What Can We Steal From David Macey’s Translations of Catullus?

Author: Catullus, translated by David Macey
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found:  Mr. Macey has translated many of Catullus’s poems; several can be found right here in Issue 1.2 of Loaded Bicycle.

Bonus: If you’re at all into Catullus, you should definitely be aware of Rudy Negenborn’s collection of the man’s work.  The site is laid out in a very clear manner and is a great start for those who don’t already know much about Catullus.  Remember; Wikipedia is a good start for things such as biographical information about a historical figure, but it’s not where we end our search.  Mr. Macey published additional translations in MAYDAY Magazine.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Functional Punctuation

Catullus was a bit of an avant-garde poet for the time.  He was surrounded by the kind of epic poetry that (one hopes) you learned about in school: The Iliad and The Odyssey and so on.  Instead of writing long poems that make you want to read in a stentorian voice, Catullus wrote little ditties about his friends and about love and about specific women.  If he sounds like a rock musician, well, you might not be so far off the mark.  Some brilliant Classics scholar may disagree with me, but it seems as though Catullus was something to his scene like Frank Zappa was to his.  In the 1970s, you could find “traditional” rock songs from folks like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel and other great artists.  Frank Zappa, on the other hand, “played around” a lot more and ignored more of the conventions of rock music, ending up with songs that weren’t as commercially viable as Elton John’s, but forged new paths for what rock music could be going forward.  See?

So let’s look at Mr. Macey’s translations from Loaded Bicycle.  The narrator of 2B seems to be reflecting upon the joy of introducing a person (a woman in this case) to the joys of eros.  Mr. Macey begins his translation with an ellipsis.  What’s the effect?  Catullus (through Mr. Macey) enjoins the reader to put some of his or her own thoughts and ideas into the piece.  Here’s another example.  Imagine if you called up a friend and the first thing they said was:

…no one at the dog track is going to doubt my fighting ability.

You would, no doubt, have TONS of questions for your friend, right?  So what will YOU put into the beginning of 2B as Mr. Macey translates it?  This is the potential power of the ellipsis.  Aposiopesis is the term conceived by the Greeks to describe the technique of leaving a sentence unfinished as an invitation to allow the reader to provide the concluding thoughts.  Mr. Macey instead BEGINS with the unfinished thought, forcing the ellipsis to actually do some work for once.  Ordinarily, periods and commas and ellipses and em-dashes are there to make prose clear; what happens if you use punctuation to help make your point?

Check out Mr. Macey’s translation of 27.  These kinds of poems are shocking to some.  People from a long time ago liked to have sex and were sometimes prone to violence?  How is that possible?  Everything was in black-and-white and people like Catullus weren’t allowed to swear on TV!  Mr. Macey’s translation reminds us that sex and violence and naughty language and human genitalia existed long before we were born.  Some people would even talk about these things…in public!  Mr. Macey understands this, which is why he’s able to make the dialogue in 27 so much fun.  I suppose the lesson is that we should never underestimate the human potential to violate the mores and conventions of a contemporary Puritanical society.  (I happen to live in America, a country that allowed an official to spend $12,000 on a drape to cover a statue’s breast, but you may live elsewhere.)  The ultimate lesson is one of verisimilitude.  A rich man who has a serving boy and who plans to drink wine all day would speak the way Mr. Macey says.  A person who hits his or her thumb with a hammer is probably not going to whisper “shuckydarn” as the pain courses through them.

I love Mr. Macey’s take on 85.  I can’t say that I’m the world’s biggest fan of “quotes.”  They just don’t happen to be inspiring to me in the way that they are to some.  I guess I am just moved by thoughts that are a little more complicated than the usual stuff:

They call it “the present” because it’s a gift!!!1!!!

85 is a fun epigraph and not a boring one because the thoughts are complicated.  The speaker admits to possessing unpleasant thoughts and allowing them to mingle with “pleasant” thoughts.  Again, Mr. Macey (and Catullus) consciously involve the reader by asking “how” hate and love could be united.  The answer, of course, is up to you.  What separates this epigraph from those quotes that I find so boring?  They provoke thought instead of imposing it.  The poet and his translator attempt to inspire you to figure out your own understanding of the world instead of trying to force you to fall in line with theirs.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow the ellipsis to do some real work.  It’s not just for indicating the omission of words anymore.  Make that ellipsis earn its keep.
  • Open yourself to the way that people have always acted and spoken.  If your character is a Ted Bundy type who kills women because of a deep-seated psychological issue, you’re going to have to include some unpleasant and gross stuff.  Verisimilitude!
  • Provoke thought instead of imposing a worldview.  True intellectual growth is the result of internal struggle, not external imposition of a belief.

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