as “guest-friendship” or “hospitality” and it covers three important circumstances.  First, if a person welcomes a guest into his home the expectation is that the host provides a warm place to sleep, good food, a bath, wine and entertainment.  In the Odyssey, Polyphemus perpetrates a horrible violation of this aspect of xenia when, instead of feeding Odysseus and his men, he eats some of his guests.

The next area that xenia covers is the mutual respect due to a host when one is a guest in another man’s home.  A house guest is expected to be polite, grateful and provide a gift to the host.  There is also a violation of this concept of xenia in the Odyssey when the suitors  have placed a burden on Telemachus and Penelope by overstaying their welcome, eating all of their food and being rude to their hosts.  The suitors are the ultimate bad house guests.

The conflict that is central to the plot of the Iliad also begins with a violation of xenia by Paris who was a guest in Menelaus’s home and stole something very important, Menelaus’s wife.  Instead of providing Menelaus with a gift, he takes something from his host that does not belong to him. Logue eloquently and simply writes: “Troy harbours thieves.” Menelaus, his warmongering brother Agamemnon and the rest of the Greeks are attempting to scale the walls of Troy to get Helen back, or so it seems.  They each have very different motives for being at Troy, which I will discuss a little later.

The final aspect that is associated with the concept of xenia is that of respect towards a suppliant.   If a Greek is approached by another man as a suppliant, begging for a favor and offering rich gifts in return for that favor, a Greek must be respectful and capitulate.  Logue, in two short pages, has a powerful and succinct description of Agamemnon’s violation of this aspect of xenia.  Cryzia, the Priest of Apollo, approaches Agamemnon as a suppliant and offers a ransom to get back his daughter whom Agamemnon has taken as his prize:

Two shipholds of amphorae filled with Lycian wine,
A line of Turkey mules,
2,000 sheepskins, cured, cut, and sewn,
To have his daughter back.

Agamemnon not only refuses Cryzia’s request as a suppliant but he also insults and threatens him:

If, priest, if
When I complete the things I am about to say
I catch you loitering around our Fleet
Ever again, I shall with you in one,
And in my other hand your mumbo rod,
Thrash you until your eyeballs shoot.

Logue’s style is fast-paced, poetic, graphic, and shocking. In just a few words he presents the spirit of xenia through the pleading words of the Priest and the enormity of the gift he is offering. And with Agamemnon’s violent and startling retort, he lays out the enormity of the violation of xenia by this arrogant and self-centered king.  One example of Logue’s writing genius is his handling of Agamemnon’s character with a focus on Agamemnon’s mouth. “Mouth, King Mouth,” Achilles shouts to Agamemnon when they are fighting over Agamemnon’s unacceptable and dangerous behavior.  The king listens to no one, he is brash, and he is all mouth. By contrast Nestor says about Achilles: “Your voice is honey and your words are winged.”

There is one final to mention about Logue’s first chapter.  In the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles, Achilles brings up the oath that these men have taken about Helen when she is married to Menelaus.  The myth of Helen’s betrothal is a very specific piece of the Troy Saga and it struck me that it would be nearly impossible for a reader to understand Logue without being familiar with Homer as well as other parts of the Troy cycle.  In a conversation with Tom whose blog is  Wuthering Expectations, we both agreed that reading the Iliad first is a must before one begins to understand Logue on any level.  I am curious if anyone has tried to read Logue without first being familiar with Homer and the myths of Troy.

I have decided to cover Logue’s masterpiece over the course of several posts and talk about his brilliant rendering of more Homeric values in War Music. Why are these men really there? Could their sole motivation really be to recapture another man’s wife, despite any oath they might have? The answers lie in the Greek concept of kleos and arête. I am hoping that my posts will encourage readers to pick up both the Iliad and War Music.   Stay tuned…

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