“Words have no meanings in death”: Translating Catullus 101

Tate Standage
Feb 7 · 10 min read

This is an edited version of my project/essay for the module Language Translation, and Interpretation last year. The assignment was to translate a poem (Catullus 101 was one of the options), and then explain the choices behind your translation.

I interpret Catullus 101 as being a poem about voices — their failure, and what we can do in the face of that failure. The poem is a “voice” because it has an addressee in Catullus’ brother. However, the absence of an addressee who can actually listen to it calls into question whether the voice of the poem can ever be meaningful. Catullus brings up the failure of his voice after the death of his brother in poem 65, where he first mentions the brother and his death. Here Catullus claims that he cannot “put forth the sweet fruit of the Muses” and in his sorrow, he can only send his friend Hortalus a translation of Callimachus — instead of using his own words, he speaks through translation, words that both are and aren’t his. Additionally, he says that he will still “always sing sad songs about your death”— but that these songs are the kind that “the Daulian woman” sings. “Daulian” usually refers to Procne, who “sang” after being transformed into a bird — and so her songs are necessarily wordless. They can communicate grief, but nothing else. But Daulian could also refer to Procne’s sister Philomela, who when her tongue was cut out, told her story by weaving it into a tapestry — which is very similar to how I see Catullus as overcoming his own wordlessness.

Catullus tries to counter the meaninglessness of his words in the face of death via the sounds of words, where they come from, and the forms they are put into. Poem 101 is a “patchwork” of sounds, references, forms, and rituals, woven together like Philomela’s tapestry to create meaning out of something other than the words themselves. Catullus conveys his grief through sound effects over semantics, using murmurance and very spondaic lines to slow the poem down and focus on the “mute ashes”. Catullus, like Procne, expresses emotion despite not being able to do so in words.

The failure of his words continues in the way that much of the poem is a patchwork of phrases from elsewhere. That the opening line begins on the idea of a journey is reminiscent of the Odyssey, and so the narrative of a journey to try to speak with the dead becomes almost an attempted small-scale katabasis. The whole poem also has a sense of a poem by Meleager: Catullus mentioning the physical removal of his brother twice, once in how fortune has “stolen” him, and again in “brother seized from me”, and this seems like an echo of the repetition in “death has taken her, has taken her” in Meleager’s lament for Heliodora (Palatine Anthology VII. 476). “brother seized from me” is itself an echo of Catullus’ own words in poem 68, where the phrase occurs twice. The final ave atque vale” (hail and farewell) is also a phrase common on funeral inscriptions, and so even the words within the narrative that Catullus can bring himself to speak aloud are not his own, and he is still incapable of his own speech. Like Philomela, Catullus is only able to show what he is unable to say by “weaving” together material from elsewhere.

Another way Catullus tries to find meaning in something other than words is through his use of ritual. The narrative of the poem is of course Catullus travelling to his brother’s grave in the Troad to perform his funerary rites. But the poem is also implicitly filled with references to funerals and their rituals. It is in elegiac couplets, a form originating from the poetry of mourning. It is also styled as a funerary epitaph, and the triple repetition of “brother” may be a reference to the conclamatio in which the name of the dead was repeated three times at a funeral. The composite effect of Catullus’ reliance on quotation and ritual in place of speech is that he eventually is able to use these to find meaningful speech.

But does Catullus succeed? Is this speech meaningful? Catullus has shown how he is affected by his brother’s death. When facing the silence of death Catullus is himself silenced, as if the only way he can come close to his dead brother is to be as if dead himself. This image is reinforced by the poem’s status as mock-epitaph: where usually the epitaph is written from the perspective of the dead speaking to a living passerby, here it is the inverse, and the living Catullus addresses his dead brother as if Catullus were the dead one. To answer whether Catullus succeeds in creating “meaningful” speech, we must decide who his speech can be meaningful to. The “addressee” of the poem is only that because he is dead — no words can be meaningful in such a silence. But Catullus, who was similarly silenced, via his patchwork-poem is able to overcome that silence in himself at least. Thus the poem is right in stating its own meaninglessness — to an audience of the dead — but it is not a paradox that that statement of meaninglessness is itself meaningful to the living author. Catullus uses patchwork to reorder his own feelings, and this process of finding his own voice in other people’s words is the most important aspect of the poem.

The translations that best reflected what I see as the key aspects of Catullus 101 were those furthest in literal content from the original — but I read the original poem as stating that its literal content is secondary to the arrangement of that content as a process by the author. These are Ugo Foscolo’s In morte del fratello Giovanni, Tennyson’s Frater Ave Atque Vale, and Anne Carson’s Nox. None of these translate the poem literally, or even are “poetic translations,” but what they do have in common is that they were written in response to the deaths of each translator’s own brother, and that, like the original, they speak through a patchwork of other voices as a way to find meaning in grief.

Foscolo’s poem is a version of Catullus 101, but adapted to Italian sonnet form, and including a simile of Foscolo “mourning the fallen flower of your gentle years”, that evokes the image of Euryalus’ untimely death in the Aeneid. Foscolo’s poem also considers which speech is meaningful by contrasting Foscolo’s mother having a “conversation” about him with ashes that cannot reply, with the “voice’ of the poem itself, which neither mother nor brother can hear, as Foscolo was in exile and was unable to visit his brother’s grave as Catullus presents himself as doing for his brother. Thus Foscolo uses Catullus 101 as a frame, but is able to find his own voice in departures from that frame.

Tennyson’s poem is notable in that it directly quotes both Catullus 101 and 31 throughout, and so Tennyson follows the pattern of speaking through a patchwork of voices. He too was mourning a dead brother, although it is not made explicit in this poem. The narrative of his “journey” by water to Catullus’ villa at Sirmio is also similar in content to Catullus’ being “carried across the sea”, and each journey is an almost-katabasis to speak or fail to speak to their respective dead brothers. Tennyson’s poem is interesting because rather than Tennyson finding a voice for his grief through Catullus, he finds (or maybe becomes?) Catullus’ voice. By line 8 it is unclear whether the one “gazing at the Lydian laughter of the Garda lake below” is Tennyson and his companions, or the speaker of “frater ave atque vale” (hail and farewell, brother) — and it is even unclear whether that speaker is Tennyson or Catullus. The poem ends with two more almost-Catullan quotations, but this time they are presented as Tennyson’s own words. The end of the poem blurs the distinction between the voices of Tennyson and Catullus, enabling Tennyson-as-Catullus to voice his grief through the costume of Catullus’ grief.

Carson’s Nox is explicitly about the death of the author’s brother. Carson goes through Catullus 101 word by word, juxtaposing her own dictionary-entry-formatted definitions of the words with related scrapbook materials documenting her relationship with her brother. Like how Catullus’ poem is written in a form reminiscent of an epitaph, Carson’s book in shape and colour resembles a gravestone. Whereas in Catullus, although the individual words are meaningless, their form gives them meaning, in Nox, rendering a complete narrative of her brother is impossible — “A brother never ends. I Prowl him. He does not end.” — and so meaning has to be found on the level of individual words or experiences. Although Carson “tried to translate [Catullus 101] a number of times”, in Nox, she merely tiptoes around a translation that never materialises. And yet Nox would not be possible without Catullus 101 as the structure running through it. Crucially, like Catullus, Carson is aware that her poem is only truly meaningful to herself. Of the “account that makes sense” that Nox is an attempt at, she says “it forms a lock against oblivion. Does it?” The question is vital. Carson’s poem can have no effect on the absence left by her brother’s death, it cannot keep him from true “oblivion”. But it can be “a lock against oblivion” for Carson herself, and her memory of her brother. “Does it?” depends on what you are keeping from oblivion — the dead, or their significance to the living.

From my close-reading of Catullus 101 and these “translations”, I decided that it was more important for my own poem to translate the processes involved in the original than its literal content. I also wanted my translation to be one that reflected the patchwork-quality of the original. I chose to construct a translation out of previous translations of the poem, and to do this physically as a collage, so that the poem’s status as a composite of other people’s words would be obvious, even if the source of those words was not. I also felt it was important to construct my translation in the framework of existing forms, and so chose to follow the narrative of Catullus’ poem, and to (try to!) compose my poem in elegiac couplets.

I first went through my photocopies of existing translations by Aubrey Beardsley, Anne Carson, F. W. Cornish, Frank Copley, Daisy Dunn, Peter Whigham, Guy Lee, James Michie, Roz Kaveney, Marcia Kemp, and Celia and Louis Zukofsky. I then cut out parts that I felt were significant or useful — in a way, deciding which parts of speech were meaningful — until I had a pile of cut out words. It looked like a heap of ash, and although it was made of words, it would be “mute” until I put them in an order.

poem skeletons / mute ashes???

I arranged the words into a rough narrative, and then rearranged that into elegiac couplets. Shuffling and reshuffling became a way of physically organising my thoughts. Unexpectedly, I found the physical process of creating the poem almost like a ritual. Even though I wasn’t mourning a brother, I translated the experience of putting other people’s words into existing structures, and yet ending up with an original voice.

And Then I Had To Find And Cut Out Individual Punctuation Marks :(

Because I found it hard to represent both ways of creating a new voice, out of and within other people’s words, my translation has two parts: grief composites (the collage) and grief erasures (the blackout poem). A blackout poem is made when a poet crosses out the majority of a text until what remains is a “found poem”: this meant I could symbolically “find” a meaningful message. The blackout poem also plays on the paradox of Catullus 101, that the meaning is in the expression of its own meaninglessness. By crossing out the majority of the poem, I cut it down to its most basic meaning, but one that states that “no speech makes sense”, itself an expression of meaninglessness. The blackout poem is also where I interacted with the idea of the silences surrounding death. The words “I have no words no words no brother”, equate the speaker’s silence in the face of death to the brother’s silence in death, and the darkness of the crossed-out lines is a visible representation of death and how it destroys meaning. The words that “survive” are surrounded by an absence where it is clear that there was, but no longer is, meaningful speech.

grief composites / grief erasures

In conclusion, my translations emphasise the interpretation of Catullus 101 discussed in this essay: that “words have no meanings in death”, but that meaning can be found for the living through the arrangements of those words. This emphasis is through elaboration on these ideas in the text of the translations themselves, that try “to translate this futility of words”, and through each translation existing as a new voice that nonetheless can only exist in the context of the voices it is made of. Finally, their composition out of or from other texts is a visible thing, noticeable before the text itself is read. My translations convey meaning wordlessly, like Procne’s singing, and show Catullus’ grief by being a text visibly woven together, like Philomela’s tapestry.

Tate Standage

Written by

brutus is an honourable lesbian, so are they all, all honourable lesbians



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