Tuesday, February 24, 2009

LZ Catullus Raw & Cooked

Louis Zukofsky's Catullus [New York-London, Cape Goliard Press in Association with Grossman, 1969], stands as one of the major works of literature of the 20th Century, right alongside Ulysses, The Waste Land, Mrs. Dalloway, Spring & All, Harmonium, The Naked Lunch, Light in August; in other words, in the company of those works which propose revolutionary, new paradigmatic conceptions of form and method.  Of that company, it's the only one which is a work of translation, and as such, occupies a nearly unique place as an act of innovation.  In his very brief Preface to Catullus, Zukofsky says "This translation of Catullus follows the sound, rhythm, and syntax of his Latin--tries, as is said, to breathe [my italic] the "literal" meaning with him."  

Translations of "ancient" classical languages (Greek, Latin, Arabic), have traditionally followed the assumption that the "meaning" of a work lies somewhere exterior to the actual text, a presumption that supports the belief that translations of works from one language to another are permissible (or only possible), given the distance between/or inherent unlikeness of, the two languages, by completely transforming the original work, carrying its "sense" but nothing of its grammar, sound, or look.  This is what traditional translation does, has been.  

Our sense of what Vallejo or Apollinaire or Akhmatova might be like to native speakers in their original respective languages, is largely confined to what we imagine, based on versions we have in our own language (English).  It is often said, as Frost did, that poetry is what cannot be translated.  Pound thought that to work, good translations had to be "re-imagined" by the translator in the new language, assuming that the translator was sensitive enough to those qualities in the original tongue, to be able to carry this feat off.  

In addressing the issue of how to "re-imagine" a poem from another language, we must try to define what the "untranslatable" alembic--its "poetic" content--might consist of.  Our deepest sense of language, of the characteristic quality of how things sound and mean, are associated, occurs in early training, in childhood.  Some individuals  retain greater degrees of receptivity to linguistic qualities, well into adulthood.  Polyglots learn other languages more easily, and may be better able to feel "inside" of the qualities of another language than others.  (I once heard it remarked that Creeley's early work derived much of its antique power from his having carefully read in classical Latin. Whether or not you believe that, it does seem that poets who have the experience of poetry in another tongue, are better able to re-imagine it in their original tongue, than if they simply worked from cribs (simple translations of words)).  

It occurred to Zukofsky at some point, that translations based on the formality of verse current in his youth (1920's) were hackneyed versions of contemporary styles, which did not, in any significant way, create a "sense" of the root qualities of feeling of the originals upon which they were based.  Rather than "re-imagined" versions, they were nothing more than new poems about (or based on) the content of the originals.  If the essence of a poem's deeper meaning is not just in the paraphrased content, then where is it?  It must lie in the intimate, particular connections between its assigned signifiers (words, and their constituent parts) and the objects, sensations and senses to which they refer, in other words, the somewhat arbitrary mental associations from the defined uses of language. 

How to get at these associations, without creating, willy-nilly, a new arbitrary set of relationships?  

Zukofsky proposed making a translation of Catullus's original Latin texts by following, as closely as might be possible, the sequence of vowel sounds inherent in the Latin words of the poems.  Why?  In other words, is there any necessary relationship between the sequence of vowel sounds in an original poem composed in Latin, in the 1st Century BC, and the possible imitated sequence of similar (not identical) vowel sounds in 20th Century English, and the inherent linguistic meanings which might be common to both?

Let's look at an example of one of Catullus's poems, one which, conveniently enough, Zukofsky had translated in an earlier, (Poundian) "imagined" style, then compare the two methods.  Here is a translation LZ made of Carmina VIII, the 22nd poem in his separate collection Anew published in 1946:

Miserable Catullus, stop being foolish
And admit it's over,
The sun shone on you those days
When your girl had you
When you gave it to her
              like nobody else ever will.
Everywhere together then, always at it
And you liked it and she can't say 
                                                she didn't
Yes, those days glowed.
Now she doesn't want it: why
                       should you, washed out
Want to. Don't trail her,
Don't eat yourself up alive,
Show some spunk, stand up
                                               and take it.  
So long, girl. Catullus
                                               can take it.
He won't bother you, he won't
                                               be bothered.
But you'll be, nights.
What do you want to live for?
Whom will you see?
Who'll say you're pretty?
Who'll give it to you now?
Whose name will you have?
Kiss what guy? bite whose
Come on Catullus, you can
                                               take it.   

In almost every respect, this is a poem composed in the usual style common to every "adapted" version.  A free verse monologue set as dramatic speech, it could be the "complaint" of any love-sick hero, attempting to console himself with false courage and resignation.

Now let's see how Zukofsky does it in his "breathed" version:

Miss her, Catullus? don't be so inept to rail
at what you see perish when perished is the case.
Full, sure once, candid the sunny days glowed, solace,
when you went about it as your girl would have it.
you loved her as no one else shall ever be loved.
Billowed in tumultuous joys and affianced,
why you would but will it, and your girl would have it.
Full, sure, very candid the sun's rays glowed solace.
Now she won't love you: you, too, don't be weak, tense, null,
squirming after she runs off to miss her for life.
Said as if you meant it: obsinate, obdurate.
Vale! puling girl. I'm Catullus, obdurate,
I don't require it and don't beg uninvited:
won't you be doleful when no one, no one! begs you,
scalded, every night. Why do you want to live now?
Now who will be with you?  Who'll see that you're lovely?
Whom will you love now and who will say that you're his?
Whom will you kiss? Whose morsel of lips will you bite?
But you, Catullus, your destiny's obdurate.

Here is the original Latin:

Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,
et quod vides perisse perditum ducas.
fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles,
cum ventitabas quo puella ducebat
amata nobis quantum amabitur nulla.
ibi illa multa tum iocosa fiebant,
quae tu volebas nec puella nolebat.
fulsere vere candidi tibi soles.
nunc iam illa non vult: tu quoque, impotens, noli,
nec quae fugit sectare, nec miser vive,
sed obstinata mente perfer, obdura.
vale, puella. iam Catullus obsdurat,
nec te requiret nec rogabit invitam:
at tu dolebis, cum rogaberis nulla
scelesta, nocte, quae tibi manet vita?
quis nunc te adibit? cui videberis bella?
quem nunc amabis? cuius esse diceris?
quem basiabis? cui labella mordebis?
at tu, Catulle, destinatus obdura.

I took one year of Latin in grade-school, perhaps just enough to be able to sound out the syllables properly, but without much conviction.  From a pragmatic point of view, what purpose might we put to an attempted version, like LZ's abstract, syllabic one--which relies on the concatenation of syllables from the other language?  It's immediately apparent that the common sound phonemes and syllabic units between Latin and English are predictably exploited, i.e., "miserable" and "miss her." The different versions "say" the same thing, though in much different ways--

Come on, Catullus, you can

                                                 take it.


But you, Catullus, your destiny's obdurate.        

Looking at the Latin and English versions, line by line, you can see the imitation isn't slavish, or precise. It's an exercise in finding English equivalents which might be coined out of what is--in effect--an arbitrary sequence of sounds, rather like a composer taking a chance progression of notes and attempting to construct a sensible melodic line out of it.  Perhaps not completely, since English is close enough to its (partial) Romance language ancestry to echo--albeit distantly--the familiar "sounds" (or sound roots) of two thousand years ago.  The process is an exercise in mediated invention.  I can think of no other example in the arts which requires as much interpretative genius to bring off, as Zukofsky's Catullus.

Translation, as an exercise, can force inventions and accommodations.  Rhyme, in fact, is often used in just this way, to enable and prompt potentially unsuspected or fresh combinations. These new combinations may indeed sound like inspired nonsense:  

Latin: Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo

LZ version: Piping, beaus, I'll go whoosh and I'll rumble you

The literal translation of which, for those of stout mien, is "I will bugger you and face-fuck you." 

Children may derive giddy delight in word games, which make of repetition and absurd rhyme a celebration of innocent play in possibility.  At base, our pleasure in language is greatest when we are attuned to the dance of syllables making sense out of air.  The habitual is familiar, but in art, the unfamiliar is a gift.  The seemingly random quality of syllables in a language we don't understand--or are at the least unfamiliar enough with to not hear it as empty quotidian--may inspire creative uses of language.  


Kirby Olson said...

I remember reading about 8 translations in college and thinking Zukofsky's was the worst. I understand his miming the sound, but what about the sense? Doesn't it matter that it becomes very hard to understand what's being said? Catullus is supposedly like graffiti, simple, clear and direct.

I haven't understood Zukofsky's vogue, but found it interesting to read this, and the claims you make for this translation.

Curtis Faville said...

A literary document's popularity isn't a measure of its importance in the history of experimental form.

No one reads Ulysses, at least not more than 20 pages or so. No one reads more than a page or two of Finnegans Wake. Does this mean Joyce is "unimportant"? Obviously not.

Zukofsky's reputation as a writer will stand or fall on his own authored works. But his Catullus is an important benchmark experiment in translation, one that carries to a verifiable limit the possibilities of a method which may, or may not, bear fruit for other, future explorations. It's certainly more readable than Joyce's two great titles. Many people would find it more approachable than Gaddis, or Pynchon.

The difference here is that all the other translations of Catullus subscribe to the same view: That the basic content of any poem lies OUTSIDE the text, that the text is just a convenience, a container, and that that container can be altered, and re-visioned and re-created in another style, in another trope, at will. Millay's version of Baudelaire. Mandelbaum's version of Dante. Heaney's version of Beowulf. They all are doing exactly the same thing. We know all about those attempts, and how they fail or succeed. But the REASONS they succeed or fail have basically NOTHING to do with their models. They're basically a fictional adaptation of someone's imagination of the original. But all alike, formally.

Michael Carr said...

Among these major works of literature of the 20th century listed at the start of this post, Catullus is not only the only translation but is notably also the only that is a collaboration, as one can at least make out from the cover image that this a work translated by Celia and Louis Zukofsky, even if it can't be made out from the post itself.

Curtis Faville said...

Michael Carr:

Yes that's quite right. There has been a small campaign the last several years to more or less "give Celia her due" with respect to their shared literary efforts. A24 being in large part a musical setting created by her.

My understanding is that Celia created the cribs or jots (basic translations) from which Louis worked on his versions. I don't know--I don't think anyone does at this point--the degree to which her contribution was limited to this, or whether she had any "editorial" input to the versions. Feminist preoccupations aside, I think it's very clear from the whole thrust of LZ's career and writing, that the family unit was of enormous importance to his writing persona, and he drew great inspiration from it--intimate, devoted, even sacred. It's an example almost unique in literature, the foregrounding of the marriage/family relationship as the generator of subject, care, pleasure and delight.

I would take issue, though, about the matter of collaboration. It is clear from the Waste Land edition published after Eliot's death, that Pound was heavily involved in the editing and arrangement of that work, to a degree that it is generally acknowledged as a kind of collaboration.

Georgie said...
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Curtis Faville said...


Thanks for the corrigenda on the Latin--I've corrected it. I have virtually no Latin.

I am attempting to draw a distinction between traditional translation, and what Zukofsky attempted. His method is an experimental one, based on the sound template of the original. There's no ordinary "rational" reason to believe such a method might be more successful in carrying the SENSE of the original more fluidly or gracefully. That's the problem with translation. But LZ was willing to go to the trouble of conducting the experiment in order to show what might occur, what might be possible. Are his versions "superior" to other traditional ones? That's a completely separate question, one that has been addressed, and will be again in future; but that wasn't the purpose of my post.*

"Almost every translator of the Classics, especially sense Pound, has tried to get something of the melos of the original into the translation. To say they carry over “nothing of its grammar” is, I think, absurd. I’m not sure of your “look”—most of these things are in tatters, to use Kenner’s word, and such visual translation tests are perhaps extraneous to translation of poets’ work that was primarily aural." This is my point exactly: Traditional translation has been the translators' "imagination" of the sense of the original; but if each translators' sense is different, in what way can any of these be brought closer to the actual TEXT?

Clayton Eshleman showed what might be possible in his Vallejo translations. These aren't based on syllabic imitation, but re-invention in a way that carries Pound's suggestion one step further: They're linguistically similar in the KINDS of constructions that probably RESEMBLE Vallejo's characteristic use (I don't know Spanish, so can't judge his success).

I don't think LZ went wrong either. Nor am I attempting to denigrate all other translations. Obviously, many, many have merit. But the evident failure of so much translation which so many scholars have described, cries out for new alternatives. LZ tested one way. It's a feat, a dare, almost scientific in its commission. A brilliant, revolutionary example.

Thanks for the contribution.


*Attempts at quasi-scientific analysis of literary artifacts have been attempted before. Josephine Miles studied recurrence and frequency over time in certain periods of literature. To give an example: Catullus's Latin "obdura" still carries, for us, the force of its original root meaning, hence LZ's re-use "obdurate." LZ's English version is thus "bound" to the original sense through linguistic opportunity. The degree or mutation the language has undergone over time, "saved" the root obdure (to harden), from extinction. Hence it survives.

Georgie said...
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Curtis Faville said...

No. I've read several different "versions" of Sappho, but have no idea how the originals might work for me.

One thing Pound did was use deliberate "archaisms" when translating The Seafarer. That is, by artificially "antique-ing" with an ersatz datedness. Using an intermediate style--mediate (adjectival sense) between the time of the original poem, and the time of the archaic constructions--to "imitate" its "oldness."

I think that can work, though on its face it's a fabrication.

Couldn't we say LZ was satisfied with having text'd a startlingly improbable and fascinating set of specimens? Do we require that they be true to their models? Or can we posit a new form, neither translation, nor original work, which this attempt proposes? An original, unique thing?

Georgie said...
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Curtis Faville said...

"I’m not sure this is very different from ANY attempt to translate something"

And so we come full circle.

LZ was interested in the "test" concept--i.e., A Test of Poetry--to take a form and submit it to a test, test your ability, using the form as a limit and measure.

The interesting thing is that one might get radically different versions by different hands using his sound imitation method. The degree of this difference is a measure of the quality of one's mind (LZ's quite extraordinary).

Obviously, what we admire about Ulysses or Waste Land or Naked Lunch isn't the compelling narrative or relevance of meaning, but the formal invention. I think the same measure applied to LZ's Catullus yields high marks. Ultimately, I don't think we usefully COMPARE other Catullus translations with LZ's, at least not in the usual way, i.e., which is more persuasive, powerful, evocative, etc. It's a phenomenon, as in WCW's an "addition to nature."

Georgie said...
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Kirby Olson said...

I still think the translations are a mistake, basically because in trying to recapture the feeling and wording of the original, he's neglecting what will work in contemporary American English, and instead trying to make it look and feel like Latin, which has a different grammar, a different cadence, and different syntax.

There were a lot of attempts in the 70s to translate from German and French based purely on what they thought a poem might say, based on what it looked like to an American eye.

I did some of those. I think they were ultimately all a lost cause. Ultimately I did learn French and German just to see how close I came, but now I see those mistranslations as a lot of youthful fun and nothing more.

Still, I am glad you made these strong claims for Zukofsky's work. I think a lot of what passed for good in the seventies was ultimately a mistake.

The whole notion of Language that came out of the misreading of Saussure and Lacan ended in a kind of half-translated poetry, which was ultimately an unreadable mess where you more or less have to feel sorry for the poets since few of them really knew what they were talking about in regards to the theorists they claimed to come from.

In another way, you could say that Breton's mistranslation of Freud also led to some very poor ideas.

(Breton had the notion that poetry and humor and a good life were about getting rid of the superego, and even when Freud corrected him in person, Breton went right on with his misunderstanding of Freud, right up almost to the end, when he finally argued that communal regulations, or the notion of the father, was not something one could merely dispense with.)

Almost everything is a bad idea.

Curtis Faville said...

I believe that LZ's translation project on Catullus began somewhat earlier than the Sixties.

In any case, his effort was, I believe, an experiment, to see what would happen if you actually tried to translate using the sound. It's not rational--i.e., the "meaning" of the syllabic sounds in Latin isn't close enough to English (a Celtic language, instead of a Romance language, though there's a lot of residual romance stuff in it) to permit even enough "accidental" coincidental cognates to make a congruence possible. But--aside from the mystical aspects of imagining that some kind of magic sound element might "carry" something through the membrane--it's mostly an exercise to see what combinations and possibilities it might generate.

Certainly LZ's version is a queer and fascinating document--lots of weird new idioms, invented extempore to suit an imagined equivalent.

Again, Kirb, it isn't a "straight" translation, and shouldn't be read that way. That's not its purpose, not its potential, not its strength. Though with repeated readings, certain things do begin to make more sense than on a cursory first reading.

On balance, humankind's percentage of "good ideas" is probably not very great. Are we batting .105? Probably not even good enough for the minor leagues!

Kirby Olson said...

In most lives creeps at least one very bad idea.

Kenward Elmslie once told me that the reason he liked Ron Padgett is that for a poet he almost never entertained any really bad ideas.

Georgie said...
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Kirby Olson said...

It takes a lot of crisscrossing motivations to learn another language, because learning another language is an enormous undertaking.

I wanted to read Philippe Soupault's novels in the original. I translated two of them word for word, and then went to a French graduate student and got him to correct them page by page.

With that, I then coiuld read French. So when I went back to graduate school I wanted to see if I could understand spoken French. So I sat in a graduate class and found that I could.

Ultimately in Finland I had several French friends. One thing kind of lead to another.

The German dropped off after I visited Germany and found a very hostile and suspicious people in the Bavarian area where I had chosen to vacation. They creeped me out, and I dropped it. But originally I wanted to read Kafka's novels in the original. It's very clean clear German, and isn't very difficult to learn to read at all.

Now I'm struggling with Finnish and Latin, but part of my motivational problem is that there is no target text that I'm just dying to read. That's what seems to really motivate me, in particular. Once you get to a level where you can hear the intonations in a literary text, and get a feeling for it, I think you are pretty far into the language.

But I still can't joke in French, or at least not reliably. I will tell a joke, and sometimes people will be amazed, other times they've already heard it.

It's difficult to deal with rejection as a humorist, so joking in another language is a very difficult proposition.

I can't imagine Codrescu's task, even if he's now been here longer than in Romania by a ration of four to one.

I wonder what the real percentages of etymological derivations are in English of all the world's languages. Very few Finnish words are in English. The only one that I know about is sauna.

Georgie said...
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Kirby Olson said...

I am thinking that Greek might be a good language to learn. I'd especially like to read St. Paul, and Apollonius of Rhodes, and Euclid.

The Roman civilization doesn't strike me as nearly so brilliant as that of the Greeks. The Romans discovered nothing at all to add to Greek mathematics, for instance.

In Finnish, there is one text I'd sorta like to read: it's Vaino Linna's North Star trilogy, which is apparently amazing.

I don't think there are any good translations from French. There is one American writer who is much better in French: Poe. Baudelaire actually improved on the original.

Georgie said...

"I am thinking that Greek might be a good language to learn. I'd especially like to read St. Paul, and Apollonius of Rhodes, and Euclid."

The 4 main gospels are pretty horrid in Greek (especially John, who is usually said to be Hebrew, or at least non-natural to Greek--you could probably look at the Greek without even knowing it and realize he's struggling with it). Paul is much more comfortable in the language (and familiar with rhetorical traditions, if you compare his different "undertones"/"overtones" in writing letters to different peoples). But most of what I'm saying above is pretty much a cliche in the "Biblical scholarship" areas.

"I don't think there are any good translations from French. There is one American writer who is much better in French: Poe. Baudelaire actually improved on the original."

I agree; I've never seen a good translation from French to English. Supposedly the reason Poe's influence was so great is because of the French translations.

Georgie said...
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