A translator is first of all a reader and we could

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A translator is first of all a reader, and we could see poetry in translation as (in part) poetry from the viewpoint of the reader. Sappho is a female poet from the Greek island of Lesbos in the 7th century BCE. Her work survives almost completely in fragments; a mix of genres and types, but many poems that express erotic love for women. Callimachus is a male poet from the Greek/Egyptian city of Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE. His work is also fragmentary and displays great variety; learned and witty, he presents himself as self-consciously escaping the traditions of Greek poetry that he inherited. Catullus includes two highlighted translations from these two poets so different in style and so historically/culturally distant. There are effects at the level of each poem–compare the musical practices of remixes and covers. But there are also effects at the level of the collection which, like an eclectic playlist, both acknowledges and flattens historical distance/difference. Translating Callimachus Poem 66 is oddly specific to Callimachus in a way very different from the emotional intimacy of Sappho’s poem. This is an example of Callimachus’ work that falls into the category of “court poetry” or, less anachronistically, poems in praise of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. The Callimachean original of poem 66 (again, only in fragments) used an extremely creative device around which to develop a poem in praise of the wedding of Berenice II and Ptolemy III: he invents a speech spoken by a lock of hair that has been vowed by the queen for her husband’s safe return from war. This lock of hair was recognized as a constellation by the astronomer Conon. Poem 66 seems to teeter on the edge between jokey and passionate; sometimes it’s easy to be conscious of (and to look down on) the hair’s melodramatic self- obsession, but the poem also feels like a very intense, almost frantic, expression of being severed forever from the one person you love. Poem 65 In addition to reading poem 66 on its own, we should read it as part of diptych with poem 65 (an effect that the collection makes possible). Poem 65 could be boiled down to being a “cover letter” for the translation, addressed to Hortalus. But notice that the informational aspect of the poem (“I’m sending you a translation of Callimachus.”) keeps being interrupted by the pure outpouring of grief over the death of Catullus’ brother. (See also poem 101.) Note in particular the lines in which the speaker addresses his dead brother in the 2nd person (ll. 10-12), calling attention to the kind of communication that poetry makes possible –real and unreal in equal parts. Note also the images of two female figures to whom the male speaker compares himself: a nightingale (ll. 13-14) forever singing of her sorrows and a young woman, whose secret gift from her lover gets exposed (ll. 19-24).
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