The Carmina of Caius Valerius Catullus, by Catullus


A scholar lively, remembered to me, that Catullus translated word for word, is an anachronism, and that a literal English rendering in the nineteenth century could be true to the poet’s letter, but false to his spirit. I was compelled to admit that something of this is true; but it is not the whole truth. “Consulting modern taste” means really a mere imitation, a recast of the ancient past in modern material. It is presenting the toga’d citizen, rough, haughty, and careless of any approbation not his own, in the costume of today — boiled shirt, dove-tailed coat, black-cloth clothes, white pocket-handkerchief, and diamond ring. Moreover, of these transmogrifications we have already enough and to spare. But we have not, as far as I know, any version of Catullus which can transport the English reader from the teachings of our century to that preceding the Christian Era. As discovery is mostly my mania, I have hit upon a bastard-urging to indulge it, by a presenting to the public of certain classics in the nude Roman poetry, like the Arab, and of the same date. . . .


Trieste, 1890.

[The Foreword just given is an unfinished pencilling on the margin of Sir Richard’s Latin text of Catullus. I reproduce below, a portion of his Foreword to a previous translation from the Latin on which we collaborated and which was issued in the summer of 1890. — L. C. S.]

A ‘cute French publisher lately remarked to me that, as a rule, versions in verse are as enjoyable to the writer as they are unenjoyed by the reader, who vehemently doubts their truth and trustworthiness. These pages hold in view one object sole and simple, namely, to prove that a translation, metrical and literal, may be true and may be trustworthy.

As I told the public (Camoens: Life and Lusiads ii. 185–198), it has ever been my ambition to reverse the late Mr. Matthew Arnold’s peremptory dictum:—“In a verse translation no original work is any longer recognisable.” And here I may be allowed to borrow from my Supplemental Arabian Nights (Vol. vi., Appendix pp. 411–412, a book known to few and never to be reprinted) my vision of the ideal translation which should not be relegated to the Limbus of Intentions.

“My estimate of a translator’s office has never been of the low level generally assigned to it even in the days when Englishmen were in the habit of translating every work, interesting or important, published out of England, and of thus giving a continental and cosmopolitan flavour to their literature. We cannot at this period expect much from a ‘man of letters’ who must produce a monthly volume for a pittance of £20: of him we need not speak. But the translator at his best, works, when reproducing the matter and the manner of his original, upon two distinct lines. His prime and primary object is to please his reader, edifying him and gratifying his taste; the second is to produce an honest and faithful copy, adding naught to the sense or abating aught of its especial cachet. He has, however, or should have, another aim wherein is displayed the acme of hermeneutic art. Every language can profitably lend something to and take somewhat from its neighbours — an epithet, a metaphor, a naïf idiom, a turn of phrase. And the translator of original mind who notes the innumerable shades of tone, manner and complexion will not neglect the frequent opportunities of enriching his mother-tongue with novel and alien ornaments which shall justly be accounted barbarisms until formally naturalized and adopted. Nor will any modern versionist relegate to a foot-note, as is the malpractice of his banal brotherhood, the striking and often startling phases of the foreign author’s phraseology and dull the text with well-worn and commonplace English equivalents, thus doing the clean reverse of what he should do. It was this beau idéal of a translator’s success which made Eustache Deschamps write of his contemporary and brother bard,

Grand Translateur, noble Geoffroy Chaucier.


‘The firste finder of our fair langage’

is styled ‘a Socrates in philosophy, a Seneca in morals, an Angel in conduct and a great Translator,’— a seeming anti-climax which has scandalized not a little sundry inditers of ‘Lives’ and ‘Memoirs.’ The title is no bathos: it is given simply because Chaucer translated (using the term in its best and highest sense) into his pure, simple and strong English tongue with all its linguistic peculiarities, the thoughts and fancies of his foreign models, the very letter and spirit of Petrarch and Boccaccio.”

For the humble literary status of translation in modern England and for the short-comings of the average English translator, public taste or rather caprice is mainly to be blamed. The “general reader,” the man not in the street but the man who makes up the educated mass, greatly relishes a novelty in the way of “plot” or story or catastrophe while he has a natural dislike to novelties of style and diction, demanding a certain dilution of the unfamiliar with the familiar. Hence our translations in verse, especially when rhymed, become for the most part deflorations or excerpts, adaptations or periphrases more or less meritorious and the “translator” was justly enough dubbed “traitor” by critics of the severer sort. And he amply deserves the injurious name when ignorance of his original’s language perforce makes him pander to popular prescription.

But the good time which has long been coming seems now to have come. The home reader will no longer put up with the careless caricatures of classical chefs d’oeuvre which satisfied his old-fashioned predecessor. Our youngers, in most points our seniors, now expect the translation not only to interpret the sense of the original but also, when the text lends itself to such treatment, to render it verbatim et literatim, nothing being increased or diminished, curtailed or expanded. Moreover, in the choicer passages, they so far require an echo of the original music that its melody and harmony should be suggested to their mind. Welcomed also are the mannerisms of the translator’s model as far as these aid in preserving, under the disguise of another dialect, the individuality of the foreigner and his peculiar costume.

That this high ideal of translation is at length becoming popular now appears in our literature. The “Villon Society,” when advertizing the novels of Matteo Bandello, Bishop of Agen, justly remarks of the translator, Mr. John Payne, that his previous works have proved him to possess special qualifications for “the delicate and difficult task of transferring into his own language at once the savour and the substance, the matter and the manner of works of the highest individuality, conceived and executed in a foreign language.”

In my version of hexameters and pentameters I have not shirked the metre although it is strangely out of favour in English literature while we read it and enjoy it in German. There is little valid reason for our aversion; the rhythm has been made familiar to our ears by long courses of Greek and Latin and the rarity of spondaic feet is assuredly to be supplied by art and artifice.

And now it is time for farewelling my friends:— we may no longer (alas!) address them, with the ingenuous Ancient in the imperative

Vos Plaudite.


July, 1890.

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