Thursday, 24 June 2010

Per noctem in nihilo velu

These famous lines of Catullus:
Soles occidere et redire possunt
Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux
Nox est perpetua una dormienda.
An article on the poet from the May 15th 1913 TLS (nearly a century ago!) discusses various translations:
Here is Mr Stuttaford's version:
Suns can set and rise again, but to our brief light, when once it sets, there comes a never ending night that must be passed in neverending sleep.
And here is Mr Cornish's:
Suns may set and rise again. For us, when the short light had once set, remains to be slept the sleep of one unbroken night.
We may find some amusement in comparing Mr Stuttaford with Mr Cornish, in giving Mr Stuttaford a good mark for ease and rhythm, and a doubtful one for the repetition of "never ending", so unlike the monumental brevity of the original, or in detecting the flaw in Mr Cornish's English, the Latinistic "remains to be slept", the hoof-mark of the construing lingo beloved of schoolboys, abhorred of men and gods. But if we wanted to give an English reader, innocent of Latin, some idea of Catullus's lines, we should take him neither to Mr Cornish nor to Mr Stuttaford, but to Herrick:
Our life is short; and our days run
As fast away as does the sun:...
I quite like "remains to be slept", mind you (though not so much as I like the idiom 'the hoof-mark'...). But I'm moved to try a different sort of translation, one that preserves more of the shape of the signifier than the signified. Too long has 'content' ruled the logic of translation ...:
Soles occidere et redire possunt
Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux
Nox est perpetua una dormienda.


Suns axe lessens the day, and re-day perhaps
Know this: come senility's axe, and our brief look's
noxious perpetually in a dormant ending.

God. That's terrible.