Sunday, 30 March 2008
Marcus Valerius Martialis
The need to define misericord brought back to me the whole problem of translation and the linguistic skills (or otherwise) of the translator. In 1989 I published (with the journal Scripsi) a small book entitled The Epigrams of Martial. I am not a Latinist, and these poems were as much exercises in contemporary satire as they were 'translations' (even if some of them are surprisingly close to the originals). I had made use of the prose versions in the Loeb Classical Library edition and I had the additional advice of Michael Heyward, one of Scripsi's editors and a teacher of Latin himself. The project had come about through a suggestion of Michael's that I try and do a couple of Martial poems for the magazine but once I started, something in the tone of these works made me want to continue. I had, some years earlier, read a book of Martial translations by Peter Porter but I deliberately avoided going back to Porter's book while I was working on my own versions. When I did return to it it was interesting to note that we had barely coincided in our choices. This was largely because Peter was more interested in the general social mores while I largely wanted to make use of the ad hominem elements, to 'make new' the vitriol. I was encouraged by someone who had made fine translations of Catullus, Peter Whigham. The editors had shown him some of the poems, but he was killed in a motor accident before I could get back to him. Generally the book was well received though it did occasion one amusing moment of confusion. The journalist John Flaus was standing in for a talk-show presenter at a commercial radio station in Melbourne. He phoned to invite me onto the program. When I arrived in the studio he relaxed, turned on the mikes, and said: 'Ah . . . Marcus Valerius Martialis'. I soon realised that he was indulging a favourite personal topic: the teaching of Latin in Catholic schools. He had assumed that with a name like Duggan I had also been charmed, cajoled and perhaps beaten by one of the Brothers. But I am not a Catholic, nor had I ever studied the subject. I'm not Irish either, as far as I know (my name is as much an accident as it is a reliable indicator of provenance). I fear that Flaus was bitterly disappointed though we made light of it and I was given the taxi fare home afterwards.