The Spike Victoria University College Review 1944
But how beautiful and how fortunate if a translator does not feel only a general mood, if he also follows the exploitation and the caprice which lift every good poet out of his mood, if he can see the significance of a little artifice here and a little arabesque there. In such a translater the real fire of an old poet far away may burn again, and in his generation an old elan and an old enthusiasm may find a new life. So it happened when Elizabethans translated that believer in life, that magical giver, Catullus. It is possible that the rollicking generosity of the Elizabethan age was spurred on by the complete conquest of Catullus' fire in this ayre of Thomas Campion?
My sweetest Lesbid let us live and love
And though the sager sort our deeds reprove
Let us not weigh them; heavens great lamps do dive
Into their west and straight again revive
But soon as once is set our little light
Then must we sleep one everlasting night.
If we read this qualitatively and remembering the tune, as we ought, we find back the whole of Catullus: not only the passionate acceptance of today (the general mood) but also the countless little whims and witty symbolisms which make the graceful marionette Catullus to the real Catullus we know. There is first of all Catullus' awe for celestial bodies becuse they are so large and round and burning: 'soles' (suns—the ordinary word would be astra)' soles occidere et redire possunt.' Campion shows how beautifully be grasps this little touch and puts' heaven's great lamps.' Then there is death, and that smiling pity of Catullus at people—and little sparrows tripping into eternal darkness (illuc unde negan redire quemquam).Campion renders this irony although it remains rather on the background in' Vivamus mea Lesbia' with his playful refrain one everlasting night.' To recognise this effect one has perhaps need of the tune.
I am far from saying that these little subtleties are the essence of Catullus's poem—they are only that forming grain of yeast—and equally far from considering the great merits of Thomas Campion's translation to be the simple matter of rendering them. I only point out that there is no whim how ever hidden, not a single arabesque in the Roman's fanciful mind when Campion does not intuitively catch and preserve.
In America there was a man fairly recently, who was able to see death simply as a mystery of nature, a simple dark ceremony, and who never asked for explanations; his name was Edward Robin son. This ability made it possible for him to express what Sappho meant in her epitaph on the girl Timas.
This dust is Tunas' and they say
Thai almost on her wedding day
She found her bridal home to be
The dark house of Persephone
And many maidens knowing then
That she would not come back again
Unbound their curls and all in tears
They cut them off with sharpened shears.
Why is this the only good translation of Sappho in the English language? Because Robinson has not just conveyed paganism: he has caught all the subtleties of Sappho's paganism: the pageant, the Lesbian maidens, and Death whom they cannot and do not wish to explain. Of the mystery of death the girls know only that 'she will not come back again.' More they do not want to know. And the girl who died was just as ignorant: she just' found' her home 'to be' death.
There are of course other translations in the English language just as beautiful, and some of them are written by people who are otherwise as poets not well known. The only good rendering from the Russian which I have encountered does for instance not occur in Bowra's Book of Russian Verse (1943), nor in the collection of Cornford and Salaman (1943), but in front of a translation of' The Possessed,' by Constance Garnett (1905). The poem is Pushkin's.
Strike me dead! The track has vanished.
Well, what now? We've lost the way.
Demons have bewitched our horses,
Led us in the wilds astray.
What a number! Whither drift they!
What's the mournful dirge they sing?
Do they hail a witch's marriage
Or a goblin's burying.
The translation has serious weaknesses, and very obvious ones. But nobody who reads it can doubt the greatness of Pushkin. Just as a contrast I will quote the rendering of C. M. Bowra from page 16 A Book of Russian Verse.' Instead of the layman's simplicity we observe the semi-craftsman's ineffective trickery; second verse:
Crowds of them! Where do they hurry?
Why this song in mournful pitch?
Is it Brownie that they bury?
Make they marriage for a witch?