Thursday, 17 March 2016

Gotham's Martial

I set a creative-writing exercise for my first-year Martial seminar today, but then ended up thinking it'd only be fair if I made myself have a go at it as well. The following came to me on the walk into work, and was a welcome distraction from proper work I should have been doing this afternoon instead. It mashes up Martial with a modern pop-cultural icon, and the students laughed in all the right places:

Gotham’s Martial

The night brings a cool breeze to the terrace of the Villa Martialis, perched high above the City on the Janiculan ridge.[1] The slaves are sweeping up the remains of this evening’s dinner – just a few close friends for once. It would not do for Julius Martialis, playboy billionaire, to dine alone or in anything less than excellent style. Little feathers of figpeckers cooked in pepper jostle with crumbs of couscous, Picene olives, and a stray slice of Lucanian sausage, sticky with porridge.[2] The dogs will eat well tonight. My own hunger is not so easily sated. I descend the hidden stair. Only Alfenus knows of it; my faithful butler. He guards my secret. I emerge into the cave, kick off the red slippers, shed the fistful of rings and purple-edged toga – the costume of the carefree young aristocrat. Julius Martialis is a name honoured in the rolls of our patrician order, but the public man is the disguise; he is a hollow shell that I wear. Naked, I see myself in the copper mirror only for a moment. Then I don my other mask. It is time.
As Marcus Valerius, I descend into the City. A city slowly dying, choking on the cruelty and hypocrisy of its masters. I have studied its crimes and now I turn them against their perpetrators. A dark alley; callous laughter and the smell of urine. I reach beneath my threadbare toga to the utility belt. The little scroll of papyrus is swiftly posted up –  

Tongilianus, mightn’t people think you’ve torched your own house? [3] 

and I slip back into the shadows, taking a circuitous route by the Tiburtine Column as I make for my dead-letter drop on the Esquiline. The cobbles of the steep climb from the Subura are filthy and run with moisture but my feet are sure.[4] I lift the loose paver and it’s there – Rufus has come through for me again. Fresh dirt on the man at the top, the kingpin. Domitian squats atop his empire of crime, perched obscenely like some ungainly bird from farthest Arctic poles. He owns this City; its police and army are in his pocket. His word is law. Gordonius is a good urban prefect, he shares my anger but can do nothing; the law confines him. I do what he can’t.

Another alley, another poster – Apicius, rumour has it you’re bad-mouthing.[5]

Nothing on Domitian; not yet. I must play the long game. ‘Martial’ the cute satirist butters him up: Lord and God; Censor-in-Chief; Rome has you to thank because her morals are clean.[6] When I do come for him, I will come with every weapon of satire at my disposal. Rufus – the first Rufus – will be avenged. Puer Mirabilis, I called him: my Boy Wonder… until Cappadocia.[7] A sudden illness, they said, these things happen; but I knew. Another bears the name now. He is a good soldier. He honours me. I will not fail him again. And if I fall, another will take my place. There are rumours of a new crimefighter from Aquinum: Juvenal, they are calling him. Like me, he works alone.
Fifteen years now since I began my war. The shock news from Spain: my parents dead; and then Erotion. So young; so brilliant. Her eyes missed nothing. This girl, father Fronto and mother Flacilla, I commit to your care…[8] Five years old and the message could not have been plainer. A man in your position has so much to lose. Think of your family, your clan. You have  people who care about you. We can get to them any time. And it was then I knew I had to assume the mask – the mask of satire. My persona protects those close to me. As ‘Martial’, I can do what Julius Martialis never could. I slip invisibly into the great houses of my enemies, men who would bow to me at the emperor’s court but who cannot see past the thin, worn toga of a sleep-deprived client. And everywhere I gather my evidence: Galla put seven husbands in the ground, and then she married you, Picentinus; I guess she wants to follow them.[9]
Fifteen years since I found the cave beneath the library of the villa, and realised what I had to become:

My parents are dead; Erotion is dead; Julius is dead. I must disguise my terror. Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. My disguise must strike terror. I shall become a creature. I shall become a satirist.

I move silently into the Forum of Caesar, reach for another little scroll:

You send presents to old folks and widows, Gargilianus, and for that you want me to call you a big benefactor?[10]

Something tells me to stop with the first couplet. I don’t listen to it. And then I am away into the shadows. The torchlight is gone and the dark night returns.

[1] 4.64.
[2] 2.37; Xenia 5, 35-6.
[3] 3.52.
[4] 5.22.
[5] 3.80.
[6] 6.4.
[7] 6.85.
[8] 5.34.
[9] 9.78.
[10] 4.56

Monday, 7 March 2016

Styles of translation: 2.68 revisited

One of Jula's students in Paris (see previous blog post) raised the issue of how translators do what we do. A prosaic Martial isn't to everyone's taste:
Lucillius' epigrams flowed beautifully off the tip of the tongue, often following rhythmic schemes. Martial on the other hand, was not so eloquent with his words, although admittedly he claims to be a dirty poet. I believe that this distinction between styles, them being different authors aside, can be attributed to words becoming lost in translation...
I believe that it is a must to take this translation issue into account when reading Roman poetry. For Martial, in the Oxford translation, reads like he would speak, not like a rhythmic poet.
These are perfectly fair points - clearly I don't share the same aims as the Lucillius translator (nor would I have the nerve to re-verse Martial into English metres). Something is always lost in translation, and new things can be found as well: it's a balancing act, and one at which I'm still fairly new. Translators also have different reasons for translating, and different audiences in mind.

Rewind two hundred years, for instance, and any (male) reader wealthy and leisured enough to be picking up a translation of Martial into English - or French, or whatever - would already be fluent in Latin, or at least beaten enough times to fake fluency, because it was pretty much all they did in school. What's more, they used Martial to do it. Odd though it now sounds, selections from the epigrams were the staple diet of beginner-ish Latin learners for generations of Europe's schoolboys.

So his likely adult readership knew a fair bit of Martial already, in the original. Why translate him, then? In a word: emulation, and a chance to show off talent to an audience of connoisseurs. Particular poems became favourites for adaptation into the vernacular. I unwittingly wandered into this centuries-old game of 'cover versions' a few weeks back when I translated 2.68, a poem that many old public-schoolboys will have had a go at, back in the day. The original is an odd nine lines:
Quod te nomine iam tuo saluto,
quem regem et dominum prius uocabam,
ne me dixeris esse contumacem:
totis pillea sarcinis redemi.
Reges et dominos habere debet
qui se non habet atque concupiscit
quod reges dominique concupiscunt.
Seruom si potes, Ole, non habere,
et regem potes, Ole, non habere.
Here's my blog version, which I'm not unhappy with, for now:
I call you by your actual name these days, and yes, I used to call you 'lord and master'; but please don't think I do it out of spite. I cashed in all I had, and I'm my own man now. 'Lords and masters' are for men who aren't their own; who share those lords' and masters' same addictions. Can you get by without a slave, Olus? Then you can get by without a master, too.
And here, taken from Sullivan and Boyle's estimable Martial in English (from the Penguin Classics' 'Poets in Translation' series; sadly long out of print), is Abraham Cowley, in the mid-17th century. His version runs to 16 lines in all: here is its opening:
That I do with humble Bowes no more,
And danger of my naked Head adore,
That I who Lord and Master cry'd erewhile,
Salute you in a new and different Stile;
By your own Name, a Scandal to you now,
Think not that I forget my self or you...
These six lines correspond to the first three of Martial's Latin my 'I call you by your actual name these days, and yes, I used to call you "lord and master"; but please don't think I do it out of spite.' Cowley covers all the bases, but takes longer to get there (almost twice as long as the original), padding like billy-o as he goes.

Here, conversely, is Joseph Addison (late 17th / early 18th century), again from Martial in English:
By thy plain name though now addrest,
Though once my King and Lord confest,
Frown not: with all my goods I buy
The precious Cap of Liberty.
This is line for line, and as close to the Latin as mine; but where's the rest of the poem? Addison leaves it there (as a World's Classics translator never could). My best guess as to why: the next section of the poem (lines 5-7) is three lines long, and he doesn't fancy his chances of cramming all that into one couplet. I don't blame him for getting out while the going was good.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The punters speak

A few weeks back I heard from a good friend in Paris, Dr Jula Wildberger, who was once a colleague of mine in the Pictish wastes beyond the Roman Wall (Glasgow). Jula is now Professor Wildberger at the American University in Paris, and she'd been introducing some American visiting students to the joys of classical antiquity by way of two epigrammatists - my old doctoral buddy Lucillius, in a verse translation, and Martial, in my prose version. The students - who aren't classicists, just interested in finding out about that kind of thing - had read the authors and written up their reactions as short blog posts. So this was pretty much the first feedback I've had on what readers (as opposed to one or two reviewers - thanks guys) are making of it all.

I don't want to say much more, because I'd like their responses to speak for themselves. I got in touch with them through Jula, and they're happy for their names to be included. What's more, I'm optimistic that a couple of them will offer me guest blog posts!

'I was, perhaps unfairly, surprised by how very funny these epigrams were... Nisbet's translation reads wonderfully and is extremely acccessible. I appreciate his use of more contemporary language, particularly his use of 'as fuck'.' (Alfredo Renteria)
  • I had wondered about that bit; thanks for liking it. :-)
 'Martial’s Epigrams were a surprising amount of fun to read, but I found they really came to life when read aloud. I passed the evening on Monday going back through and reading the harshest of burns and the quickest of quips to my co-workers, who found them just as hilarious. The humor, we found, was in the similarity to our own lives or the modern media we consume. When I read Book 1, Epigram 34 aloud (Lesbia), a passer-by asked it if was an erotic novel, which led to a multitude of questions about what the point of this book was from my co-workers. I responded that it was something like an ancient roman publishing their entire twitter feed in a book.' (Audrey Michels)
  • It's the next Fifty Shades of Grey, I tell you! Seriously, though, I am so chuffed that my epigrams were being read aloud and laughed at in a modern workplace. Martial is so NSFW. I'm sure he'd have been the king of Twitter (if he could tear himself away from Googling himself every five minutes...).

'While reading to myself the layout and structure of the piece, or the order of epigrams in each book, intrigued me. Part of me wished they were more logically organized, however I liked finding an explicit piece about a sex next to one about a schoolteacher (Book 9, 67 & 68) with no apology or explanation. It certainly made the text more open, as if it were equalizing all of these aspects of roman life in the eyes of this poet.'  (Michels again)
  •  The 'josting' effect of the poems (William Fitzgerald's term, not mine) is someting a lot of us enjoy and it does create peculiar effects, I agree - you never quite know (though you sometimes horribly suspect) what might be coming next.
 More another time. What excellent blog-collaborators!