Saturday, January 22, 2011

Catullus, Translated by Ryan Gallagher

The full title of this is: The Complete Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, published by Bootstrap Press (2008). Bootstrap’s website is currently under construction. I choose not to bury the lead: this is a worthy translation of a fascinating poet.

Ryan Gallagher is one of the founder’s of the press, which is located in Lowell. Chugging away in Lowell. I was given this book a couple years ago, and wrote about it here at Tributary. This book deserves greater notice.

Catullus wrote with such vigour that his writing retains great energy despite the centuries passed. What if Ted Berrigan were born in 84 BCE…? Or Wieners…?

I had a translation years ago that I found dreadful because of the translator’s attempt to sound contemporary. Alas, it merely sounded anachronistic. The slang, which, like with Villon, is part of the richness of the writing, was not that of the translator’s day (the 60s, I think), but more like the 20s and 30s. Anachronistic anachronisms, a layered misplay. Needless to say, I discarded the book and forgot the translator’s name.

The mistake is not in trying to capture the vitality of Catullus’ language, but that the translator used essentially another foreign language to bring Catullus to modern readers. It didn’t work. Perhaps for no reason, I am reminded of a book reviewed by Poe. The book was written in English but the footnotes (by the author) were unaccountably in French. It is a curious extra effort, and it seems like that translator likewise sweated more than necessary.

That identifies the charm of Gallagher’s versions. He doesn’t seem to be sweating it. He’s a poet, schooled at Naropa. He brings to mind Brian in Life of Brian, versus the centurion. The centurion (as you will recall) catches Brian writing inflammatory graffiti. The stern representative of Rome chastises Brian for poor declensions, forget Brian’s anti-imperialist message. One would think that Pound’s admonishments a century ago would have cleared things up in the world of translation, but too many ‘scholarly’ translations redeem themselves like a stick in the mud. They fail to transmit the energy.

The poems are coarse and lively and not fit for work. They are really fun to read. They breathe quite well in English. Gallagher clearly enjoys Catullus, didn’t just grab the first Latin poet handy.

I wish the Latin originals were set facing the translation just to see better what Gallagher translated from. One always wants to piece what one can from the original.

Gallagher devotes 40 pages to essays written on various aspects of Catullus. His review of previous translations—he does not seem to include the clunky one I first met Catullus with—not only gives a good sense of the field, but also clarifies Gallagher’s own attitude towards the poet and towards translation. This is a particularly fresh and useful document.

I wonder if this work did not spring from some college project, a masters thesis or such. Gallagher is curiously modest with this work. His name remains small on the cover and the title page. Not that he is meek, but he seems like an island of one against the continent of entrenched scholarship. He’s not satisfying some university press here, nor acting out of publish or die. His glowingest words go to the translation by the Zukofskys, which, tho well scholarshipped, as I understand, is certainly a wild experiment,.

You know the wisecrack: if you can’t play, coach. No less true, it seems: if you can’t write, translate. Gallagher cracks that one. This book is pissa, verging on wicked pissa.

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