Translator’s Note
Alex MacKeith

As an act of reception, these poems are not purely indebted to the text of Catullus’ poetry—the survival of which has been fraught, contingent and heavily reconstructed to the best of philologists’ abilities. The Latin I cite is from the accessible Loeb 2nd edition, revised by G.P. Goold. In my translation I have been especially influenced by James Methven, the Zukovskys, Peter Green, Stephanie Burt’s After Callimachus and Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho and Euripides.

My process begins with close analysis and associative translation of the Latin—a combination of the literal, derivative and homophonic. Throughout each poem, individual words may be expansively adapted without sacrificing their relationship to the original; these relationships are sometimes conceptual, sometimes lyrical or grammatical. My hope is that the “original” Latin is pushing through the skin of these verses.

For poem XLVI, which details the poet’s completion of provincial service in Bithynia, furor sparked an associative web. The anger that shatters partnerships and the certainties of early relationships served as a platform for reinterpreting Catullus’ farewell to his comrades. As does the original, the translation considers wanderlust sparked by severance, liberation in uncertainty. Here, too, is the tension between the desire to stray and the insistent, creeping language of return.

LI is an adaptation of an adaptation—Catullus’ poem being a response to Sappho XXXI—and it follows the verse structure of the original. The translation, though still associative, maintains a higher degree of fidelity to lyrical content, with the agonised longing, voyeurism and self-deprecation carried through. Line 8 of the manuscript is missing, with [vocis in ore] supplied. I have retained the visual grammar of the conjecture for my translation: the voice “catches like it should” in part because the poem’s tenuous transmission demands hesitancy.

The sensory convulsion of the third stanza becomes a psychological rumination on past cruelties, following the sensory cues of the original Latin. Speech comes first: lingua sed torpet (literally “But my tongue falls numb”) becomes “Tongue hardened to a murder weapon,” adapted for a survey of pain inflicted and recollected as self-punishment. As in the original, annihilation metastasises, moving from speech to physical sensation, to hearing and finally to vision.

For XLIX—a tongue-in-cheek poem of thanks addressed to the orator and statesman Cicero—the irreverent energy of Catullus’ tone is channeled into a more expansive adaptation. Again the associative process follows the Latin closely, but the intended recipient here is a poet for whom the praise of the verse is sincere. Catullus subverted his poem of gratitude towards a patron; I played his insincere original into a sincere expression of admiration.

More so than “the same ‘music,’ the same air” that John Ciardi described in his translator’s note to the Inferno, the relation of these poems to the “originals” is distant—vastly. Transpositions more than translations, they are echoes, footsteps of footsteps. Just as if we were to meet an ancestor of two thousand years, the most we might hope for is a touch of familiarity—a tilt of the head, a stray gesture, or the uncanny flash of a similar smile….

Alex MacKeith is a writer from London. His first work for theatre, School Play, ran at the Southwark Playhouse in 2017 and was published by Oberon Books. His debut feature screenplay, The Lesson, premiered at the Tribeca Festival in June 2023 before an international release. His prose has been published in HotShoe Magazine, and as a stand-up comedian he won the UK's 2020 Musical Comedy Awards, has been a semi-finalist in the BBC New Comedy Awards, and took a sell-out solo show, Thanks for Listening, to the Edinburgh Festival in 2022. He has taught Classics in London and has an MPhil in Classical Literature from Cambridge University.


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