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Translating the Classics: a conversation with Nicola Gardini on his forthcoming translation of Catullus’ Carmina

(University of Oxford)

Another translation of Catullus in Italian… Is it still so important to keep translating the classics?

No translation is forever. One translates always for his contemporaries. There’s no translation before one’s own translation. There are no contemporaries before one’s translation, even, one could say. Catullus would not need any new translation if everyone could read his Latin. Useless to say, this applies to all authors of all times whose books are in languages we don’t understand. Very few people read Latin by now. And those who can, rarely read more than the most popular poems of Catullus’ book. I wanted to propose Catullus’ book as a whole and attempt to show how beautiful the whole is. Plus, I wanted to translate something ancient, I wanted to become ancient… Translating Catullus enabled me to transcend my time and space and language (given the fact that Italian derives from Latin, linguistic transcendence takes the form of etymological investigation). As a writer, I consider this a most essential endeavour… We’ve got to live more broadly than our biographical dimension allows us to. It’s a moral imperative all humans should try to comply with. Writers do it in the name of their neighbours also. Translation is a good way to do it. Also, you translate for your own language. You want your language – both your personal style and your national mother tongue – to become able to accommodate new thoughts. One translates for love of one’s linguistic history. Translation makes language older (by pushing it towards the far past) and newer (by enlarging its scope) at once.

What is so peculiar about translating Catullus relative, say, to other ancient poets?

Catullus is a concise, crystal-clear and indignant poet. Translating his verse is an exercise in metrical exactitude, verbal clarity and moral scrutiny.

While translating, have you consulted previous translations?

Not really. But I was aware of them all – at least the most recent ones (in Italian and in English). I mostly resorted to commentaries and dictionaries. Previous translations could hardly provide any support. I found them all disappointing (no serious stylistic commitment, no care for the metrical form, no respect for the historical depth of the original). With one exception: Quasimodo’s. But even Quasimodo was no model. He did not respect the verse structure of the original; plus, he just translated a selection of poems by Catullus. But I admired and still admire him greatly. He’s an elegant and poetic translator.

What does your translation have that the previous ones do not have?

I suppose my translation is linguistically more careful. I translated the whole book in Italian verse, respected the various registers in the original (Catullus is remarkably versatile in diction and themes), and tried to appropriate the force of the Latin vocabulary as much as I could. Most translators appear not to care for the force of the original roots. They are verbose, loose and paraphrastic, and easily depart from the semantic concentration of the Latin. I aimed at precision, verbal economy and beauty. I can’t say I always succeeded but I did aspire to such objectives. I hope this shows from what I ended up accomplishing. Also, I wrote an introduction which describes Catullus’ book in quite a refreshing manner, bringing to the fore hidden metaphors and subtle connections between poems. My Catullus is a complex poet – intellectually engaged, stylistically pioneering, and politically alert. I gave up or at least I downsized the love poet of the school tradition. Lesbia occupies but a little portion of the book, and the poems devoted to her belong to a larger conceptual framework than love. The book is centred around such great concerns as social order, political ruin and personal identity. Stuff that should regard us a great deal today.

While translating, did you mean to address a particular public or did you simply rely on your sensibility?

One always translates for a given public. I translated for those who read my novels and essays and poetry; i. e., those people who share my belief in the power of literature and the civilizing power of words, either because they expect to grow through literature (the young) or because they are writers and teachers of literature like myself. Of course, I hope others may find my translation illuminating and involving. I feel hugely gratified when I receive supportive emails from people who have no proper literary education.

Do you think that a translator should identify with the author he translates? In other words, how much of Catullus’ original voice did you manage to retain?

Catullus’ original voice is his Latin. I could not reproduce that entirely in my Italian. But a translation is not supposed to be a carbon copy of the original. A translation is something else and has got to be valued as something else. That “something else” is a critical act, an ethical statement of sorts. I reckon I managed to imitate his rhetorical strategies, his tenderness, his violence, his erudition… In these translations I definitely used my Italian as I would not habitually use it in my poetry or fiction. Still, these translations are my own work. And I hope they will be read as my own work. I am by no means an advocate of the so-called impersonality of the translator. Translation is a kind of “political” statement. Therefore there must be someone who accounts for it. One translates because he thinks that in so doing he will express some creed, some belief… I want my beliefs to be understood as coming from my own life, from my own mouth, from my own experience… I want my name to be associated with my translations. Or it would mean I lost my bet.

What poem could Catullus have published in a poetry blog?

Some protest… Most of Catullus’ poetry is protest. Carmen 12: the denunciation of a thief.

Catullo, Carmina. Il libro delle poesie (Milan: Feltrinelli, forthcoming)

A preview: carmen XIII

Cenerai bene a casa mia, Fabullo,

tra pochi giorni, piacendo agli dèi,

se con te porterai una cena buona

e ricca, e pure una bella ragazza

e vino e sale e tutta l’allegria.

Se, amico mio, porterai queste cose,

cenerai bene: infatti, il tuo Catullo

di ragnatele ha pieno il borsellino.

Tu in cambio avrai l’essenza dell’amore,

sostanza ricercata e soavissima:

perché ti darò un balsamo che Veneri

e Amori hanno donato alla mia donna.

Prova a odorarlo e pregherai gli dèi,

Fabullo, di mutarti tutto in naso.

Nicola Gardini is Lecturer in Italian at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Keble College. He has published extensively on the Renaissance, on modern and contemporary literature, on poetics and the theory of poetry. He is the author of many translations from Latin and Greek, and from English; his latest translation of Catullus’ Carmina will be published in April 2014 by Feltrinelli. He is also poet, novelist and painter: his novel Le parole perdute di Amelia Lynd (Feltrinelli, 2012) was awarded the Viareggio Prize 2012, and he has recently published a new novel, Fauci (Feltrinelli, 2013). More on www.nicolagardini.com

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This entry was posted on January 28, 2014 by in Memory.
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