Monday, April 6, 2015


Len Krisak (trans.), Gaius Valerius Catullus, Carmina. Manchester: Fyfield Books, Carcanet, 2014. Pp. xx, 98. ISBN 9781847772596. $22.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Benjamin Eldon Stevens, Bryn Mawr College (
Version at BMCR home site

This is an exciting time for readers of translations of classical literature, with new versions appearing frequently. Recent appearances have included works as widely varied as Didymus of Alexandria's commentary on Pindar and, separately, other scholia to Pindar; Philostratus' Heroicus, Gymnasticus, and Discourses 1 and 2; and the Etruscan liber linteus to name only a few, as well studies of translation theory and practice such as Balmer's Piecing Together the Fragments. Latin poetry in particular has been represented recently by versions of Virgil's Georgics, selections from Ovid's Amores (by Alison, while Krisak has translated them in full along with the Ars Amatoria), Tacitus' Annals, and Censorinus' De die natali, to draw only on some translations recently discussed in BMCR. All of this provides not only context for comparing translations one to another but also a wide range of options for readers and teachers of courses in translation: different styles of translation, different publication formats and appendices, and different approaches to discussing scholarly context: all of these abound.
Catullus himself is a case in point, having appeared in a number of new editions in English in the past few years alone. 1 These include Guy Lee's 1990 version, reissued by Oxford World's Classics in 2008; Peter Green's version from the University of California Press in 2007; and Penguin Classics' 2006 reissue of Peter Whigham's 1966 translation. These and other editions have a range of features which have recommended them to teachers of courses in translation, including introductions, notes, glossaries, and scholarly bibliographies; while Green's has been commended for achieving the marvelous formal goal of matching Catullus' meters in the English.2
I mention all of this at such length not to suggest standards but only to offer contexts, within which we might see more clearly what is offered by Len Krisak's version of Catullus. The main question of course is whether a given translation succeeds in communicating something of the poet to readers without Latin. For me the answer is yes, indeed. Collecting translations of carmina that have previously appeared in a wide range of periodicals as well as adding the other poems, Krisak's edition offers a beguilingly unencumbered Catullus. The translations are complemented by a brief introduction, including a few suggestions for further reading (for the "feisty or merely curious"!), and some running footnotes focused mainly on explaining who is who in Catullus' cast of characters and occasionally on accounting for one or another of Krisak's charming word-choices. This relative simplicity of presentation is in keeping with the stated aim of the imprint, Fyfield Books, "to make available some of the great classics of British and European literature in clear, affordable formats, and to restore often neglected writers to their place in literary tradition" (unnumbered ii). The aim is achieved: lucid and inviting introduction notwithstanding, what the reader encounters in this slender volume is above all a Catullus.
In Krisak's expertly practiced hands, that Catullus is a mutable but recognizable character and a good, very readable poet.3 This Catullus is witty and generally clear; wryly affected in both emotion and art; rising occasionally to a fever pitch of feeling and more frequently sinking below a line between good taste and what he believes, and we may feel, is even better bad taste. One gets the impression of an off-handedly accomplished author to whom even difficult poetry comes pleasantly: an image of Catullus as a kind of Byronesque figure at ostentatious leisure in an agreeably exaggerated "yacht" (IV.1), writing a little lazily but sharply with one hand while trailing the other in the water, which runs fast but is not always clean or clear.
What sorts of things does Krisak do in his translations to communicate this Catullus? Here is the heart of his stated approach: "After all, if we are told that Catullus is a great poet (and I am sure he is), should not any translation of him sound like what we are accustomed to hearing as poetry in English?" (xvii). Krisak thus allows himself what he calls a "bias towards pleasure" in the encounter with poetry (xviii), a 'bias' that has guided his particular decisions about form (not to trouble with the "strenuous exertions" required "to convert every Latin metre into an English one" (xvii)), diction (e.g., "to strike a compromise between the gross and the euphemistically cute" (xiii)), and tone. More generally, that 'bias' means that Krisak's poetic taste aligns with, or at least overlaps with, that of Catullus, who of course loves poetry associated with pleasure, leisure, and love of things… even (especially?) if those things are unpleasant or unsavory.
To my ear, then, Krisak's translations succeed extremely well throughout the elegiacs (LXIX-CXVI), where his interest in rhyme (the particular source of the "bias towards pleasure" noted above) seems to find a natural home, and very well in many of the 'long poems' (LXI-LXVIII), where I see at work a kind of wise sensitivity to the tension between emotional and artistic impulses, a tension brought to life in the translations as it lives in those poems themselves. Catullus' 'polymetrics' (I-LX) are so varied that a single judgment seems difficult to make, but in general I would say that they made less of an impression on me, not a negative one, only in contrast to how much I felt Krisak was revealing about the longer poems and elegiacs; that said, the 'polymetrics' too are all pleasingly readable and include many moments that startled me into revisiting the original with new eyes.
In that connection, and before offering a few examples, perhaps the highest praise I can give Krisak's translation is to say that reading his Catullus from cover to cover caused me to think again, and in many places to think anew, about a poet I have written about at some length, taught in the Latin in perhaps ten separate courses, and otherwise studied for nearly two decades now (starting with Prof. Ernst Fredericksmeyer's delightfully venomous reading of the line Nunc te cognovi … ). This was a great and surprising pleasure: Krisak's Catullus has a character to him that was both recognizable as the poet I have known and different, peculiar, enough for me to feel that I was continuously finding out new things about him. This I think is more than, as it were, translating for the converted: it is a true carrying of the poet over the border between his language and the reader's … and vice versa. For this reason, Krisak's translation is recommended.
Here are just a few examples which may be useful for regular readers / teachers of Catullus' Latin. From the elegiacs, Krisak succeeds in rendering the beloved CI (Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus) in a way that balances its technical description of ritual with Catullus' frustrated emotional state:
Trekking through countless lands, and over endless seas,
         Brother, I come to these sad obsequies,
To make the final offerings the dead are due
       To silent ash; to speak — in vain? — to you.
For Fate has robbed you of yourself, and now bereft,      5
         Poor brother, I bewail that unjust theft …
Comparison to Catullus' Latin shows what are of course several departures in word order / sequence of image as well as in some details of the images themselves. To my ear these differences have helped result in good poetry in English. I am particularly struck by the appropriateness of the rhyme between "bereft" and "theft," and thus more generally struck by how the end-rhymes help emphasize the formality of the occasion, against which the poet's emotions strain — a tension Krisak hints at by making Catullus' frustra, "in vain" (4) into a question in the English. This seems right: for surely Catullus has written CI in some hope, in hope of achieving something?
To take just one other example from the elegiacs, similarly plain-spoken and instinct with feeling are these lines from LXXVI (Siqua recordanti benefacta priora voluptas): "It's hard to suddenly let go of someone you / Have loved; it's hard … but something you must do" (13-14). This isn't epic, nor is it intended to be; and thus to me at least it seems to capture something of how Catullus seeks to balance a self-consciously immediate poetic artistry with a reinvigorated depth of feeling. Krisak is excellent at representing that famous immediacy over Catullus' wide range of feelings, alleged situations, and tones.
Working backwards, here is Krisak giving voice to Catullus ventriloquizing Attis partway through LXIII:
Have I not undertaken every shape and form that's human?
I've been a boy. I've been a youth. I've been both man and woman.
I've been the best of athletes and the chrism'd wrestlers' best.
My sill's been mobbed … and warmed by suitors' all-night rest.      65
My house has bloomed in flowered garlands, full of their adorning
When dawn sun touched my bed and I departed in the morning.
To me, this verse flows along, aided in its forward motion by the end-rhymes, clever but not forced. This formal achievement allows a reader of English to experience both Attis' emotional strains and Catullus' poetic effort and pleasure. As a final example of the same type of success, here is an excerpt from XIII (Cenabis bene, mi Fabulle, apud me):
At my place — soon, Fabullus — you'll have dined
Deliciously. That's if the gods are kind
To you and if you bring good food along …
And plenty of it. Don't forget a charming
Girl either — or your wine and wit and song-     5
Like laughter. Bring me everything disarming,
Friend, and you'll dine well. You could do worse,
For spiders have been stringing in my purse …
I find this very engaging: artfully artificially conversational but not, I don't think, contrived, humorous, congenially metrical in the English, just strange and estranging enough to remind us that Catullus, for all his apparent immediacy, is not here with us as we read and in any case would strike us, and we him, in ways as very alien indeed. It is to Krisak's great credit that his translation invites us to get to know Catullus in such ways—again, more deeply, in places more startlingly.
The volume is attractive and finely printed. I noticed no typographical or other errors. At a list price of $22.99 (US) it may perhaps strike some people as expensive for a slender volume; to that possible objection, the response could be that poetry must be valued in ways that help sustain the activity. Here then is hoping that work like Krisak's continues to reach its intended audiences and others, bringing a readable, but not therefore simple, Catullus along with it.

1.   Catullus has also been translated into other modern languages. I draw special attention to the recent appearance of what is almost certainly the first complete translation of Catullus into Chinese (Mandarin) published in 2008 by Prof. Yongyi Li.
2.   Only slightly farther back, 2001 saw the publication of Julia Haig Gaisser's very useful collection of examples from the history of English translations of Catullus, Catullus in English (Penguin Classics: Poets in Translation).
3.   Listing only Krisak's translations from the Latin still shows him a startlingly impressive poet: 2014 Amores and Ars Amatoria, 2010 Eclogues, 2006 Horace's Odes.

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