BMCR 1996.07.05

1996.7.5, Matthews, the Mortal City

, , The mortal city : 100 epigrams of Martial. Athens, OH: Ohio Review Books, 1995. x, 107 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780942148176. $15.00.

Translations of ancient texts come in different varieties. Some translators remain as true to the original text as possible even though they sometimes render the ancient text in very stilted English which is often more difficult to read than the original. Others, attempting to render texts into contemporary, easier-to-read English, prepare translations so far removed from the original that the final products look more like adaptations than translations. Still others find the “golden mean”. Their translations remain true to the ideas expressed by the original texts and are written for a more modern audience.

William Matthews has found the “golden mean” in The Mortal City: 100 Epigrams of Martial, where he offers contemporary and witty translations of a selection of Martial’s epigrams, most of which have appeared earlier in various publications (107). Matthews provides a succinct introduction to imperial Roman society up to and during Martial’s lifetime which serves as an excellent background for his translations. He tells us that Martial was poor during the thirty-five years he stayed at Rome and that he never attracted the patronage given to the likes of the Augustan poets, but “had instead the ordinary client’s role” (vii). Martial’s Rome was a “slave-owning society” (vii) where sexual promiscuity was routine (vii-viii) and where “the relationship between the sexes … [was] unstable and unique in the classical world” (viii). Even the novice reader can get a feel for the society in which Martial moved. The poems which Matthews has chosen to translate sample the facets of Roman society that Martial chose to mock. Matthews gives us not only his witty, insightful translations but also the original epigrams so that we can compare the two for ourselves. Though his translations are not literal, he captures Martial’s spirit and intentions so well that one cannot help but believe that Martial himself would approve.

Matthews tells us himself that he sometimes has opted for anachronisms (see below), substituting “for the details of one of Cicero’s more famous (but not anymore) courtroom speeches some American legal commonplaces, … for a famously (though not to us) greedy Roman mogul, Donald Trump, whom I imagine Martial would have been delighted to know about” (x). He also tells us that he often used English equivalents for Latin names where equivalents existed (x). Indeed, more often than not, where names exist in the poems, Matthews avoids using them in his translations none to the detriment of Martial, for example Martial VIII. 69 (58):

Miraris veteres, Vacerra, solos
nec laudas nisi mortuos poetas.
ignoscas petimus, Vacerra: tanti
non est, ut placeam tibi, perire.

There are poets you praise,
But I notice they’re all dead.
I’d rather find another way
to please you, friend, instead.

Matthews uses no footnotes and very few endnotes; for example, he tells us that “Caesar” means the emperor Domitian in Martial I. 4 (105). The overall result is a contemporary rendering that remains true to Martial, described by Matthews as “affable and nasty, social and largely suspicious of rank,” (ix) who “may well have been the first thoroughly urban poet in the European literary tradition” (ix).

But rather than describe Matthews’ methods and techniques, let us look at some examples of his translations. Many of Matthews’ translations rhyme and move with the tempo of modern day limericks. For example, for IX.5, he translates (61):

You want to marry Priscus, natch.
You’re smart, Paula; he’s a catch.
But Priscus proves that he’s smart, too:
He doesn’t want to marry you.

His puns capture Martial’s wit and sarcasm, as in VI.67 (48):

Your Celia keeps company with eunuchs:
Pannychus, do you find this odd?
It’s the child she hopes to be spared,
Pannychus, not the rod.

I.32, made famous by Tom Brown when he wrote

I do not like thee, Dr. Fell
The reason why I cannot tell.
But this I know and know full well,
I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.

becomes, in Matthew’s hands, as contemporary for us as Brown’s “Dr. Fell” in his day (7)

I do not like you, Jesse Helms.
I can’t say why I’m underwhelmed,
but I know one thing sure and true:
Jesse Helms, I don’t like you.

Matthews also catches Martial’s “tender side” as well. We cannot help but feel the tragedy of 79 C.E., when Vesuvius erupted, in IV.44 (29)

Here is Vesuvius, viney and shade-green only yesterday;
here, on these slopes Bacchus loved more than Nysa’s hills,
the noble grapes outgave themselves time and again;
on this mountain the Satyrs leaped and danced,
for this was Venus’s adopted home, dearer to her than Sparta,
and here a proud town bore the name of Hercules.
It’s all drowned now by fire, sunk to drab ash. What won’t
the high gods permit themselves, they could well ask.

Or in Martial’s epithet (X. 61) for a dead child:

Here in premature gloom Erotion rests
whose sixth winter now will last forever.
Whoever tends this small field after me,
pay each year homage to her slender ghost:
then you will prosper here and never
weep, except this stone bring her to memory.

As the author indicates in his introduction, “I don’t intend these translations to replace, but to augment, existing translations. A poet from a classical language is kept alive by a process of continual translation, an enterprise that grows on itself like a coral colony. The Martial I know is not only in the Latin, but in the sum of the various English versions I’ve read, always with gratitude, for thirty-five years” (x).

Matthews’ long familiarity with and love for Martial becomes more apparent with every poem. His translations simply sound like Martial and are as engaging to the modern reader as Martial’s epigrams must have been in his own day. One cannot help but laugh at many of the epigrams, whether reading Martial’s Latin or Matthews’ English. Matthews’ translations are thoroughly Roman, thoroughly Martial and well worth reading.