In 1986 after I had completed my long poem The Ash Range, Michael Heyward, then in the Latin department at Melbourne University, suggested I try my hand at translating the epigrams of Martial. He equipped me with the two-volume Loeb Classical Library edition (translated by Walter C.A. Ker) and left me to go on from there. The idea was that we would get a handful of pieces which Scripsi (the literary magazine Michael co-edited with Peter Craven) would publish, but something else happened along the way. I recognised in the Edwardian prose versions a tone that I could identify with, realising at the same time that if the poems were to be effectively re-worked in English this tone was the most important thing to retain. I realised that ‘faithful’ translations of satires, while possibly of use to historians, tended to lose the satirical element altogether. For satire to bite as it ought to its objects should be at least generically recognizable and as so much of Martial’s work is ad hominem a good dose of the particular was essential. In localising the poems I ran the risk of creating my own obscurities. Readers from elsewhere might not know that Kinsella’s was a classy Sydney nightclub, that Phar Lap was a famous racehorse, or that Tamworth is the Australian equivalent to Nashville: the home of mainstream country music. Satire has to live with the possibility of its eventual obscurity . . .
I’ve reflected since on what led me to take up Michael’s suggestion. I am not a Latinist and had, at that date, only translated some Early English work in the course of university study, plus a couple of loose versions of Rimbaud that appeared in my first book. The late seventies and most of the eighties were Australia’s time of ‘poetry wars’ and my own work had come under fire for formlessness, ignorance of tradition, you name it. As a result of this I had written some satires in regular verse forms in an attempt to outflank the critics. An American friend said of some of these pieces, ‘wow, you Aussies are so vicious’, hinting at another link: that Martial was himself from ‘the provinces’ (Bilbilis, in northern Spain) and had brought to Rome the kind of wit (crudity included) that sometimes only ‘provincials’ are capable of. It may be that the intensity those on the ‘outer’ bring to any tradition (modernism included) is what the postcolonial theorists are on about.