Art Beck: Doctor Fell

  Art Beck

  I Really Hate You, Doctor Fell,

  But Love’s Funny That Way

                    For Jim Kates, because he had the idea first

In early October this year, 2016, I am scheduled to be a panelist at the annual American Literary Translators Conference. The panel title is ‘Crossing the Line’ and the topic description is as follows:

What happens when a translation gets adopted as an original in its target culture? Can it never be changed, even for good reasons? Is the target culture ‘wrong’ to view a translation in the same inviolable terms in which original texts are often viewed? Do the ‘actual’ original and the translation then come into conflict?

‘Reading papers’ is a no-no at ALTA, but in putting together some talking points, I found myself engendering a paper of sorts. And that expansion of my talking points is what follows.

1. Reborn but not reincarnated

In my, admittedly arbitrary, opinion, nothing wrong or unethical occurs when a poet appropriates a poem from another language and culture and creates a new work of art. Translated literature only remains living literature by mutating across time and cultures. And translated poems can only persist as transplanted poems, drawing on the soil of a new language, reinventing themselves as any immigrant must. Every successful translation is a duet between translator and translatee, an essentially re-authored work.And it’s important to notethat none of this damages or even impacts the original work or culture. Translation isn’t a ‘brain drain’. Poetic rebirth, unlike reincarnation, doesn’t require a prior loss.

Even beyond the narrow scope of poems, is it somehow wrong, or does it matter, if Shakespeare’s Venice, Elsinore, and Alexandria are places more imagined than real? No longer their own, but the cities of Shakespeare’s heartland. Art travels passportless, but carte blanche.

2. A few examples

So what are some examples of appropriations that became ‘originals’? In twentieth-century English language poetry, we have Pound’s Cathay. Particularly his Li Bai version, ‘The River Merchant’s Wife’, a staple of every high school poetry textbook. Yeats’s ‘When You Are Old’, an adaptation of a seventeenth century Pierre Ronsard poem is a close second in popularity. And, unlike Pound, Yeats doesn’t even acknowledge his French source or call his poem a translation.

William Butler Yeats photographed in 1903 by Alice Boughton
William Butler Yeats photographed in 1903 by Alice Boughton

Lest we single out the imperial English language for its voraciousness, we might also look back at 1st century b.c.e. Latin and Catullus’ carmen 51, a tour-de-force gorgeous translation of Sappho 31. Catullus not only appropriates Sappho’s masterpiece as his own love poem to his inamorata, ‘Lesbia’. But also congratulates himself by tacking on an enigmatic last stanza mocking the compulsive Roman industriousness that would deny Catullus — and by extension Sappho — the leisure to create such a marvel.

Modern bust of Catullus at Sirmione, near Verona, Italy.
Modern bust of Catullus at Sirmione, near Verona, Italy.

My two previous examples are pretty well known, but the Catullus Sappho version may not be. For those not familiar with it, here’s Catullus 51 in Latin and my own, unworthy translation:

Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare diuos,
qui sedens adversus identitem te
      spectat et audit

dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
      (vocis in ore;)

lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonim suopte
tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
      lumina nocte.

otium Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas niminumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
      perdidit urbes.

That man seems like a god to me.
The man who, sitting face to face
with you, — if such a thing can be –
      surpasses the gods, by

hearing your sweet laughter
every day, while I wallow, senseless
in misery. Lesbia, when I catch sight
      of you, all at once

my voice deserts me, my tongue
goes numb and a delicate flame
suffuses me. My ears ring and night
      buries the light.

Idleness, Catullus, that’s your problem.
You revel in idleness and achieve nothing.
Idleness has been the ruin of
      bygone kings and rich cities.

3. What’s not to Love?

But these are exalted, much commented on examples, and old news to rehash here. It might be more fun to travel to the seventeenth century and look at something a little less serious. To quote the first paragraph of his Wikipedia entry:

Thomas Brown (1662-1718, June 1704), also known as Tom Brown, was an English translator and writer of satire, largely forgotten today save for a four line jibe he wrote concerning Dr. John Fell.

Dr. John Fell was a distinguished Oxford dean, noted for his strictness; and, as the story goes, Tom Brown, a less than disciplined student about to be expelled. Scowling in his office, Dr. Fell gave poor Tom, one last chance. If he could extemporaneously translate a Martial epigram, he’d be spared expulsion, at least for now.

Bishop John Fell
Bishop John Fell

The poem Tom Brown translated was Martial’s epigram I, 32. Did he get to pick? Or, was this the poem Dr. Fell chose? This is something for us to ponder.

Maybe we should also ponder that the epigram in question is a short couplet in very simple Latin. This was an era when Latin was part of the primary school curriculum and still in commercial and diplomatic use. Asking even a bad Oxford student to simply translate these two lines seems on a par with Groucho Marx’s ‘You Bet Your Life’ consolation prize question ‘Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?’

So, I’m presuming the challenge wasn’t to simply translate the lines, but to ‘English’ them. i.e. To make a ‘new original’ from the Latin poem, an English poem in its own right. An exercise in English, not Latin, poetry. Here’s the epigram and my fairly literal translation.

Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare:
      hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.

I don’t love you, Sabidius, I can’t even say
      why. I can only say, I don’t love you.

Fighting for his academic life, Tom Brown came up with:

I do not love thee, Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr Fell.

The eminent Dr. Fell was not only suitably impressed, he also proved to be a good sport. Tom survived his ‘see me’ moment and returned to class. Alas, although history records little of Tom Brown, it does record that he ultimately left Oxford without a degree.

His poem, though, lives on, in ubiquitous literary allusions. Propelled by the sinister resonance of his name, the sanctimonious Oxford dean has morphed into a shadowy bogeyman — a Doctor Hyde and Hannibal Lector. And with the like — inclusive seventeenth century ‘love’ refined to just ‘like’, an enduring nursery rhyme still memorized by kindergarteners, set to music and sung.

4. Something Like a Hot Potato

So, is there any point in revisiting and retranslating this old Latin epigram, or has Martial’s Sabidius been happily supplanted in English by our very own Dr. Fell? Who cares about Sabidius anymore? Did Martial, who used the name in only one other of his 1500-odd poems, even care that much? That second Sabidius, in Epigrams book III, 17, seems also a rather unlovable fellow.

Circumlata diu mensis scribilita secundis
      urebat nimio saeva calore manus;
sed magis ardebat Sabidi gula: protinus ergo
      sufflavit buccis terque quaterque suis.
Illa quidem tepuit digitosque admittere visa est,    5
      sed nemo potuit tangere: merda fuit.
The steaming cheese tart was so hot it burned our hands;
      as we gingerly tossed it, back and forth, around the table.
Then Sabidius’ eager gullet glowed. Puffing out his cheeks,
      he blew on the treat, three, four times. Until it turned
lukewarm, and seemed finally safe for our fingers. As
      if anyone would touch it, now that it was shit.

Is this even the same quizzical Sabidius we met in epigram I, 32? Probably not. There doesn’t seem to be any question of not being able to understand the un-lovability of someone with this level of halitosis

So, at first glance, the anglophone reader might be excused for presuming that Tom Brown’s jingle, dated as it is, has appropriated all that can be gotten from Martial’s little quip. Given the ephemerality of Martial’s couplet, one might even make a case that we’ve gained more in translation than we’ve lost with Tom Brown’s quatrain. I think that’s a valid view if you’re looking forward from Martial’s poem.

5. Otium

But what if you’re looking backwards? Or, more pertinently, what if Martial is looking backwards? Martial’s first book of Epigrams appeared well into his mid-life. He was a forty-five year old, well-schooled poet, conscious of creating something new by elevating the lowly old Greco-Roman epigram into sophisticated Latin lyric. And well aware of his poetic forbears and the broader scope of Roman poetry. Intermingled with the jocular mots and ripostes of traditional epigram, Book I contains subtle dialogues with the Emperor, epigrams on traditionally elegiac subjects, and serious poems on Roman historical figures such as Mucius Scaevola and Cato’s tragic daughter Porcia.

Near the end of the volume, in epigram 107, Martial points up a practical, rather than artistic, distinction between himself and two famous Augustan era ancestors: the lack of a patron, and hence, a lack of the otium ( the peaceful and fertile idleness) that Catullus implies, in carmen 51, is essential to the creative process.

Saepe mihi dicis, Luci carissime Iuli,
        scribe aliquid magnum: desidiosus homo es.
Otia da nobis, sed qualia fecerat olim
        Maecenas Flacco Vergilioque suo:
condere victuras temptem per saecula curas
        et nomen flammis eripuisse meum.
In steriles nolunt campos iuga ferre iuuenci:
        pingue solum lassat, sed iuvat ipse labor.

Yes, tell me again, cousin Lucius, dear Julius,
      ‘Write something really big, stir those lazy bones.’
Well, give me some real leisure, the kind Maecenas
      once crafted for his Horace and Virgil as their gift
to use. Then I’d be tempted to generate an opus
      for the ages and snatch my own name from the pyre.
Yoked oxen hate plowing fruitless fields. Rich earth
      wearies as well, but the work is pleasure itself.

Latin poet Horace.
Latin poet Horace.

For Martial, attempting to live on the sale of his books, poetry has become negotium (business), the opposite of the otium a rich patron can bestow. But Martial’s self deprecation seems tongue in cheek. With his elevation of epigram to high art over the space of Book I’s 118 poems, he challenges the reader to assess whether he’s not, indeed, snatching his name from the funeral pyre. And he pointedly begins his short prose introduction to Book I by invoking four noted predecessors. Three of them, Marsus, Paedo and Gaetulicus are largely lost to us. But the first poetic ancestor he cites, Catullus, remains as noteworthy today as he was to Martial.

6. Hating and Loving Sabidius

On surface, the Sabidius epigram, I, 32, is a simple, bantering couplet with no particular emotional weight. But anyone translating any quantity of Martial epigrams, soon comes to look for resonances and roots beneath the surface. And it’s become almost a commonplace consensus, now, for classicists to comment on the structural similarities between I, 32 and a famous Latin poem that seems almost a polar opposite in its tortured, opaque depths. That poem is Catullus’ carmen 85.

Odi et amo quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
      nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

In content, nothing could be further from Martial’s Sabidius jibe. I once characterized Catullus 85 as a love poem that sticks in the craw of love poems. The toothache-nerve core of Catullus’ agony and ecstasy affair with his Lesbia-Clodia. There are probably a thousand English translations, none of which capture the density of the Latin which seems to darkly scream from the fourth word, quare (why), like pain from an impaled hand. A few years ago, I published a wandering essay around Catullus 85.

Essay: Essay.

The best translation I could come up with then, still seems prosaic, wordy and lame:

I’m repelled and I love. Maybe you do have to know why.
I don’t know, but I feel it happening and I’m crucified.

(As an aside for those who read Latin: Yes, I know excrucior is more properly ‘tortured / racked’ than ‘crucified’.But subsequent to Catullus’ time, crucifixion has taken on the sacramental weight his excrucior implies and becomes the obvious translation choice.)

So what does Martial’s epigram I, 32 have to do with Catullus 85? Why do so many learned classicists find it a resonant, below the surface, poetic reference to Catullus 85?

Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare:
hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.

One reason is that Martial’s epigram utilizes a signature Catullan device: The poem begins and ends with the same phrase. This is, of course, not the case with Catullus’ odi et amo, but for the literati among Martial’s readers, the trope would still evokes Catullus. And the two couplets are also metrically similar. But beyond this, Martial’s unanswerable, light verse, quare mirrors Catullus’ deep, unanswerable question about hate and love.

Catullus 85, probably more than any poem, says many things to as many readers. I think that’s as true in the original Latin as it is in translation. A protean enigma scrawled like graffiti on an ancient wall. And a couple of thousand years closer than we are to Catullus, Martial may be offering yet another way to read that endlessly fertile couplet:

I hate you, love you, ask me, I don’t know why.
I only know what I feel, and I’m crucified.

7: But wait there’s more…

Victoria Rimell is a British classicist who’s written an engaging study entitled Martial’s Rome. (Cambridge University Press 2008). It includes a long chapter on the structure and pacing of Martial’s seminal Book I, in which she notes Martial’s habit of returning to earlier poems within a book. Along these lines, she considers another epigram, I, 57, to be ‘twinned’ with I. 32, as Martial’s double-commentary on Catullus 85.

I tend to agree with her. In I, 57 (below). the word cruciat seems to play the role quare did in I, 32. It’s a term much heavier than what might be called for, given the surface lightness of the epigram. But which perfectly fits the dynamics of Catullus’ maddening affair with Clodia and the immortal poems that document it.

Similarly, on surface, I, 57’s addressee, Flaccus, might be Martial’s friend (whom he mentions in other poems). But the name also invokes Horace and his ‘golden mean’ Ode II, 10. In the epigram I, 107, we looked at above, Martial uses Horace’s cognomen, ‘Flaccus’, to denote him.

Taken this way, Martial is simultaneously conversing with his readers, and with his poetic forebears. And as with epigram I, 32, we have two ways of looking at the poems, two melody lines that seamlessly harmonize, at once light as spun sugar and rich as marzipan.

I, 57

Qualem, Flacce, velim quaeris nolimque puellam?
        nolo nimis facilem difficilemque nimis.
Illud quod medium est atque inter utrumque probamus:
        nec volo quod cruciat nec volo quod satiat.
You ask, Flaccus, what kind of girl I like, what kind
      I avoid? Someone not too easy, not too maddening.
The golden mean lies somewhere in between.
      I don’t want agony. I don’t want too much.

8. Is there any conclusion?

As I alluded at the beginning, Sabidius’ reincarnation as Dr. Fell had, and has, no effect on the original Latin poem. In fact, Tom Brown’s only victim may have been the real Dr. Fell, a noted linguist, educator and scholar, who’s only remembered now in a poem that’s turned him into a vague, sinister menace. Sabidius at least was probably never real, probably just a commonplace, metrically utile, name.

But if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it may be that the only real danger is simplification, and being too quick to understand. To revisit Groucho Marx and ‘You Bet Your Life’: For years, contestants answered that question, ‘Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?’ And went happily home with their consolation prize.

Groucho Marx, portrait circa 1950.
Groucho Marx, portrait circa 1950.
Until one day, a wiseacre proudly spouted out ‘nobody’.
‘What?’ Groucho demanded? ‘Come on, come on, who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?’
‘Well,’ Mr. Smart Mouth insisted.‘Grant’s Tomb is an above-ground mausoleum. Nobody’s buried there.’

Does anyone know if that was the last time Groucho asked that simple question?


Art Beck has published several collections of poetry and poetry translations, including Luxorius Opera Omnia, a Duet for Sitar and Trombone (Otis Books ) which was awarded the 2013 Northern California Book award for poetry in translation: He is currently translating the Roman epigrammist Martial with the intent of compiling a good sized selection centered around Martial’s rarely translated ‘arena’ poems. A recent chapbook of his Martial translations edited by Paul Vangelisti is available from Magra Books (Los Angeles/Bagnone, Italy) at

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.