Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Elizabeth Marie Young, Translation as Muse: Poetic Translation in Catullus's Rome. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pp. viii, 259. ISBN 9780226279916. $50.00.

Reviewed by Christopher B. Polt, Boston College (christopher.polt@bc.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Translators have gotten a bad rap. At worst, they are traitors (traduttore, traditore) and catastrophic defilers (medieval Jewish tradition holds the Septuagint translators responsible for plunging the world into darkness for three days).1 At best, they are a necessary but inept evil (what other professionals are expected to "lose" what they have been entrusted with?), to be avoided whenever something really important is at stake. But translators have not always been so despised and disposable, and in the past decade scholars such as Possanza, Bettini, and McElduff have shown how fundamental translation was for ancient Roman literature and culture, as well as how fundamentally different Roman attitudes towards translation could be from those of modern readers.2 Young's book offers a valuable addition to this recent interest in recovering ancient translation, arguing persuasively that translation stands at the heart of Roman cultural production and, in particular, of Catullus' literary program. Through close readings, Young astutely analyzes how Catullus mediates and manipulates Greek and Roman literature, culture, and identity. Along the way, she successfully demonstrates that translation can be not only a specific product or technique, but also an overarching mindset through which Catullus and other Latin speakers negotiated their polyglot Mediterranean.

Young begins from two interrelated challenges to modern assumptions about translation. First, "while we tend to discount translation as uninspired hackwork, the Romans proudly proclaimed themselves a nation of translators. Romans did not copy the Greeks out of any creative malaise: translation was, for them, the preeminent act of literary creation" (2). Building on the work of McElduff, Young in her introduction argues that translation was one of the many ways in which Romans tried to exert control over Greek culture — indeed, to dictate the terms of Hellenization during the late Republic. Second, she expands what constitutes "translation," which she asserts "permeates Catullus' oeuvre but in forms that are frequently unrecognizable to us" (3), including, among others, acts of broader cultural appropriation, the reconfiguration of foreign symbols, and metapoetic references. Instead of treating translation as a unique category of linguistic activity, Young persuasively links it to related literary and cultural practices by which Romans develop new work from existing material, such as contaminatio, imitatio, and allusion, all types of "piecemeal translation" (18).

Chapter by chapter, Young moves from discussing incarnations of translation that are least like their current form towards what modern readers would more easily recognize as translation. Her approach is productively jarring, helping to defamiliarize "translation" and to offer us fresh eyes through which to view Catullus' ostensibly more familiar but also deceptively subtle poetic shifts in poems 51 and 66. Young begins with poem 64, Catullus' epyllion, which she argues in chapter 1 is replete with metapoetic symbols standing for various aspects of Catullus' translation process. The Argo becomes a metaphor for the poem itself, as both transport cargoes plundered from eastern lands (the Argo brings the Golden Fleece from the Black Sea westward to Greece; poem 64 transports the epyllion "genre" westward from Greece to Rome). Likewise, the wedding tapestry represents poem 64, each a luxurious and aggressively exotic textum. Especially perceptive is Young's analysis of the dangerous effect that the tapestry has on the poem's internal audience, which allows its land to fall into disrepair while mesmerized by the objet d'art, and its relationship to contemporary anxieties about Hellenistic aesthetics and poetic luxuria. She thus shows that Catullus not only promotes but also problematizes his poetic program as simultaneously alluring and alarming. Less complex and convincing, however, is her interpretation of Ariadne as an "emblem for the dangers of Hellenization" that seduces and enervates the audience (34). Ariadne is more helpless victim than effeminizing danger, and in her I think we can see yet another metapoetic embodiment of the epyllion, especially as most other Roman examples of this "genre" we know about are named after mythological women who similarly undergo transportation from their homeland (Young nods in this direction with Cinna's Zmyrna and Caecilius' Magna Mater (205, n.17)). Not only does this contribute to the problematic status of the poem's imported aesthetics (just like the epyllion at Rome, Ariadne finds herself in a threatening new land), but it also reinforces Young's cogent argument that the figures of Theseus and of the Argonauts in the poem stand metaphorically for the poet, who recasts himself as a literary hero who has returned from the labyrinth of Callimachean and other Greek literature and boldly carries the stolen epyllion back to Rome.

In chapter 2, Young continues to explore how Catullus portrays the importation of exotic goods, shifting attention to the polymetric poems. She traces how Catullus refashions seemingly minor foreign objects to bolster his speaker's social standing and to transform alien material into new, appropriately Roman poetry. In poem 12, for instance, Catullus deploys a Spanish napkin to show that different people can assign different values (and types of value) to objects: the napkin is an item of convivial frivolity, but for the poet it is worth an infinity of invective verses, and while he writes it off as an apparently minor frippery whose cost he does not care about, Pollio would pay a talent to undo its theft by the clumsy Asinius. By dubbing it mnemosynum and valuing it in terms of hendecasyllabi, the speaker translates a ho- hum Spanish article into one with Greek panache, spinning real textile into poetic textum. In the process, he shows the base thief how proper Romans steal, transforming rags into a rich pretext for iambic poetry, a form freshly taken from Greece. The same appropriative motions undergird poem 25, where Young carefully demonstrates that Catullus amplifies the stakes of control over foreign goods, deploying physical abuse and verbal degradation from iambic as part of his strategy to translate Greek material into Roman. She closes by analyzing Catullus' play with the material side of kisses and poetry in poems 5 and 7, which she intriguingly and metapoetically links.

Chapter 3 turns to poem 4, whose phasellus Young argues allegorically portrays Roman anxieties over their reliance on plunder for their burgeoning literary tradition. After noting how allusions to Hellenistic sepulchral and votive epigrams highlight the power of the poetic narrator, who alone has the authority to animate (and dictate) the boat's voice and movement, she shows that the boat can be viewed as a metaphor for learned Greeks, such as Parthenius of Nicaea and other intellectuals who came to Rome as slaves only to become sources of inspiration for Latin poets. Catullus anthropomorphizes the boat as a "speaking tool," the very definition of an ancient slave, whose speech is redolent of Greek education and who undergoes a heroic journey before coming to rest as a domesticated inhabitant of Italy. Young closes with a remarkably sensitive reading of Catalepton 10, which parodies poem 4 but replaces Catullus' metaphorized Greek slave with upstart Transpadane poets. This is a sharp reading of an out-of-the-way text, which Young contextualizes alongside its parodic target and unpacks to elucidate the complex dynamics of 1st century BCE poetic culture.

In chapters 4 through 6, Young enters territory that resembles more closely the modern idea of translation, though here she reveals some major gaps between ancient and modern practice. Her readings center on poem 51, Catullus' version of Sappho fr. 31 (the first half of chapter 4 and all of chapter 6), and poem 66, his adaptation of Callimachus' Plokamos Berenikes (the rest of chapter 4 and all of chapter 5). Since these chapters touch upon similar issues, it is useful to read all three together as one conversation. Young offers an incisive metapoetic reading of poem 51, where Catullus explores the fraught experience of translation itself and the poet's negotiation of his source's and his own literary identity. She shows that Catullus personalizes Sappho with subtle deviations (e.g., the insertion of Catullus' and Lesbia's names), inhabiting her voice and effectively becoming a literary body-snatcher. But close translational contact poses dangers of contagion, and Young vividly tracks how the symptoms of fr. 31's illness jump the quarantine of poem 51 and infect the Catullan speaker elsewhere, especially poem 50, where he suffers similar eroticized physical degradation. The Catullan fourth stanza in poem 51 thus presents the poet trying (and failing?) to reassert control over his sublime Sapphic disease.

Young's reading of the relationship between poem 66 and its preface, poem 65, follows similar lines of thought. She proposes that his experience of translating Callimachus' simultaneously desirous and aggrieved Lock gives Catullus new modes of voicing loss and yearning elsewhere in his poetry, particularly in contemplating his brother's death in poem 65. 3 Young is careful to note that the direction of influence may not be altogether straightforward, since clearly his Latin Coma is as creatively refashioned as the speaker that possesses Sappho in poem 51. While her argument about the interplay between poems 66 and 65 is nevertheless persuasive, it would have been useful to tackle this issue head-on and before the closing pages of chapter 4, where she confesses that "from one perspective, such Catullan interference would undermine the central argument of this chapter" (138). A parallel close reading of poem 66 alongside the extant fragments of its Greek source, on the model of her careful analysis of poem 51, would also have been welcome and might have gone a long way in elucidating this issue. Young does, however, offer in chapter 5 an extended discussion of the ways in which Catullus disembeds the poem from its Alexandrian context and reconstructs it as uniquely Roman and Catullan property. While her argument that poems 65/66 and 116 frame a distinct libellus will not convince everyone (I myself am skeptical that there is an ipsissima forma of the corpus or any parts thereof, let alone that they can be recovered by modern formal or thematic slicing and dicing), Young's approach to poem 66 as integrally related to the rest of Catullus' poems is refreshing and will, I hope, encourage others to continue examining this and the other long poems as part and parcel of the Catullan whole. Despite these minor quibbles, these three chapters underscore how radically transformative and appropriative Catullus' translations are and should become standard reading for anyone working on ancient Roman translation.

Young closes with an epilogue on poem 70, which she uses to sketch what she sees as Catullus' "poetics of appropriation, a vision of poetic production that refuses to draw a stark line between verbal larceny and self-expression" (183). Poem 70 is shot through with allusions, "indebted for almost every thought and phrase to some Greek model or other."4 But Young shows that such repetitions reveal "no matter how unoriginal its raw materials may be, a poem cannot help but generate new meanings of its own" (193), and indeed that love poetry is inherently redundant, an idea Catullus revels in rather than conceals. This same notion applies just as easily to translation as a whole, and Young's lucid study underscores throughout the recreative potential that Catullus and other Romans recognized in translating a world where there was nihil novi sub sole.


1.   A. Wasserstein and D. Wasserstein, The Legend of the Septuagint: From Classical Antiquity to Today (Cambridge, 2006), 51–83; M. Simon-Shoshan, "The Tasks of the Translators: The Rabbis, the Septuagint, and the Cultural Politics of Translation," Prooftexts 27 (2007), 1–39.
2.   D. M. Possanza, Translating the Heavens: Aratus, Germanicus, and the Poetics of Latin Translation (New York, 2004); M. Bettini, Vertere: un'antropologia della traduzione nella cultura antica (Turin, 2012); S. McElduff, Roman Theories of Translation: Surpassing the Source (New York, 2013).
3.   Young's analysis of the interrelation between personal grief, translation, and metapoetics in poems 51 and 66 can fruitfully be read alongside Rosanna Warren's study of Sapphic translation as elegiac lament in R. Warren, Fables of the Self: Studies in Lyric Poetry (New York, 2008), which shares a similar interest in "the strain of self-creation through confrontation with the foreign and the past" (11).
4.   D. Konstan, "Two Kinds of Love in Catullus," Classical Journal 68 (1972), 102–106, at 103.

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