Skip to content

Translation, Expanded Translation, Version, Mess.


By PETER RILEY.barbed rule

Peter Hughes, Quite Frankly: After Petrarch’s Sonnets.
Reality Street Editions 2015 | 358pp paperback. | £12.50, $16.00

Tim Atkins, Petrarch Collected.
Atkins Crater Press (no. 17) 2014 | 574pp paperback. | £16.00, $20.88

Robert Sheppard, Petrarch 3: a derivative dérive.
Crater Press, Crater no. 36, 2016 | One sheet folded to 32pp. | £4

barbed ruleFollowed by shorter reviews of

Alan Halsey, Versions of Martial.
Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2015 | 214pp paperback. | £12.00

Laurie Duggan, The Epigrams of Martial.
Pressed Wafer (U.S.A.) n.d. | 86pp paperback. | $12.00

Philip Terry, Dante’s Inferno.
Carcanet 2014 | 160pp paperback. | £12.95, $21.99

Virgil, Aeneid Books I-VI translated by David Hadbawnik, illustrated by Carrie Kaser.
Shearsman Books 2015 | 222pp, paperback. | £5.71, $20.96

Catullus, Carmen LXIV translated by Simon Smith.
Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2012 | 20pp pamphlet. | £4.00

The Books of Catullus, translated and edited by Simon Smith.
Carcanet 2018 | 160pp. | £12.99, $16.99

Bad Kid Catullus, edited by Kirsten Irving and Jon Stone.
Sidekick Books 2017 | Card bound, unpaginated. | £9.89

barbed ruleTrevor Joyce, Fastness: A translation from the English of Edmund Spenser.
Miami University Press 2017 | Parallel text | 130pp paperback | £12.29, $16.59

barbed rule.

WORKS CLAIMING THE NEW TAG “expanded translation” are found to occupy a very wide range of different procedures, some incompatible with each other, and the treatment of the original varies from respectful representation to outright animosity. To investigate how far translation of classical or canonic poetry can be pushed away from the original in terms of modernisation, personalisation, and democratisation, I have chosen to look at a selection of translations of classic texts, starting with these by Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes.

Petrarch 61, 1-41

Benedetto sia ‘l giorno e ‘l mese et l’‌ anno
e ‘l tempo et l’ora e ‘l punto
e’l bel paese e ‘l loco ov’io fui giunto
da’ duo begli occhi che legato m’ànno

Robert M. Durling (1976)2
Blessed be the day and the month and the year and the season and the time and the hour and the instant and the beautiful countryside and the place where I was struck by the two lovely eyes that have bound me.

Peter Hughes (1/47)
blessed be the catastrophic moment
when I plunged in up to my parting
the great moment fused to its location
exacerbating bondage to these eyes

Tim Atkins
Beatnik grease increases ardour in cellars
When the eyes go out in Avignon
There was a torture for traitors which involved tying planks
On either side of a leg and then tightening with ropes

THAT SHOULD BE the right poem because it’s numbered 61 and, in Petrarch Collected, Tim Atkins includes the longer poems (Peter Hughes’ is numbered 47 because he omits them). There are some one-word connections: Blessed/Beatnik, eyes/eyes, bound/tying. That seems to be all. There are some possible sonic connections (legato/leg) and Petrarch did live in Avignon. The remaining ten lines offer no help.

Atkins’ versions can’t be approached in this way. The great majority of the 366+ pieces can’t qualify as translations by any definition, and taking them word by word against Petrarch or Peter Hughes (or, by contrast, against Robert M. Durling’s conventional translations) you normally come up immediately against something like ”beatnik grease”and there are certainly some items which have no connection to Petrarch at all in either sense or sound.

But this is “expanded translation” and so Atkins is free to be inconsistent, and in Petrarch Collected, it is possible to stumble across a piece like no. 310, one of Petrarch’s best known poems:

Petrarch 310

Zefiro torna e’l bel tempo rimena
e i fiore e l’ erbe, sua dolce famiglia,
et garrir Progne et pianger Filomena,
et Primavera candida et vermiglia

Atkins 310
The clocks go forward
& the flowers & the grass his sweet family
& Plant calls to page the weeping song
& springtime pure white pink blues

For a modernising and recklessly erasing translator relying on bathos (as they all do) the first line is a brilliant transformation, after which he mimics Petrarch, first literally (line 2, though “sua” has has been stripped of meaning by the changes in line 1) then erratically (line 3), then literally (I find ‘blues’ stuck on the end of the line rather banal). It is as if he is continually teasing the reader, and one way of doing this is to have a line or so of straight translation (which he does well) suddenly crash into what is (as far as anyone can know) a completely meaningless transfer whether echoic or not, as from Procne to Plant whoever he or she is. The reader is mocked for expecting either sense or affect. And in spite of the stuttering proximity to Petrarch, turning from this to both Durling and Hughes is like a return to Petrarch’s use of language as a weighed and elevated discourse, in spite too of Hughes’ changes of subject.3

Durling 310
Zephyrus returns and leads back the fine weather and the flowers and the grass, his sweet family, and chattering Procne and weeping Philomela, and Spring, all white and vermilion

Hughes 269
the west wind blows through naturalism
displacing narrative and messing up
all the scattered oddments on the table
thereby helping fructify the structure

We are obviously dealing with different practices of translation… opposed to each other in the basic question of how they exist as “translations” and…as “poems.”

That Hughes sometimes departs quite far (or totally) from the original text doesn’t alter the fact that we are obviously dealing with two different practices of translation. Even if they are united in opposition to “normal” (more or less literal) translation, they are opposed to each other in the basic question of how they exist as “translations”, and ultimately how they exist as “poems”.

But both of these have been classed together in a new academic category for which the term “expanded translation” has been coined. There have been at least two academic conferences on this entity in the short time since it was invented. I don’t think it was a good choice. The new title immediately endorses the practice: if it is “expanded”, it is suggested that it is greater in scope than the original, addressing a bigger world or a more various readership, whereas in fact it could as easily be narrower, more confined in concept or blocked in transmission, and addressed only to academic or specialist readers. But I suppose it had to be made respectable; you can’t hold conferences on “messed-up translation.”4

It’s a fluid concept. At its lowest ebb it merges with “free translation” or “version” which has been going on for centuries. At its extreme it changes just about everything and is unrecognisable as a product of the original. So it is not just a matter of departing from the original wording: all translation of poetry does that. Fidelity is always subject to the influences of idiolect and history, and probably only the twentieth century maintained a belief in the possibility of an absolute and precise representation, principally by the exclusion of rhyme and metre, for when you take sense as the central issue nothing distorts the representation as much as rhyme, which approximates or substitutes meaning, and can easily produce a different poem belonging to an earlier century.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

This confidence has produced an industry in which it is assumed that there is no problem, that it is a flat field in which the work of “Andorra’s leading poet”, or whatever he/she might be, can be rendered into English on demand so that you “have” the poet there on your bookshelf. I don’t deny that this has produced a lot of valuable work granting us quite intimate access to a lot of important poetry, but the quality of representation is unsure. The risks are particularly great when a foreign poet is in such demand that considerable quantities of translation are needed, even to the extent of a complete collected poems and prose in translation. Earlier translations of Mandelstam were involved in thus kind of stampede, as are recent translations of Celan and, further back, Rilke, whose poetical idiom was badly violated. Different “straight” translators produce different poems, sometimes radically, a fact which tends to be glossed over.

Probably the worst method of achieving representation in translation is when a “literal” version is…handed to someone functioning as “poet” who will turn it into poetry.

Probably the worst method of achieving representation in translation is when a “literal”, usually prose, version is produced by someone who knows the language, which is then handed to someone functioning as “poet” who will turn it into poetry. But you can’t “turn things into poetry”— the poetry has to be there in the whole concept of the work. The virtue of accuracy, or fidelity to a reality, is surely a necessary factor of poetical writing in the first place. And what if sense is actually, in spite of all the romantic or aestheticist preaching, the primary element of poetical utterance, is in fact the light that illumines the whole poetical theatre? What can the poet then do with the sense delivered to him with instructions to poeticise it, but mess it up. I generally find that in co-authored translations of this kind it is likely to be the poet who wrecks a useful sketch of the poem’s content by injecting trade-mark distractions and allowing wider approximation than the literal version did.

Some of the standard or “merely” informative translations of poetry issued in the last century are as elegant and emotive as any poets’ versions.5 To be “literal” is not such a mechanical process as is assumed, for there are always uncertainties which necessitate choices beyond the plain representative, and the translator’s personal idiolect is inevitably involved. Durling’s Petrarch’s Lyric Poems of 1976 (which I think all these meta-translators use) is one of these. Why, then, should it have to be bettered?

One answer is the formula trotted out for all the cheap rewritings of classics from Homer onwards: to make it a thing “for our times”. This is a phrase to be dreaded, especially in announcements of theatrical or operatic presentations. I was surprised to see it wheeled out in the introductions to Atkins’ Petrarch. These works, by Petrarch, Catullus, Aeschylus, Dante or whoever, are already perfectly modern and perfectly relevant as they stand, even within the shaky framework of literal translation. And “our times” is a climate we do not all recognise uniformly by any means. I can for instance, confidently say that the “We” assumed in the “for our times” of the recent perversion of Lorca’s Yerma by Simon Stone for the London stage, is a community to which I have no access. Those times are somebody else’s times.

The avowed purpose of poetical translation has, at least since about 1800, been to represent the original poet, but further before that it is not. When Wyatt “translated” a Petrarch sonnet he was not doing it in order to make the English educated or courtly classes aware of Petrarch, to awaken them from their ignorance of a great European poet. The original poet was not even mentioned—the word “Petrarch” did not occur, any more than did the word “Wyatt”. He was taking up Petrarch for guidance in locating the content and manner of the kind of poetry he had in mind, which he might do by rendered an entire sonnet, or just using it to supply three or four lines. This anonymity of original and translator continued through the 16th Century (all those Italian madrigal poems) save in long narratives, and I’m not sure when it gave way to current practice of acknowledgement. Certainly attachment of the English author’s name came first; the collection known as Tottel’s Miscellany (1557) already showed interest in it.

Expanded translation doesn’t just change the text, it perverts and distorts and mocks and erases it, all these to a greater or lesser degree.

Expanded translation doesn’t just change the text, it perverts and distorts and mocks and erases it, all these to a greater or lesser degree. Hence there is a significant distinction between “extended” and “free” translation. The tone is normally more or less cavalier, and effects of bathos are everywhere, for “now” is invariably a more vulgar climate than “then”, or you could say that the elitism of all antique poetry is cancelled in favour of “democratic” aural language (even if only an elite can interpret it). The updating function runs to an extreme: we are so far ahead of Petrarch or whoever, that the entire vocabulary needs replacing, and especially, the elevated, literary impedimenta of the fourteenth-century poet need to be replaced by things like tin openers, buttocks, Chairman Mao, beatnik grease, etc. And for some, distressingly antiquated properties such as sentences and content have to be eradicated.

PETER HUGHES SEEMS not to want to let go of Petrarch. It is as if he wants to retain an elegance and a stability from the past which can survive the blockage and scatter he himself puts in its way in order to inhabit a modern condition. So he is at least sometimes able to be in dialogue with Petrarch. The degree of transformation varies from quite minimal to near-total, and seems to progress in that direction.6 At the beginning of the book a poem like no. 14, “Movese il vecchierel canuto e bianco…” is closely governed by Petrarch: “mottled and arthritic the man heads east…”, transferring the action onto the self, and remains so throughout. Towards the end of the book Hughes mainly seems to take a word or two from the original and write from there (which is Atkins’ normal technique). The vocabulary also shifts, for we start getting more abstract terms, particularly words used descriptively or critically in cultural studies (cf.”naturalism” in the second quotation above). But there will always (perhaps not quite always) be some trace or imprint of Petrarch in the resulting poem. Most of the poems are love-poems, or whatever difficulty or complaint they work through, the resolution at the end is likely to involve “she”.

Atkins changes the words; Hughes changes and displaces the subject matter, sometimes completely, which necessarily involves changing the words. But there still is a subject matter, there are still sentences, declarations, exclamations, appeals, promises, thanks. It is still a European transmissive language being spoken, and much of the time it is still yearning, which is the dominant tone of a great deal of European romantic and modernist (and, of course, Petrarchan) poetry, and a distance is maintained from the American animalistic version of the human spirit which Atkins cultivates. Even when there is nothing in the poem which seems to relate to Petrarch at all, the words still form the shape of the sonnet, recognisably Petrarchan by the breaks after lines 4, 8 and 11, standing there like a shadow from six centuries back. The frequent incorporation of quite familiar phrases misquoted helps to maintain the dialogue, as echoic lyric intervention becomes a normal occurrence. [161/128 O passi sparsi…: “I wandered bony as a cod …”]

Hughes’ long connection to Italy is itself echoed in his rendering of Petrarch’s endless quest for a love which denies itself and cannot come to a settlement, as in 169 (Hughes 136), Pien d’un vago penser che mi desvia… / “Full of yearning thought that makes me stray away from all others and go alone in the world”:

my thoughts fly by EasyJet to Pisa
then into a range of different hire-cars
setting off in opposite directions
in search of something we need to escape…

The paradox of that fourth line inhabits the whole book, as a personal and a literary declaration. What we search and need to escape might be Petrarch, or Italy, or art, or many other things. But the helplessness of the ending (Durling: “when I have decided to discover my ills to her I have so much to say that I dare not begin.”) is treated by Atkins with the utmost plainness “I dare not begin — I have so much to say” curtailing an episode of absurdity, as against Hughes’ diversionary: “the urge to beat about the bush goes on.” The twists and turns of unpredicated verbal comedy in the process of recasting Petrarch’s gestures are a characteristic of Hughes’ manner and produce some of his most effective and subversive strokes.

MEANWHILE, TIM ATKINS operates at such a distance from me and moves so quickly that he’s gone before I know he’s there. Perhaps I should not even review him. My mind is too slow. (I’m still trying to work out “Beatnik grease”. Also “bloke fur binges”.) The kind of poetical writing with which he replaces Petrarch is surely descended from “The second New York school”, now forming a sub-category in Britain, which might be at least partly characterised as an episode of poetry “liberated” from resonance, depth, and intellection, as from content (Atkins has occasional remarks denying the validity of content) and from history — poetry as fun, poetry as drug, a trance-poetry which rejoices in contradiction and in self-depiction. Some of it is a plain vaunting of life-style (a particular life-style, easy-going, self-stimulating, hedonistic…). But Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets (1964) are so much more poetical, so much more elegant, so much more sonnets, than most of Atkins’.

From from time to time you come across a perfectly straight writing taking its cues from Petrarch, which is miles away from the extravaganza of most of the book.

And yet from time to time you come across a perfectly straight writing taking its cues from Petrarch, which is miles away from the extravaganza of most of the book, and transmits directly, sometimes even plainly, though not necessarily transmitting what Petrarch actually wrote. This occurs in small fragments all over the place but sometimes it holds the stage for several lines, perhaps for a whole poem, though I haven’t located one. It might be inclined to happen in the longer poems, and also with the most celebrated poems. Both translators tend to nod towards Petrarch at such points. One such poem is 310/269, “Zefiro torno…”(above) which was taken up by so many musicians. Another is no. 190, about the white doe in the grass with golden horns: “Una candida cerva sopra l’erba / verde m’apparve con duo corna d’oro…” Hughes is actually quite abstractive here, “there is always a gap in the shadows /courtesy of some hallucination…”


At 7. 47AM my
Her body is shining like a pearl beneath
Gap jacket scarf grey sweater shirt & pink vest walking
Past the black tower & on down never
In this life to wake with my face in the pie-pan…

In spite of the gender-neutering details this is very effective as a domestication of Petrarch though of course nothing like him in manner. The union of affect and slapstick is a mode Atkins would achieve more often if he weren’t also committed to inserting weasel terms which can destroy even the smallest transmission. Atkins is also the only one to take advantage of the possibility of comedy at the end of the poem,: “Falling into the old pond/Instead of love”.

One thing that’s obvious is that Atkins isn’t exactly bowled over by Petrarch, and the book enacts a kind of extended critique by casting bits of frivolity and silliness against his sonnets. (The picture on the book’s cover is of Petrarch’s bust with an iced donut for a head). Atkins looks at 360-plus poems one by one and finds there’s nothing, or almost nothing, in it (or what is in it is now redundant) and from those nothings improvises anti-poems. The Preface and Introduction (by Laird Hunt and Jèssica Pujol y Duran) deny this: “One mind’s field of words bent on by another” and both insist on identifying the poems as “versions”.

But if Atkins “bends on” Petrarch he does it to asphyxiate him and the bulk of the poems take no account of Petrarch at all, or take no more than two or three words from Petrarch to act as springboards for something else. When there is polemic, as there is from time to time, it is against Petrarch’s purpose, and his techniques, such as metaphor, are denounced. Both introductory texts are defensive, which I wouldn’t have thought necessary, and their technique is to protect him by building a massive wall of poets’ names round him, mostly American but beginning with Shakespeare.8

Tim Atkins’s poetry rolls along on a distant island and I haven’t got a boat, but I’m perfectly happy to know it is there even if I don’t really get the point of going to such trouble to demote a fourteenth-century poet, one moreover who cannot now be said to be a great influence on contemporary poetry — unless of course you’re Ezra Pound, who, it may be recalled, angrily dismissed Petrarch in several of his irritating rants. Perhaps the whole succession which leads to Atkins’ kind of poetry is a development from, and urban sophistication of, the Pound of Personae.

SOMETIMES, IN SOME of his most absurdist episodes, there is a flash of determined intent which could lead to the thought-process behind the whole thing. The “episode of absurdity” I referred to just now regarding the ending of no. 169, reads thus:

It is absolutely essential to abandon the metaphor
In order to save time & yet
The practice of practicing koans
Changes one’s name from Francisco or Timothy
To Omar Bongo Minge Badger or Pooman Bassie
I dare not begin – I have so much to say

(The Zen Buddhist term koan has a very complicated definition but here we can take it as being some kind of challenging, contradicting, reversing, defeating trope, or entire poem or story, meant to jolt the disciple into rethinking.) What we are offered here is the erasure of the scripted person or author, the blockage of transmission by impossibility, everything reduced to nil, which is a seriously aesthetic, and common, reading of modernity. But I don’t understand that “& yet” nor “save time”. Abandoning metaphor is an old sub-Poundian banner and of course you can’t do it because metaphor is entirely built into the language itself; it is the node of transfer in the most casual greeting.

ROBERT SHEPPARD’S BROADSHEET Petrarch 3: a derivative dérive, consists of 17 versions of sonnet no. 3 “Era il giorno…” including the original Italian, straight English, and one dated 1401 (it says). The others are “expanded”, in a manner generally more declarative in a colloquial and raucous manner than Hughes and Atkins, retaining features of the original progression through the poem (which narrates Petrarch’s first sight of Laura) but otherwise ranging all over the place, as you’d expect. The one that most interested me was a “semantic” translation in memory of, and in the manner of, Stefan Themerson, a name I haven’t seen for many years—a kind of anti-romantic and mock-scientific experimenter who died in 1988. Here the small details of the translation are expanded by paraphrase and explanation within the text until the sonnet occupies four pages. It is quite like the Biblical study sense of expanded translation mentioned below in my footnote 4 but also tongue-in-cheek. Similarly one of the dedicatees is Nicholas Moore, author of Spleen: 31 versions of the same Baudelaire poem (1973), 9 a virtuosic founder text of “expanded translation”, not, of course, called that at the time, with a serious autobiographical underlay. Attempting to refold Robert Sheppard’s broadsheet is like the struggle you have with those double-sided Ordnance Survey maps.

HALSEY AND DUGGAN adopt the same attitude towards translating Martial: modernising in straight spoken English, aiming at wit reinforced with verse techniques such as rhythm and close echo, and occasional end-rhyme. Both achieve a lot of Martial’s sharpness. Duggan is rather more inclined to smooth or elegant diction, Halsey to raucousness, choosing the more scurrilous and obscene poems.10 moving many poems into current affairs. Halsey retains the Roman personal names, which has a doubling effect on the sense of occasion or licence. Duggan is likely to transpose to Australia, Halsey to Sheffield. All the poem are short (Duggan: 73 poems, maximum 16 lines; Halsey: 206 poems, maximum 12 lines, but these maxima are exceptional. In both cases there is page after page of two- to five- line poems). (And Martial did write some long poems).

So, plenty of bright, cutting, rude, etc., jibes and demolitions. But I think that both translators make the mistake of thinking that the punch-line is what Martial is all about. That is what they aim at, translating it into modernity in the process, but also compressing and trimming poems because only the final coup is what matters, or is all that’s left, and so omitting the journey to it. In Halsey’s hands eight lines might be all that’s left of a 30-line poem. Contracted translation rather than expanded. Personally, I can’t wait for someone to do expanded translations of the Xenia and the Apophoreta, which are the nearly-neglected two books at the back of the Loeb, containing the equivalent of birthday card verses, couplets to accompany the gift of a cabbage, etc.11

barbed rule

I OUGHT PERHAPS to inform potential readers about two factors in Philip Terry’s Dante’s Inferno which when first encountered could get in the way of taking it seriously. Firstly, if you start by sampling the modernised text of the opening lines against older or standard translations (“Midway through the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.”) you’ll get “Halfway through a bad trip / I found myself in this stinking car park, / Underground, miles from Amarillo”, and here we go again, it seems, into a total degradation of the present tense, mainly in the group-specific language but also in scenes of squalor and disgust, and meaningless interpolations (What is “Amarillo” doing here, whether town or drink or Spanish for “yellow”?)

In fact, the language is rarely like this. It follows Dante’s narrative freely but carefully, moving constantly between colloquial and standard, rhythmically lively and effectively drawing the reader into the story. It is in triplets without rhyme or metrics and with licence to introduce great gaps in the lines, which retain the triplet spacing with only a few words. There seems to be no rationale for this practice: it just happens now and then with a possible effect of pondering. And of course Dante’s narrative has plenty of violent and disgusting scenes. The modernisation takes full advantage of these, inevitably lacking the poise and even dignity which hangs over them in Dante, in spite of everything.

The second caution is, that before you start reading you will have been informed that the entire context and events of Terry’s narrative are situated in the University of Essex. This is its “world” as Dante’s is Florence, and all the encounters are with students, professors, administrators, cooks and cleaners, their circumstances (or sins) apparently actual events, conflicts, affairs etc., of the campus. As Dante extends his scope though the activities of important Florentines into Tuscan politics and spiritual principles, so does Terry through alumni, mainly into Irish affairs (since that is where he comes from). This sometimes gets him miles away from the close details of Dante’s discourse, but he always returns to it.

The decision to site [Dante’s narrative] at Colchester was undoubtedly strange and brought problems with it.

All this is entirely readable, and sufficiently coherent to give considerable impact to the many scenes and interviews. But the decision to site it at Colchester was undoubtedly strange and brought problems with it. It works well in many respects but a lot of it must be lost on those who know nothing about the place, or are not interested in its internecine conflicts. This must be true also of thirteenth-century Florence, and in both cases the integral force of the narrative does, I think, construct a self-sufficient theatre of our condition, but rather more easily with Dante.

Terry’s rewriting of Dante is focussed on three main places: The University of Essex, Northern Ireland, and New York. The last is the focus of his poetical allegiances, and the choice of the American poet Ted Berrigan (mentioned above re Tim Atkins) as the Virgil who guides him through Hell is very significant in identifying Terry’s poetical allegiances (which are shamelessly proclaimed) and a lot of his manner of writing. Not that anything is said on the subject; only poets who attended the University are mentioned, most of them along with other illuminati briefly in Canto IV (as by Dante) with at the most a brief and inadequate clause on each. “Next is Doug Oliver, who descended into / The caves at Winnats Pass to write his epic. “ This is quite pathetic; it would have been better not to mention him at all, nor most of the others.

And Terry no doubt followed Dante in introducing a lot of heavy opinionizing into the story, not only on poetry (briefly, in Canto XXV, but mostly by omission) but also on Irish politics (why is Bernadette Devlin particularly execrated?) and in factual accounts of political events which may not be the whole of the story. In the constant forward-leaning progress of the journey there is no time for extended consideration, so that a brief Poundian sermon on usury in Canto XI, mostly direct quotation of a well-known passage from the Cantos, reads as a poet’s venture into an area more complicated than it suggests, as well as dated.

These are the prices to be paid, I think, for the deliberately bizarre concept of transferring Dante’s vision to a British university: a shrinkage of the poem’s field of action to a provincial arena, which if this could be said also of Dante (I don’t think it can) is emphasised by the formal plan and forgotten in the details of the narrative. This focus also, of course, makes the academy into an exclusive centrality, and if the modernisation is claimed as “for our time” (as it is), a lot of “us” are left out in the cold. I also don’t see how within the terms this version sets, there could possibly be Purgatorio or a Paradiso.

barbed rule
DAVID HADBAWNIK’S AENEID is very much a translation “for our times”, making massive changes to the text, but not to the story or the people; the changes are to the words and the poetry. The aim is to keep the actual substance of the Aeneid intact but transform radically the linguistic lens through which we perceive it. It is translated into “modern poetry” rather than into English. How this is effected depends, then, on what the translator understands modern poetry to be. It is claimed then not to be an “erasing” translation, but rather that it uncovers what to a modern sensibility is concealed under the text, which means among other things the forcing of modern personal “realism” onto the particulars of a text governed by the impersonal demands of the heroic.

I take as a fulcrum text the death of Dido at the end of Book IV, one of the most famous passages, some twenty lines in which Dido, having lost Aeneas in the battle and killed herself by running onto a sword, speaks her last words to her sister who has run to her aid:

Lonsdale and Lee (1871)
So she [Anna] spoke, and had reached the top of the lofty steps, and throwing her arms around her swooning sister, clasped her in her bosom with sighs, and strove to staunch with her dress the black gore. The other, after trying to lift up her heavy eyes, sinks back again; the sword deep fixed grides within her breast. Thrice rising, and resting on her elbow, she lifted herself up; thrice she rolled back upon the couch, and with swimming eyes sought to find the light in the height of heaven, and, when she found it, sighed. Then almighty Juno, in compassion for her long agony and painful departure, send down Iris from Olympus to release the wrestling spirit, and the limbs that are entwined around it. For inasmuch as she was perishing not by nature nor by a deserved death, but miserably before her time, and fired by sudden frenzy, Proserpine had not yet taken from her head the yellow lock, and consigned her life to Stygian Orcus. Therefore Iris flies down through the sky, all dewy in her saffron wings, trailing in the light of the opposite sun a thousand various hues, and takes her stand above her head; “I by command bear away this lock holy to Dis, and release you from this body.” So she says, and with her hand severs the lock: and in a moment all warmth has fled away, and life faded into the winds.

Hadbawnik, representing the whole of the above:

Blood, piss, shit
gush out of me staining
her dress. I left my eyes.
Three times I try to lift
my body, three times I fall
back on the couch, gazing
up at the heavens.
Juno at last has mercy, sends
Iris to loosen my limbs
from my spirit. She flies
down tracing colors
that glisten in morning dew.

Iris clips a lock of hair
with her right hand
and all at once the heat
eases and my life
flies away in the wind.

So in a way it is all there, in 84 words rather than 243. And some of those 84 words have been added —notably of course piss and shit—and several other words are intensifiers. The principal change in it is a shift from an expansive but measured narrative to an instinctive free verse in short lines which, with its tone of lyrical derivation, is somewhat at odds with the need to insist on bodily realities. The first three lines represent a violent shift away from Virgil’s equilibrium; the last three are a fine and compact exact translation of the Latin: omnis et una / dilapsus calor atque in uentos uita recessit.

I find these stylistic conflicts everywhere in the book. I think their cause is the precariousness of the assumption that you can splinter the representation of an ancient epic text into conflicting tokens of the self, by more or less violent shifts of register. It’s like listening to a recital of elegant classical verse in which the performer constantly interjects reminders that he’s one of the lads really, with something like “What the fuck…?” He also finds it necessary to orchestrate passages with sudden majuscules and effects of disparate spacing as if what is being said or happening would be missed by modernity without these megaphonic devices. However, his skill when he’s on an even keel is admirable.

CATULLUS WAS WHERE modern anti-translation began, with Louis Zukofsky’s Catullus (1968-9). These were “homophonic” translations, which means that you ignore everything about the source poem except the sounds that the vowels and consonants make (conventionally) and endeavour to repeat or approximate those sounds in a sequence of English (or other) words. It has been called a “technical tour de force”, but I always thought it was the silliest thing that any American “modernist” ever did. Beside it Atkins is sober. I also think it is based on a mistaken notion of how vocal sounds function in poetry. It’s certainly not expanded translation.

Catullus 112
Multus homo es, Naso, neque tecum multus homost qui
descendit: Naso, multus es et pathicus.

Mool ’tis homos,’ Naso, ’n’ queer take ’im mool ’tis ho most he
descended: Naso, mool ’tis – is it pathic, cuss.

Simon Smith had to be included here. He was present at those extended translation conferences, and is himself a poet foregrounding language and its capacity for subversion. But when the publications arrived I was met with something quite different, especially as the first I saw was the preview pamphlet Carmen LXIV.

No. 64 is one of the long “wedding” poems which form a separate section of the opus. The translation could still be described as modernising, but here is a poet entirely in sympathy with Catullus and concerned to represent his poems as faithfully as possible, opened to the contemporary reader. For a start he does actually translate; he replicates Catullus’ sense closely, sometimes word by word, while always liable to excursions, and he does this within a poetical rhythm and lineation which breathes all the “classical” poise and flow of the original in English. He does this by a syllable count of twelve to the line (with some licence) which readily emerges as an iambic rhythm with four stressed syllables. But even when he does not do this (and Catullus himself was quite free in his prosody) the lines still retains, by various means, the forward-surging serenity of the narrative. Outright modernisation is restricted to occasional single words or phrases here and there (the Loeb “girdle” becomes “brassiere” etc.). The speech patterns, in particular, do not descend into the demotic but retain the high clause structure with its inversions and vocative stressing. The great weaving song at the end comes over with full force.12

Smith’s translation could still be described as modernising, but here is a poet entirely in sympathy with Catullus…

Smith adopts the arrangement favoured by recent scholars of dividing the poems into three books: 1, polymetrics, poems 1-60, which works out as the presumed earlier love poems to Lesbia and other social/erotic poems, 2, the long wedding poems, 61-64, and 3, elegies and epigrams, 65-11, involving darker poems of loss and anger. Smith takes greater licence with the first book in both metrics and vocabulary, which means that he is free when Catullus is free, strict when Catullus is strict.

He is particularly effective in some of the later short and scurrilous pieces, freely substituting telling modernities one by one. Throughout he normally retains the Roman personal names, but the abominable Mentula is invariably called “Knob of nobs”. I think 115 is a good example of how the diction remains unstrained, balanced but modern in the tone of a land-agent enumerating an estate, running into pure disdain.

Nob of Knobs holds nearly thirty acres of meadow,
_____forty of arable; the leftovers marsh.
How can he fall short outstripping Croesus for wealth,
_____where this farmland possesses wondrous things,
meadow, arable, vast forests, endless wastelands
_____to the Hyperboreans, Oceanus?
Every magnificence, the largest yet, he himself −
_____no man but the scariest Nob of Knobs.

Elsewhere, of course, the abuse is virulent and obscene.

The task Smith set himself is a hard one, and there are sometimes signs of strain in accommodating the syllable count to the need for smooth transmission, and in the first book demotic usage which is more violent than it need be. The modernisation principle works principally in the metrics and rhythm, creating an almost constant sense of being in two places at the same time, a couple of millennia apart. But this sense, which is not uncommon in most good translations, is here specifically a matter of being in two poetries at the same time, which illuminate each other.

Bad Kid Catullus is definitely in the “mess” category, as it says itself. It’s a Catullus gallimaufry, hodgepodge, or debauchery (as it again describes itself). What you get is 27 of his poems in Latin (of which 20 from the first book) each followed by “various versions, mutations and departures”. This comprises almost anything you could do to a Catullus poem: old (not necessarily scholarly) versions, new rambling expanded or inflated versions by Harry Giles or Jon Stone, illegible versions, drunk versions, cartoon versions, Google translate versions, and the poem fed through various written and visual structures: Playboy ad., clock magazine, playlist, etc. Then there is a blank page for you to write your own poem, based on your experience or fantasy in relation to the content of Catullus’ poem. Then a few spin-offs, replies, appreciations, computer garbling, ripostes from Lesbia etc.

And there you are. Lots of coloured print and flashy page design too. Needless to say, the version of Catullus projected here does not include the author of the wedding songs, and the attention given to the texts does not approach the quality of Simon Smith’s, but there is plenty of inventive wit at play. Several of the Latin texts are followed by six-word translations, of which my favourite is that for no. 3 (Lugete o Veneres Cupidinesque):

Send help: sparrow dead, girl inconsolable.

barbed rule
THERE’S NOTHING NEW about translating English to English. Pope translated Chaucer in 1707. The purpose of that, of course, was simply to make it readable, and the many slight changes made were directed to the same end. Trevor Joyce’s modernisation is of a very different kind. The original, which is Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, is viewed as a dangerously flawed work and the translation’s purpose is to attack it on all fronts . The justification is of course the history of Spenser’s activities as a coloniser in south-west Ireland in the service of Queen Elizabeth I, including a massacre, and above all for A View of the Present State of Ireland, a thoroughly nasty tract advocating planned famine and total destruction of Irish language and culture which was not published during his lifetime. To Spenser Irishness was an abhorrence, a threat to the advance of civilisation and (with its Roman Catholicism) true religion, and a survival of ”savagery”. The Cantos of Mutabilitie are viewed as an allegorical re-enacting and justification of these acts of conquest.

Joyce’s strategy is to re-write the Cantos as an “Irish poem” and in the process to turn its themes against themselves, which means stripping it of all the glamorisation which masks the “dark allegory” of the narrative. These are basically its period identity, its elevated style, its verse technique and the dignity and elegance of its poetry, in fact its beauty, so that it emerges as an awkward, plain, stylistically incoherent and self-damaging text. So for:

(Canto VI/10)
Tho when the hardy Titaness beheld
__The goodly Building of her Palace bright,
__Made of the Heaven’s Substance, and up-held
__With thousand Crystal Pillors of huge hight,
__She ‘ gan to burn in her ambitious Spright,
__And t’ envy her that in such glory reign’ d.
__Eftsoones she cast by Force and tortious Might,
__Her to displace, and to her self t’have gain’ d
The Kingdom of the Night, and Waters by her wain’ d.

we get:

No sooner had our hardy Titaness
scoped this flash Palace, its sharp courses cut
out of the very stuff of skies, set
on a crystal colonnade, than she wanted
it, and oh, so very very bad! So envy
and ambition raged in her, till she dethroned
the proper queen of night, and arrogated
to herself the darkness and the tides.

I don’t want to go into the historical and cultural programme which Joyce sets out convincingly (though with some unanswered questions) in his Introduction, which bears the main weight of the exercise; without it the “translation” would appear mainly as an act of perversity.13 The central issue is the relation of the two texts which are set out before us en face, arranged so that even the font is translated: one in a quite elegant but unfussy old font (one of the Roman group?), the other, the one served up for us here and now, in an ugly bold sans-serif.

Fastness demands a thoughtful and calm approach because it raises questions which I feel to be entirely unresolved about how blame is distributed through a singular agent (Spenser) into a general complicity (ours, in our absence) and by what strategies it is maintained intact through historical and social conditions with such vehemence that we resort to bombing statues and burning illuminated manuscripts.

Looking at the two versions quoted above, I can’t see the process as equivalent to any of the methods undertaken in the whole field of “expanded translation”, including what I called “erasure” of the original. The process is one of destruction. I think the author might agree about this. The phrases of demotic (if that is what they are, which I doubt) bitterly and demonically scorn the Spenserian figures. At “so very very bad” the Titaness, (equals Cynthia, equals, Joyce maintains, Elizabeth) is a petulant and greedy infant. This, I have to say, seems to be the level of cultural critique we are brought to.

These violent clashes of register are pervasive, they seem to be the principal agent of remonstration against Spenser, made more effective by being embedded in a matrix containing the remains of many lyrical effects, from Spenser or not: little twofold alliterations, iambic offcuts, grammatical inversions etc. (“the very stuff of skies, set/in a crystal colonnade”… “to herself the darkness and the tide” above). Indeed it is difficult to maintain the longer periods of Spenser’s narrative without these effects arising.

Academic commandments prioritising language must be endemic in avant-garde poetry studies now; in a stroke they eliminate actual human participation or intent from the field…

This means that the issue cannot stop at Spenser; a good deal more is inculpated. Among many telling points in the Introduction one sentence indicates the belief that allows the uncontrolled spread of the invective: “…the language in which the whole thing is cast favours those in power against those who challenge and resist.” This academic commandment prioritising language must be endemic in avant-garde poetry studies now, and in a stroke eliminates actual human participation or intent from the field, and in this case risks the loss of any boundary. The effects or skills of which the Cantos are stripped are all said to be representative of authority (though it is difficult to imagine any society operating without some form of authority): rhyme, measure, balance, iambic cadence, euphony, elegance of utterance, high image, and many more… they all stand for authority. Do they really? And if so why not all other pre-modern poetry, like Venus and Adonis? That Shakespeare did not (as far as we know) plan land-grabs and massacres in Ireland or anywhere else does not alter the fact that his poetical figurations share a lot with Spenser’s. Or may it not in the end be poetry itself which is excoriated as authoritarian, or more commonly “elitist”, or at any rate poetry which values the extending perspectives of its own ancestry and enjoys echoic ornamentation. This would include a lot of contemporary poetry and, I would think, a lot of Irish poetry in both languages. But as Richard Darson Brown says, there is an enormous chasm between the versos and the rectos of this book, and no poet should be forced to choose one side or the other.

It is not Joyce’s theory which produces this spillage so much as the process of translation, and the degree of invective in his Introduction, which transgresses the occasion by suggesting that Spenser was in the end an incompetent poet, and enters into a kind of historical personal animosity in connection with Joyce’s own family history. Fastness becomes an act of revenge. Actually, I have always found The Faerie Queene a rather tiresome product, with all its endless royal virginity and saviour marines, and Joyce does at one point allow the figure of Mutability in the Cantos as a powerful conception not unlike Milton’s Satan, the enemy voice which breaks through to the actual. But that’s not exactly the point. The other worrying thing in the end, is that the language-use of Fastness is what we are offered or allowed now for our poetry: a language stripped of all the poetical effects which supposedly tie it to English imperialism, so that to seek to enrich it is to endorse this “authority” and threaten its victims. It can’t be true, and a much more exact definition of the inhering “authority” is needed before it approaches political relevance.

barbed rule
BEATNIK GREASE: a last word. What goes on in these conferences? In my experience poetical academics are adept at drawing things from poems, things which are hidden, encrypted, subsumed, remotely implicit, or simply not-there, and this subject offers all the opportunities in the world for exercising this faculty without restraint. So my insistence that expanded translation is liable to depart entirely from the source text and cancel it in favour of the translator’s own constructs, would be given short shrift. Some kind of subliminal influx would be found which passes from Petrarch through Tim Atkins at his most farcical. Neither could it be allowed that some of the word formations are so abstruse as to be simply impossible and cannot be part of any actual act of ”translation”, that no transfer of any kind can take place, including between poet and reader. Immediately I think of:

Beatnik grease increases ardour in cellars

But if you work at this you can in the end get some substance out of it, though with no guarantee that the author bore any part in it. You could read it as saying that some kind of easy, slippery, oiled, sensibility represented by grease, can be connected with the license of “beat” culture and poetry, “hippie” likewise, which may augment passion (passion for whatever kind of object) especially if enacted in concealment from the world, “underground” as if illicit. The grease would be the elimination of inhibition, a “blessed” condition to those who ask it.

When the eyes go out in Avignon

When the authorities can’t see what you’re up to. (Avignon was the seat of the Papacy at this time). The eyes are also the ayes, the votes in favour, which “go out”— refuse to participate, cast their votes by leaving the chamber in the British fashion, accompany each other in pairs on a regular basis? Enough is enough.14


IN THE END, the argument about expanded translation depends, since all of it is fervently dedicated to modernisation, on what version of the modern world you are moving the poem into, and in what terms the modern world is claimed as an improvement on the classical world, and what is its language. There always is a more or less proud gaining of the present, even in the heaviest complaint about it. Always the new world is sharper, faster, more realistic, unmannered, and democratic, but in a language which in most cases leaves no doubt about the resentment and mistrust the translator harbours towards the same modernity, which shows most starkly in the collisions of extreme registers of language. All these elasticated translators resort a lot to the demotic, which I think is almost uniformly absent from the originals however extreme the subject-matter, but in a way that is difficult to trust. It is mainly a matter of a casual effing, and elimination of any trace of modesty when it comes to bodily details. I can’t feel that it represents or attaches the actual demos, the people, the population at large. It seems rather to project the poet-self into the foreground as heroically foul-mouthed master of the present tense.

“Those earlier poets achieve their effects without getting excited and goading themselves on; they find laughter everywhere: they do not have to go and tickle themselves.” (Montaigne).15

Fortnightly ReviewsPeter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017). His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.


  1. A standard translation, by various contributors, was published by George Bell in 1879 available in a Gutenberg collection here.
  2. Robert Durling’s translations of Dante are well-known, as his his collection of Petrarch’s Lyric Poems.
  3. Following this no. 310, Atkins has 310.2 and 310.4. The first lines of these are, It was the golden age of homosexuality” and “The soft bosom that bit me and bloke fur binges”.
  4. The term “expanded translation” has been used for some time in Biblical studies in a contrary sense. A Greek or Hebrew word which presents difficulties is tackled by using as many English words as needed, expanding the word into a phrase or a whole clause. The explanation is incorporated into the text.
  5. While not exactly “merely informative” J.M. Synge’s versions of Petrarch and others show these qualities well. “Zefiro torno… “: “The south wind is coming back, bringing the fine season, and the flowers, and the grass, her sweet family, along with her. The swallow and the nightingale are making a stir, and the spring is turning white and red in every place…” (1909). Collected Works, One: Poems, 1962, page 92. A faithful and non-interruptive rendering maintaining an enticing prose rhythm delicately indebted to dialect.
  6. Hughes’ Petrarch first appeared in a series of six pamphlets which fairly clearly showed that the collection was written in order from the first poem to the last.
  7. First line: [sic.]
  8. This “debunking” as it’s called in the book, of Petrarch is confirmed by the section of Peter Philpott’s book Wound Scar Memories, which I reviewed here, attacking Petrarch from a P.C. position and using both Atkins and Hughes as source material. My reading of Hughes is quite contrary, but the marriage has become a fixed idea: Robert Sheppard refers to “The Petrarch Boys: Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes”.
  9. Included complete in Moore’s Selected Poems (2014) and accessible on-line on the site
  10. An interesting example of the limits of literal translation occurs in the erotic poems of Martial and Catullus. There are numerous references to what sounds like pederasty as a perfectly acceptable practise within certain limits without risk of opprobrium. So it was and such was the tone, but the fact is that the Latin puer, always translated as “boy” in both scholarly and modernising translations, is more a term of social position than of age. The puer in this context is he who is available to take the passive role in a male-male sexual relationship as permitted by custom, and excludes anyone from families of high social standing. In fact, most would have been slaves or “prostitutes”, and their age is said to have been between twelve and twenty-two or so. Here puer is simply untranslatable and to be accurate you would have to get round it somehow.
  11. Ed. Note—T.J. Leary’s conventional translations of Xenia and Apophoreta are published by Bloomsbury Academic.
  12. I just wish that in his rendition of the refrain, currite ducentes subtegmina, currite, fisu (Loeb: “Run, drawing the woof-threads, ye spindles, run”), Smith had clarified the imperative, rather than leaving it at “Quickly running spindles weave complexity.” A comma would have done it.
  13. For a critique by a Spenser expert see Richard Danson Brown’s review at which I take to be definitive concerning certain misconstruings of Spenser that take place and the partiality of the description of Spenser’s poetry in these Cantos and beyond.
  14. But not quite enough, for at the proof stage I suddenly thought of a better reading of “when the eyes go out in Avignon”. If the eyes are Petrarch’s the line refers to his first sight of Laura in a church in Avignon on Good Friday 1327, as does the original Italian line. This is so obvious that I can’t imagine why it was the last thing I thought of, except that with Atkins there are always obstacles. The obstacle here is the word “out”, which could be an awkward way of saying something like “abroad” or something completely different, such as the sinister possibility of eyes blinded. Perhaps Atkins is “saying” (though that is not what he does) that Petrarch’s realisation of love, and therefore his poetry,  was a blinding. The definitive reading is not quite possible, simply because the poetry’s conception of itself denies definition, throughout. All other possibilities remain valid.
  15. Book II chapter 10, “On books”, translated by M.A. Screech. Penguin edition 1993 page 462.

One Comment

  1. Judy Kendall wrote:

    Very incisive, detailed and unflinching assessment of the murky and sometimes arrogant activities that can occur in the name of translation – really refreshing to read and very much enjoyed the even-handed and unblinkered assessments. So good to come across someone grappling with the complexities of translating, transposing poetic texts in these ways, and unafraid to investigate the dubious ground that is trodden by the poet-translators of which they can be all too often unaware.

    Friday, 23 March 2018 at 06:09 | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.