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Guest Review: Brinton On Duggan's Martial

Ian Brinton reviews
Martial Arts: The Epigrams of Martial
Translated by Laurie Duggan

When D.R. Shakleton Bailey’s three-volume prose translation of Martial’s Epigrams appeared as an addition to the series of Loeb Classics in 1994 Charles Tomlinson reviewed it for The New Criterion under the title ‘Martial in English’ noting that this edition ‘offers an occasion for thinking about the way Martial’s presence shows itself in English poetry’. He praised the unpretentiously accurate approach of the translator by suggesting that it ‘helps the reader to the mental possession of the original’ as well as making one conscious ‘anew of how splendidly some of our English poets responded to Martial.’ A matter of weeks ago Pressed Wafer’s reprint of the Australian poet Laurie Duggan’s translations brings back into the market-place the variety of tones to be found in the Latin poet, the mixture of biting wit and scarifying disdain, a concern for humane values and a compassionate understanding of human life. Duggan’s translations make Martial new (to adapt a Poundian phrase) and the art of them is a process indistinguishable from poetic creation.

In the Preface to this new edition of work which was originally published in the mid-eighties Duggan emphasises an essential aspect of conveying the immediacy of satirical writing whose original audience lived in the last years of the first century A.D.:

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 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.

The success of this up-dating can be sensed immediately when one reads the translation of xi from Book XVI about those critics who pour public derision on a piece of writing in order to uphold their membership of the self-elected intellectual gang whilst not being above having a good read of it when on their own:

            Arts Functionaries, piss off!
I write for the citizens of Wit.
In my pages, the whack of the high-hat
keeps time for Live Acts at the Adult Cinema.
Roll up your sleeves, Professor X, loosen your tie,
you’re still a Jesuit in mufti.
Even Ms Y, feminist critic, reads my book
and cracks a grin, after the collective goes home.

In the Seventeenth Century Robert Herrick had a go at this Epigram and produced a more general picture of hypocrisy:

            To read my Booke the Virgin shie
May blush, (while Brutus standeth by:)
But when He’s gone, read through what’s writ,
And never staine a cheeke for it.

The angry humour of Laurie Duggan’s version is contained in that explosive opening line followed by the unapologetic statement of author to audience. The late-twentieth century context is wonderfully caught with the exuberance of ‘the whack of the high-hat’ and the contemptuous comment hurled at the academic professional whose Jesuitical attitude towards what should and should not be read is barely disguised by a touch of sartorial informality: a dressing-down for a dressing-down!
In addition to the world of satire Martial also composed poems which explored the art of genuine pathos and one of the most moving was written in response to the death of Erotion, a six year-old slave girl. To recognise the delicate quality of Laurie Duggan’s version it is worth quoting the Loeb prose translation:

To you, father Fronto and mother Flacilla, I commend this girl, my pet and darling. Little Erotion must not be frightened by the dark shades and the monstrous mouths of Tartarus’ hound. She was due to complete the chills of a sixth midwinter, no more, if she had not lived that many days too few. Let her now play and frolic with her old patrons and lispingly chatter my name. Not hard be the turf that covers her soft bones, be not heavy upon her, earth; she was not heavy upon you.

Tomlinson considered this epigram (Book V, xxxiv) to be Martial’s finest short poem and despaired of finding a translation that worked. Commenting on the Loeb prose he found the syntax of the third sentence, clear in the Latin, contorted and ‘my pet and darling’ gushing. That said he suggested that this version ‘gives a sketch of Martial’s intentions’ which at least avoids the ‘sort of errors of taste’ another translator, K. Flower Smith, is guilty of:

            She’s such a little lassie—only six—
            To toddle down the pathways to the Styx
            All by herself!

Martial’s original avoids precisely that cloying note and his poem is movingly felt without ‘wearing its heart on its sleeve’. Laurie Duggan’s rendering of this delicate tone which conveys genuine pathos controlled by an exact understanding of metre is a delight:

            Dew glitter in a haze
                        of woodsmoke,
            scent of parted lavender
                        a feather
            touching early pages
                        of the book,
            she of five summers lies.
            Rest lightly upon her
                        earth and stone;
            rest gently as she rests:
                        a leaf
            touching the forest floor.

This translation combines ideas from another epigram in Book V to metamorphose Martial’s tone into something rich and strange: the gentle merging of ‘then’ and ‘now’, loss caught with the puns on ‘scent’ and ‘parted’, a falling which whispers to conclusion with the sound of ‘forest floor’.

Peter Whigham’s comment on the back cover of this wonderful little book is uncompromising in its praise: ‘I should like to state, explicitly, that your versions are far the best of any made since the eighteenth century’. The pace and liveliness of the writing is certainly brimming with Augustan brio:

            I’ve written nothing against you, reader,
            but since you don’t believe me
            maybe I will.

(Book XII, lxxviii)

Ian Brinton is a regular contributor to Eyewear.  He is a critic and scholar, with a particular interest in JH Prynne.
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