Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.11.28

Vincent Katz (trans.), The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius. The Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2004.  Pp. xlix, 467.  ISBN 0-691-11582-6.  $18.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by J.L. Butrica, St. John's, NL
Word count: 3051 words

This new English version of Propertius obviously invites comparison with Slavitt's, published in 2002. That comparison is to the advantage of Katz, who at least gives his readers more Propertius than did Slavitt.

Katz has written his own introduction, "Preserving the Metaphor: Translating Propertius," which is more comprehensive than the title implies. The lack of a bibliography may or may not reflect Katz's own reading (he seems to know nothing but Camps' commentaries) but presumably does reflect the intended audience: hip enough to care about an interesting Roman poet, too hip for fussy academic details. Katz pitches it at an appropriate level, but (whether they care or not) his readers will get something less than the current status quaestionis on matters Propertian. He has no difficulty identifying Cynthia as a real person, "probably a courtesan," who lived in the Suburra; but if she is a courtesan, then the discussion (xxii) of the Augustan marriage laws and Ovid's exile is irrelevant (by the way, we do know the "precise allegation" against Ovid, that he had "taught" adultery in the Ars Amatoria). Discussions of the evolution in Propertius' choice of subject matter and political considerations are conventional, though the several pages devoted to foreign cults (xxvi-xxix) are not.

The treatment of the elegiac couplet seems to assume that everyone knows what dactyls and spondees are and can therefore understand the schema on xli; but it also claims that the couplet consists of "one line in dactylic hexameter followed by one referred to as iambic pentameter" (xl-xli), making it less surprising when Katz translates against the metre, mistaking the tense of 'uenit' in 3.16.1 and of 'effugit' in 4.7.2. His brief discussion of the transmission of the text and why some poems are broken up into A and B and sometimes C (xliii-xliv) is neither as well-informed nor as informative as it could be, nor does it draw upon current literature (as the dating of ms A to "around 1300 C.E." shows). I have no idea, nor will any of his readers, of what he means by saying "we are working with a shifting mosaic, a superimposition of texts." He acknowledges the likelihood that our text contains hopelessly corrupted lines, but the decision to omit 4.11.39-40 on the grounds that "the manuscript reading appears corrupted" and "sense can not easily be extracted" is decidedly eccentric: why did he include the dozens and dozens of other couplets that could be described in exactly the same way? The note on 2.14 saying that "Couplets 11/12 and 13/14 have been reversed here, to give better sequence" (427) might lead the unwary to imagine that textual criticism is all about improving the author.

The discussion of Propertius as writer is also out of touch with recent scholarship. Propertius is allegedly a uniquely difficult poet who does "reckless, unallowed things with language" (xv), sometimes using "a construction or word usage for which there is no parallel in Latin literature, or in the literature of the period" (xliii-xliv), so that he "must have been a difficult poet, even for the ultra-refined few who made up his audience in the days of the emperor Augustus" (xv). Evidently Katz is unaware that ancient readers in fact found Propertius a model of clarity and elegance, that vandals inscribed some of his verses on the walls of Pompeii, that Margaret Hubbard challenged this view of Propertius about 30 years ago, and that the precise degree of corruption present in our mss is in fact the fundamental question of Propertian scholarship.

While I suspect that Slavitt worked not from the Latin but from Goold's Loeb translation, Katz has indeed wrestled with the original, though in the first edition of Barber's OCT instead of Goold's superior Latin text. He first comments on the underlying principles of his translation on xv, saying curiously that "the greatest challenge in translating poetry is to come as close as possible to the syntax in which the poet originally expressed his or her thoughts." I fully endorse the preservation of what he calls Propertius' "willful strangeness," though he exemplifies this with "affection for patronymics," "unique versions of famous myths," and "highly compressed phraseology" -- features that characterize many Greek and Latin poets, as he to some extent acknowledges later. However, his authority as a reader of Propertian mythology is undercut when he misunderstands obvious allusions even to such famous works as the Iliad and the Odyssey, perpetrating the mistranslation of 2.8.29-30 listed below and that in 3.12, where 'Sirenum surdo remige adisse lacus' (34) becomes "to pass the lagoon of the Sirens with silent oar" rather than "to have approached ... with deafened oarsman." He is of course right to preserve the mythological and geographical epithets, but not to the point of failing to realize that some of them represent possessives: for example, "a Pegasean back" in 2.30.3 should really be "Pegasus' back," there being no other horse quite like this one. On the other hand, he sometimes imports strangeness where none is present in the original; insistence on "the Ruber Sea" (3.13.6) instead of "the Red Sea" is as pointless an affectation as the regular choice of "pure" as a noun to translate 'merum'. Since Katz says that his translation does not use any "metrical scheme" (xlii), the optimist will describe it as "free verse," the pessimist as "prose." Further underlying principles are identified later. One is to "reflect the placement of thoughts within lines" by playing with word order, holding back key words, and reproducing enjambment (xliii), another to be "attentive to the poet's word usage: his repetitions of words within poems, and the importance of word concepts across poems and books" (xliv). I am not sure that Katz actually pursued any of these goals; certainly the adventures experienced by important words like 'fides' through the corpus are contrary to what he here leads us to expect. At no point is fidelity to the literal sense or to the stylistic level(s) of the original identified as a goal; for that reason, I miss all the more a discussion of where he places himself within the modern American tradition of Propertian "translation," exemplified in Robert Lowell's "The Ghost (After Sextus Propertius") and, of course, Ezra Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius, with which his versions share enough features (discussed below) to be characterized as an homage to the "Homage."

One respect in which both Slavitt and Katz disappoint is their determination to soil the author with an alien vulgarity. It is marginally less relentless here than in Slavitt, but there is nothing Propertian about the likes of "pussy" (3.8.32), "I'm so pissed" and "bullshit" (3.23.12), "dick" and "fucking" (2.16.14), and "titties" (3.14.19). I suppose that this is what Katz is justifying when he writes of "lines of the most down-to-earth frankness in what we imagine was a street vernacular" (xvi), but we know what that kind of Latin looks like in Pompeii, and it's not to be found in Propertius (perhaps Katz has misunderstood the significance of "Umgangssprache" in Propertian scholarship). An allied fault is the trivialization of values-laden terms like 'improbus' and 'demens' into empty colloquialisms like "asshole" (1.3.26) and "creep" (3.16.19) for the former, "you flake" (3.3.15) for the latter. More subtly, but just as inappropriately, Katz often suggests a sexual double entendre where none exists in the Latin.

In other respects too the translation fails to convey what Propertius wrote and how he wrote it. Most importantly, there is probably not a single elegy of any length that does not have at least one substantial mistranslation of a line or couplet. Here are some disasters, culled from all four books, followed by a more accurate version.

I: 15.1 "I knew your contempt would get to be a drag" ('saepe ego multa tuae leuitatis dura timebam' [= "I often used to fear many harshnesses of your fickleness" -- if the text is sound]); 20.27 "standing with hands poised to snatch kisses" ('oscula suspensis instabant carpere palmis' [= "they kept on taking kisses with hands raised"]).

II: 8.29-30 "Even that hero, abandoned Achilles, left off showering / the rooftops with his arrows when his woman was snatched from him" ('ille etiam abrepta desertus coniuge Achilles / cessare in tectis pertulit arma sua' [= "the famous Achilles too, left abandoned when his consort was stolen, suffered his weapons to sit idle in his tent"]); 14.22 "the girl held my head in position, unconcerned" ('mecum habuit positum lenta puella caput' [= "the compliant girl had laid her head with me"]; 21.12 "Creusa, who had him, was kicked out of his house" ('eiecta est -- tenuit namque Creusa -- domo' [= "she (i.e., Medea) was thrown out of his house, for Creusa occupied it"]; 23.7-8 "Then will you put up with 'Hercules' labors' (as rumor / has it)" ('deinde, ubi pertuleris quos dicit fama labores / Herculis' [= "then, once you've suffered the fabled labours of Hercules"]); 29.39-40 "She speaks, and showering me with happy kisses, / she jumps up and disappears in floppy sandals" ('dixit, et opposita propellens sauia dextra / prosilit in laxa nixa pedem solea' [= "she spoke, and repelling my kisses by the interposition of her hand she leapt forth, resting her foot in a loose slipper"]; 33.17 "What does it profit you if unmarried girls should sleep?" ('quidue tibi prodest uiduas dormire puellas' [= "what does it profit you that girls sleep unmated?"]).

III: 8.22 "let jealousy teach me to have had my girl with me" ('me doceat liuor mecum habuisse meam' [= "let bruising show that I've had my girl with me"]); 10.24 "let the conversation be free of your usual abuse" ('et sint nequitiae libera uerba tuae' [= "let your wantonness speak freely"]); 25.14 "Ha! Shouting at your wrinkles in the mirror" ('a! speculo rugas increpitante tibi' [= "as, alas, the mirror rebukes you with your wrinkles"]). IV: 2.24 "who would deny that I'm a man, once my toga is ripped off?" ('meque uirum sumpta quis neget esse toga?' [= "and when I put a toga on, who would say I'm not a man?"]); 6.48 "Against its will, that fleet is slipping into the sea" ('inuito labitur illa mari' [= "it is gliding on the unwilling sea"]); 6.77 "let that poet's memory serve the swamp-dwelling Sycambri" ('ille paludosos memoret seruire Sycambros' [= "let that (poet) relate that the swampy Sycambri are enslaved"]); 7.68 "against such wickedness, her will was not enough" ('in scelus hoc animum non ualuisse suum' [= "her heart was not strong enough for this crime"]); 8.41-2 "and Magnus, stiffened in his small limbs, / was throwing his stumps of arms at the hollow boxwood" ('Magnus et ipse suos breuiter concretus in artus / iactabat truncas ad caua buxa manus' [= "and Magnus himself, compactly abbreviated into his limbs, / was jerking his stubby hands to (the music of) the hollow boxwood"]); 9.1-2 "The Amphitryonid had driven the oxen through / a tempest, from your pastures, Erythea" ('Amphitryoniades qua tempestate iuuencos / egerat a stabulis, o Erythea, tuis' [= "in the season when Amphitryon's son had driven the cattle from your stables, Erythea"]).

Such lines can hardly fail to evoke a feature of Pound's "Homage" that famously attracted the scorn of W.G. Hale; nor is this the least of the touches suggesting that this Katz is perhaps less than a pound. The "Homage" contains a few bits of nonsense that the still sane Pound must have known Propertius didn't write, perhaps most notably at 3.6.22, where he turned the botched version printed by Müller ('aequalem multa dicere habere domo') into both "Much conversation is as good as having a home" and "To say many things is equal to having a home." (Katz translates a better version of the line, 'et qualem nolo dicere habere domi', but he obliterates Cynthia's haughty euphemism -- "and to keep the sort of woman I refuse to name" -- with the trashy "I refuse to spill which slut he's shacked up with.") Katz's most evident deliberate absurdity is in 4.6.69, where "Apollo is already asking for the zither" (translating 'citharam'), but cf. also 3.8.11f. "the invective a woman hurls with rabid tongue / is also uttered beneath lofty Venus' feet," or 4.11.62, "no pillage was done on the charge I had a sterile house" (Cornelia means that she was not snatched from a barren household, i.e., did not die childless).

Another "Poundian" touch is the "naive" schoolboyish errors, like translating 'uince mari' (4.6.39) as "conquer the sea," or mistaking the verb from which 'pauerat' comes (3.12.27), or translating 'promite' (2.9.38) as "promise" or 'caeditur' (2.22.16) as "[does] fall" or 'casus' as "case" (3.1.33) or 'properate' as "prepare" (3.21.21) or 'uage' as "vaguely" (4.1.71) -- once again, many more examples are available. Equally faux-naive is the practice of "translating" Latin words by English derivatives: "cured" for 'cura' (1.3.46), "divas" for 'diuae' (2.2.13), "abducted" for 'abducta' (2.20.1), "contempted" for 'contemptae' (3.19.3), "rape" for 'rape' (4.4.58) -- and once again examples could be multiplied. A debt to the "Homage" is implied not only by general practice (the introduction of sexual allusions and the alternation of the mock-grandiloquent -- cf. 2.1.58 "love alone loves not the master of his sickness" -- with the colloquial are also Poundian) but by specific examples: "contempted" was used by Pound, though for a different passage (2.28.11), and Katz replicates Pound with "case" for 'casus' in 3.1.33 and with the mistranslation of 'uenit' in 3.16.1.

Perhaps these features will be defended in Katz as they have been in Pound, on the grounds that they somehow translate the "spirit" or "style" of Propertius, though not the actual words, which would interest only a pedant. Perhaps Katz has been influenced by Sullivan's discussion of Pound and Propertius and/or by his eccentric recommendation that the "Homage" could be a model for translations of Latin verse (rather than for a creative riff). Whatever the cause, someone who reads Latin only with difficulty has even less chance of appreciating style than of appreciating content, and Pound's comments about Virgil in particular suggest that he really had little understanding of what any Latin poet "did" with language or of the history of Latin literature: his Virgil and Horace are merely symbols of what he himself struggled against in English poetry. As to Katz, "errors" reflecting lack of comprehension, whether real or alleged, have a valid role in an "Homage" -- but surely not in a translation. I would add, however, that Katz can hardly be expected to rise above the outdated scholarship with which he is acquainted, and reliance upon a faulty edition will inevitably produce a faulty translation.

Finally, because complaints have so far occupied the bulk of this review, I must emphasize that there are things here that can be read with pleasure and appreciation, even by a pedantic classics professor abnormally obsessed with the problems of the Propertian text, though usually at the level of the word or phrase or short passage, and of course without the formal qualities that characterize the original. For example, "my girlfriend, if I can call you that" is an imaginative and effective rendering of 'qualiscumque mihi ... puella' (3.21.16), which cannot be transferred literally; "you let my words dance away" is nice for 'uerba sinis mea ludere' (2.33.23); despite the introduction of a new metaphor, "Niobe, so proud it cost her twelve graves" is an admirable equivalent of 'Niobe bis sex ad busta superba' (2.20.7); and, for lines effective because of the judicious choice of equivalents, see "The god of the dark palace" ('fuscae ... deus aulae', 4.11.5; I would prefer "dusky," however) or "The savage rage of dogs averts its gaping jaws" ('saeua canum rabies morsus auertit hiantis', 3.16.17). For an example at the level of the passage, see 4.9.27-30, "Red ribbons adorned the secluded threshold, / a delapidated house shone with incense-laden flame, / a poplar framed the temple with its long branches, / and ample shade protected the singing birds." This too is a list that could easily be extended.

But even in passages like these we may encounter weak choices that work against content and/or tone and sometimes actually mask the strangeness of the original. Propertius' combination of abstract and concrete elements in 3.16.17 would be better respected by preserving the "strangeness" of "bites" for 'morsus'. In 4.8.27-30, "adorned" is not an exact equivalent of 'uelabant', nor "framed" of 'ornabant', and a translator anxious to preserve the "strangeness" of the original might have chosen "scented" or "perfumed" over the excessively explicit "incense-laden" for 'odorato', and perhaps also "fire" over "flame" for 'igne'. Similar considerations apply in the bland rendering of Cerberus' "hungry noise" (4.5.4, 'ieiuno ... sono') as "a low growl," or the failure of "your remains" to convey the ominous mystery of Propertius' 'aliquid de te', "something of you" (3.12.13). In 3.13.1, the translation of 'auidis' as "gluttonous" rather than "greedy" destroys the point, that "respectable" women demand expensive gifts for their sexual favours. This too could be an extensive list.

Standards of production are reasonably good, though hardly perfect. In the Latin, some pentameters are not indented, there are occasional slips like 'occellos' (2.26.13), 'morifero' (3.13.17), and 'cantatis' (4.9.30), and 2.33.6 has 'an fuit' at the end, with a large space between. The English too has a few slips: "decieve" (2.17.1), "for he who loves" (2.23.23), and "no other / woman has lain pleasureable chains on my neck" (3.15.10f.).

One visually appealing feature that could have been pursued further to great effect is the black and white photographs that begin each book, accompanied by an epigraph from some passage in it; they make this, to the best of my knowledge, the first "illustrated" Propertius since the 1802 French version of M. Delongchamps, with four engravings by Clément-Pierre Marillier. I can see the relevance of the vivacious young woman (1.1), the water of the Clitumnus (2.19), and Lake Avernus (3.18), but have doubts about the headless nude male statue that is supposed to relate to 4.7.

All in all, for the audience at which it seems to be aimed, this is a better choice than Slavitt, though fans of literal accuracy (such as teachers) will have to stick with Lee (for a superior version of the same inferior text as Katz) or Goold (for an inferior version of a superior text).

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