Questions about scandalousness—about ethics, and offensiveness, and immorality—are never too far behind the subject of translation. These are concerns with deep roots in some of the most foundational writings on translation by early Christian commentators like Jerome, which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise when we consider that the source text in question was, well, the Bible. More than sixteen-hundred years later, it’s no accident that secular translators and critics continue to use the vocabulary of ethics and morality when discussing and assessing literary translations, which are regularly described as being more or less “faithful” to their source texts. Nor is it much of a surprise that perhaps our most famous proverb about translation—“Traduttore, traditore”—puns on the remarkable similarity of the Italian words for “translator” and “traitor.”
So what happens when the texts being translated are themselves scandalous? When the question is less about the scandalousness of translation and more about the translation of scandalousness—where to be faithful is to transgress or offend? Such is the rub when it comes to translating Marcus Valerius Martialis (ca. 40–104 CE) and John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647–1680), who have the distinction of being arguably the most outrageous and provocative poets in Latin and English, respectively.
Martial, as he’s come to be called, is best known for his twelve books of Epigrams—collections of short, gossipy, often ruthlessly caustic poems that satirize the city and people of first-century Imperial Rome. Reviled by many during his lifetime, adored, or at least tolerated, by many more (including, importantly, the emperors Titus, Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan), Martial’s poems tackle everything from incest to insurance fraud, from gold-digging to plagiarism, from sex work to gay marriage.
John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester was a courtier and gentleman-poet of King Charles II’s Restoration court. The bulk of Rochester’s poems, which range from epigrams, to short lyrics, to lengthy classical satires, take aim, like Martial’s, at the chinks in the armor of his period’s social mores. A notorious libertine and wild man, Rochester fell in and out of favor with Charles and his court, and he died, likely of venereal disease, at the age of thirty-three.
In the conversation that follows, I join the German novelist and translator Christine Wunnicke in the gutter to discuss the challenges and pleasures of translating these two remarkable and scandalizing poets into our native languages—Martial’s Latin into my English, Rochester’s English into Wunnicke’s German. The conversation took place over email and has been edited slightly for concision and clarity.
Tyler Goldman: Peter Porter, the Australian-born poet and critic, once argued that “Rochester and Martial join hands across the centuries in being castigated as the dirtiest poets in the pantheon.” There are plenty of other poets who had their moments, but I think Porter is probably right about Martial and John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester—at least as far as Latin and English poetry are concerned. I can’t help but start by asking how much Rochester’s “dirtiness” had to do with your decision to translate him from English into your native German?
Christine Wunnicke: Well, I was seventeen, just out of my punk rock phase and in my last year of high school, when my mum gave me the David Vieth edition of Rochester’s poetry which she had found in the used books bin of the English bookstore in our neighbourhood in Munich. She sometimes gave me English books, rather randomly, to motivate me to study more, and I’m sorry to say that Rochester was the first one who did the trick. A couple years of high school English hadn’t really prepared me all to well for him, but I got interested when I found a poem harping on the word “dildo” over several pages—a term I had to look up in a very big dictionary—and so I kept reading with the help of said dictionary; it felt a bit like decrypting code and finding something, well, unexpected. I liked his anger—especially this seething unhinged hatred in “A Ramble in St. James’s Park,” which is still my favourite poem of his. I also liked learning dirty words from a gentleman who died centuries ago. (It took me years to realize that “tarse” is not really a well known expression for male genitalia anymore.) So, my English teacher of choice stayed with me. I started to translate him in my early twenties, on and off, as I always liked very much to write in rhyme and metre.
Something funny that just came to my mind right now: when I found Rochester, my Latin was definitely better than my English. These days ... not so much, though it’s still good enough to read your translations “deeply.” What I have read so far makes me happy. Tell me why, how, and when you decided to translate Martial?
Tyler Goldman: The thought of a teenaged Christine Wunnicke, fresh from her lessons with the second Earl of Rochester, throwing around words like “tarse” and “swive” and “pintle” in the coffeeshops and bars of Cold War Munich—it’s just too good!
I actually found Martial in much the same way and at around the same time of my life that you found Rochester—by chance, really, as a more or less capable but mostly unmotivated eighteen-year-old Latin student. I stumbled into Martial in the stacks of my university library, on my way to pick up the text of a play by Plautus. It was a happy accident of a Roman alphabet that puts “M” just a couple letters before “P” in combination with my bad habit of avoiding assigned readings by looking for unassigned ones. From there, it’s really just the way you tell it: lots of consultations with the big dictionary, lots of shit-eating grins and chuckling at my desk when I found what I was looking for. Speaking of which:
Os et labra tibi lingit, Manneia, catellus:
non miror, merdas si libet esse cani.
Your little puppy likes to lick your face and lips.
I’m not surprised: he also likes to eat his shit.
That was the first epigram I read and translated—about fifteen years ago now. I was just completely blown away by how sharp and ruthless and nasty and playful and honest these poems were. And how artful: the alliteration on the “l”s and “m”s of “labra” and “lingit” and “miror” and “merdas”; the assonance on the vowel sounds in “tibi” and “lingit,” and on “et” and “catellus” and “merdas” and “libet” and “esse”; the consonance on the “s” sounds in “merdas” and “si” and “esse”—and that’s just a few examples of what’s going on sonically in this tiny little fourteen-word two-liner. I did my best here to recreate some of Martial’s ridiculously dense sonic patterning with the assonant internal rhymes on “little” | “licks” | “lips” | “his” | “shit”; the consonance on the “s” sounds of “likes,” “licks,” “face,” “lips,” “surprised,” “also,” “his,” and “shit”; the alliteration on the “l”s of “little,” “likes,” “lick,” “lips,” and “like.” I think the real genius of so many Martial epigrams is that they’re so brash and so loud and so vulgar (smutty and slangy) that you can forget just how skillful and careful and clever they are.
You mentioned that you found Rochester just as you’d come out of a bit of a punk phase. I wonder if maybe your quick and close relationship with Rochester might have been a way of subconsciously keeping one Doc Marten in the proverbial punk bar door? I’m curious to know if/how you’ve translated Rochester’s “Regime de Vivre,” the one that begins:
I rise at eleven, I dine about two,
I get drunk before seven, and the next thing I do,
I send for my whore, when for fear of the clap,
I spend in her hand, and I spew in her lap.
Now compare that to Dead Kennedys “Too Drunk to Fuck” off of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, released in 1980 right at the height, I’m guessing, of your time in the Munich punk scene and just a few years before you discovered Rochester:
Went to a party, I danced all night,
I drank sixteen beers and I started up a fight,
But now I’m jaded, you’re out of luck,
I’m rolling down the stairs, too drunk to fuck.
Jello Biafra put together a looser, clunkier, more iambic tetrameter than Rochester’s lilting anapestic tetrameter lines, but we’ve got the same list-like paratactic accounting of events and the same kind of banal coarseness as we do in “Regime de Vivre,” which ends with a furious and completely wasted Rochester pining for his “missing whore,” falling down, fucking his young male servant in the ass, getting sick, and, with a reference to the poem’s opening line, presumably doing it all over again the next day:
If by chance then I wake, hot-headed and drunk,
What a coil do I make for the loss of my punk!
I storm and I roar, and I fall in a rage.
And missing my whore, I bugger my page.
Then crop-sick all morning I rail at my men,
And in bed I lie yawning till eleven again.
There’s a real, transgressive punk ethos in so much of Rochester and Martial. Hell, Rochester uses the word “punk” (“prostitute”) in that poem. I know for sure that my own forays into punk music and gangsta rap (the two high-points of transgressive and classically satirical writing since the ’90s) helped me recognize almost immediately that I’d found a real teacher and a true friend in both Martial and, later, Rochester.
Christine Wunnicke: Concordance reading of punk-across-the-ages should be a compulsory part of every poetological curriculum! I never thought of the striking parallels to “Too Drunk to Fuck”; for some reason, my mind jumps directly to The Stooges’ “1969”: “I rise at eleven / I dine about two / I say oh my and a—a-boo-hoo.”
I did translate it once (the Rochester, I mean), but I only remember “Ich tobe und schäume und schrei mich in Rage / die Hure ist weg, gefickt wird der Page,” where I could happily steal the rhymes. In the end, I decided not to include it in the edition because I didn’t want to publish too many poems whose authorship is contested. “Signior Dildo” is considered spurious as well, and I couldn’t omit “Signior Dildo,” right? I always clung to Rochester’s form, sometimes less than enthusiastically: English is a very tight language and German has lots of syllables and a shitload of flectional endings. (This is also the reason why the page above needs to get fucked in the passive voice; otherwise he would turn into a Pagen, and Milord would have to fall into several Ragen at once.) I remember how I cursed him for the tetrameters of “A Ramble in St. James’s Park.” Transferring this into German felt a bit like overstuffing an angry turkey. I was grateful, though, that his scansion is often quite sloppy; I imagine him scribbling these darned tetrameters on mercury-stained scraps of paper in one of those London pox baths. I remember translating them lying in the sun with heat stroke creeping up on me—that helped. Unfortunately, I don’t drink. Translating Rochester sober is a bit of an absurdity, really.
The mix of love and irreverence in your Martial translations is very satisfying to me. It’s fresh, contemporary—timeless, too. There seems to be some sort of personal kinship there, fitting the story of how you found him. How do you find your form? Gut, brain, gutbrain? From a German perspective, we “do” hexameters and elegiac distichs, something that never sticks in English, as far as I know … to discard the author’s metre so completely still looks like a very bold move. (I remember how utterly scandalized I was when I first saw Dryden’s Homer!) It works very well. How do you do it?
Tyler Goldman: It’s gutbrain all the way. Maybe I’ll blab a little bit about the brain in hopes of revealing how the gut works in my translations. Martial’s poems, like Rochester’s, are metered. My translations of Martial, like yours of Rochester, are metered too. Not everyone agrees that this is the way to go with Martial, though. Gideon Nisbet, who just a few years ago published a selection of translations from the Epigrams in prose, argues in his introduction that most efforts to render Martial in rhymed verse wind up losing too much of his colloquial chattiness, his “concision and point,” his “devilish detail,” and his “deft comic timing.” I think that Nisbet’s reading of Martial—and a great many of Martial’s translators—is really spot on. Martial’s devilishness is often in his details, his comic timing is incredibly deft, and he is a remarkably chatty poet. The only difference between Nisbet and me is that where he sees these qualities of Martial muted in verse translation and enhanced in prose, I see it exactly the other way ‘round. Every literary translator on Earth knows that translation always entails sacrifice. Every decision—be it a single word or an entire verse form—comes at the expense of every other decision. What’s gained in any one decision always has to be measured against what’s lost. Nisbet admirably lays out what he thinks is gained in translating Martial in prose—and lost in translating Martial in verse: a conversational tone, concision, detail, and comic timing. I don’t think there’s much of a question that translating Martial in verse means losing some of his “devilish detail.” With all its inflections, Latin—like German—is just so much more concise than English. And Martial is about as concise a poet as they come. There’s only so much room in the verse line, so there are times when capturing something of the magic of Martial’s apparently effortless concision comes at the expense of one of his details. Sometimes this means losing a proper noun, which, if you look at it again, was the case in that epigram about the little dog and his owner:
Os et labra tibi lingit, Manneia, catellus:
non miror, merdas si libet esse cani.
Your little puppy likes to lick your face and lips.
I’m not surprised: he also likes to eat his shit.
More than anything else, Martial’s epigrams—like all great epigrams—exist as a way of saying. It isn’t so much what they say as how they say what they say. I think this is true of all poems, really, but epigrams have a way of really driving the point home. Every syllable of every word, every syntactic, rhetorical, and rhythmic decision, every shade and nuance of meaning—it’s all simply and obviously and exactly how it’s gotta be: all sprezzatura and charm. Martial’s poems, for all of their chattiness and concision and comic timing, are also highly patterned—consonant, assonant, metered—pieces of language. That’s what makes them so goddamn special! And so difficult to translate well! They don’t inhabit the space between the gritty and the refined, the effortful and effortless, the colloquial and the literary—they straddle that space. So here’s the rub if you’re the translator: ground the poems too deeply in plain, colloquial language and they lose the self-justifying charm of their formal artifice; elevate the poems too much and they become detached and float away, or they become rigid and stiff and collapse under their own weight—just like Nisbet worries they will. I should say that I think Nisbet’s prose translations are very, very good. I think they’re the best prose translations we have and are likely to have for quite some time. I hear more than a little bit of “the Martial I hear when I read his Latin” in them. But they aren’t “my Martial.” My Martial could never be rendered in prose.
That’s the brain, I guess. The gut comes into play when it’s time to find the specific form—in English—of any particular translation from Martial, I’m not exactly mirroring his own verse forms. Meter in Greek and Latin—I know I’m not telling you anything new here—operates differently than meter in English and German. It’s not like people haven’t tried to “translate” specific quantitative Greek and Latin meters into English, it’s just that the results have almost always been disastrous (ahem: Matthew Arnold). Because I’m never explicitly trying to translate, say, Latin tetrameters into English tetrameters, when I start out with a translation, I’m starting without any particular English meter in mind. What’s important to me is that the translation is recognizably metered—not that it use any specific meter. Most of the time I start out by making myself a simple prose crib and listening to it carefully for any little rhythmic patterns. There’s almost always something to hear. A couple of anapests, a perfect rhyme—sometimes (it happens surprisingly often) a whole Latin sentence will just miraculously scan itself into some English meter. I really just follow my ear. Once I notice a pattern, I go with it. Sometimes it leads me right to the promised land. Sometimes a dead end. Most of the time it leads me to some sort of roadblock I’ve got to figure out how to get around—or through. “A bit like overstuffing an angry turkey” indeed! Would you tell me more about translating “A Ramble in St. James’s Park”?
Christine Wunnicke: Of course! I don’t like final prose translations of poetry, ever. They may come much closer to the author’s surface meaning, but they lose much of the poetry in poetry, and as a translation concept, I find them lazy. It’s a bit like describing music or painting in words. Also, translating poetry must hurt, I believe. I love the very meditative image of you in your little prose crib listening to patterns; but the verse translator’s crib is a torture rack. What I like so much about translating poetry is this strange feeling that The One Perfect Translation exists somewhere already and you just have to find it. And you never find it, ever. It’s hopeless. It’s always an Imperfect Enjoyment. I kind of like that.
With “A Ramble in St. James’s Park,” the biggest challenge was not to ironize the narrator more than Rochester does—basically, to translate it straight, getting into character, and not turning it into a depiction of Rochester—or me—being amused about a macho asshole ranting on and on about some petty erotic betrayal. I don’t think I fully succeeded. The act of verse translation alone is prone to beget irony, and in this case, it’s nearly unavoidable. (And may I mention the tetrameters again? Tetrameters with consecutive rhymes are called “Knittelverse” in German, “bludgeon verses.” It’s a very silly form in German (sorry, Goethe).) Ironizing weakens the berserk anger that drives this poem. Fortunately, I could compensate for this loss in translation a bit, just by the fact that I easily surpass the original when it comes to vulgarity. I weaken the fury by translator’s irony, I strengthen it by German Schweinkram. Our dirty words are always twice as dirty as their English equivalent. When I lived in Scotland, I nearly dropped dead when I heard everybody and their grandma call their friends “cunt,” male and female alike: In German, you wouldn’t want to call people lovingly “Fotze” (which is the one and only correct translation of “cunt”). Your “fuck” sounds like “make love slowly,” compared to our “ficken”!
The whole tripartite joy of “A Ramble in St. James’s Park”—short lines, irony problem and vulgarity level—is visible in the last two lines: “And may no woman better thrive / that dares profane the cunt I swive.”—“Dasselbe jedem Weib passiert / das meine Fotze profaniert.” (Which is simply “And this happens to every dame who profanes my cunt.” A literal translation of these lines (which, accidentally, rhymes as well): “Und keine Frau soll besser gedeihen, die es wagt, die Fotze, die ich ficke, zu entweihen.” Count the syllables! Gah!) The rhyme “passiert / profaniert” is an example of this surplus irony cropping up in translation: German “profanieren” is much more formal and more visibly a loanword than English “to profane,” so, in connection with very harsh “Fotze,” it sounds ironic. There is no irony in the English version at this point. So, I weaken the original here. I compensate by the surplus dirtiness of “Fotze.” I also compensate by straightforwardness: “Dasselbe jedem Weib passiert” is much rougher than Rochester’s lilting “And may no woman better thrive,” and I also brutally shorten “the cunt I swive” to “my cunt.” (It’s fun reading this aloud: MEIIIINE Fotze! MEINE! MEINE!) You see, what I do basically is counting scores. All my Rochester translations felt a bit like trading or gambling. One point for me—two points for you … I remember I said this aloud sometimes. Rochester is a very intense companion. Sometimes I got into this mood where it felt more like a competition than a translation. I remember yelling “I won!” at him when I realized that German “Pikten” (Picts) rhymes with German “fickten” (fucked), and … Rochester’s ghost was stroking his ghost monkey and yawning at me. He’s not a very nice person, honestly:
For they relate how heretofore
When ancient Picts began to whore
Deluded of his assignation
(Jilting, it seems, was then in fashion)
Poor pensive lover, in this place
Would frig upon his mother’s face.
In grauer Vorzeit, als die Pikten
hier siedelten und alles fickten,
was sich bewegte (so die Mode),
begab sich diese Episode:
Ein Schelm, der in Gedanken war,
spritzt ins Gesicht der Frau Mama.
(In olden times, when the Picts / dwelled here and fucked everything / that moved (as was the fashion) /
this episode occurred: / A rascal who was lost in thoughts / jizzed in his mum’s face.)
Tyler Goldman: There really is something about translating these poems that feels kind of competitive. That might be true, to one extent or another, with translating any poet or poem—but Rochester and Martial are such cheeky fuckers, the poems so bold and clever and deft, that translating them really does feel like some sort of contest or battle of wits. And you’re right, they really couldn’t be bothered. It’s heartening to me that Rochester found himself on the other end of this sort of thing a few times throughout his life: He translated Ovid extraordinarily well, Lucretius, Seneca—and there’s the fabulous poem “An Allusion to Horace,” written as a kind of imitation of Horace’s Satire “I.10,” which is really one of the great diss tracks of all time:
Well, sir, ‘tis granted I said Dryden’s rhymes
Were stol’n, unequal, nay dull many times.
What foolish patron is there found of his
So blindly partial to deny me this?
He doesn’t seem to have translated Martial, though, which I’ve always found kind of strange, because I see and hear and smell Martial all over Rochester. I wonder what you’d think of calling Rochester’s poems—especially some of his shorter lyrics and epigrams—something like implicit “translations” of Martial?
Christine Wunnicke: I wholeheartedly agree that Rochester and Martial are kindred spirits, but no, I wouldn’t call Rochester’s poetry implicit translations of Martial. There is a similar sensibility and a similar stance, but to me, first of all, Martial is the epitome of a pro and Rochester the epitome of an amateur; I say this without any judgement. Neither do I see much epigrammatical ambition in Rochester. His short satirical poems are decidedly impromptu and artless. Take his most famous quatrain “And now God bless our gracious King / Whose words no man relies on / He never spoke a silly thing / Nor ever did a wise one.” There are lots of different versions around, and they all work. I cannot imagine a Martial epigram where you can change the wording without losing quality. I translated these lines over and over, and in the end I chose the most silly-sounding version of all, bad rhyme and all, just because it made me grin and because it sounded, well, most impromptu (and drunk): “Gott segne den König, der gnädig ist / keiner glaubt ihm, was er verspricht / nie sagt er etwas Dämliches / und Kluges tut er nicht.” There is one thing I really tried to achieve when translating Rochester—to adopt his “fuck this” attitude. Trying to be the Gentleman Poet’s Gentlewoman Translator. Amateur pride and disdain. To me, Rochester’s biggest strength is something very un-epigrammatical, his play with the narrator’s voice. It can get quite complex, as in “A Letter from Artemisia,” which is basically a nested story with several unreliable narrators shattering a morality tale’s morals, and it can lead to confusion: I still don’t know if “A Song of a Young Lady to her Ancient Lover” is a love song or a lie song. My historical self says “lie,” my lyrical self says “love”—and Rochester? Yawning again, I believe. He keeps yawning. Often his narrator is not marked at all—as in “The Maimed Debauchee” or “A Ramble in St. James’s Park”—and the reader is invited to identify author and character. Which is a trap. Rochester is not proto-Byronic, he’s faux Byronic. This quality of disguise was nearly impossible to preserve in a verse translation, especially in such a cluttered language as German. But as I said—I believe prose is lazy, and I like the pain.
Tyler Goldman: Maybe I was a little misleading with this idea of thinking about Rochester’s poems as something like “implicit translations” of Martial. You’re absolutely right to point out Rochester’s lack of “epigrammatical ambition,” which does complicate the idea of thinking about his poems in relation to Martial’s. I think that what I’m trying to sniff out here really has more to do with satire than with epigram. Martial isn’t exactly your typical satirist—at least not in the traditional, classical definition of the term: he actually only wrote one epigram in the hexameter form traditionally used in satire (and epic). That poem, it turns out, is actually addressed to one of its critics, Tucca, who objects to Martial’s use of hexameters in an epigram! It’s possible that there’s a bit of an in-joke here on the name of the critic, who’s directly referenced five times in this six-line poem: Plotius Tucca was a Roman poet a couple generations older than Martial and a friend of both Horace and Virgil—two poets known for their hexameters in satire and epic, respectively. Anyhow, the real challenge of translating this poem was finding a way to distinguish it from my translations of the other epigrams—to recreate its strangeness relative to Martial’s shorter, non-hexametric poems while still holding onto something of Martial’s particular élan and sprezaturra. I wound up with six lines of iambic octameter, which give the lines something of the girth of a Latin hexameter, while making sure to use a whole bunch of caesurae (as Martial does) to keep the long lines afloat. I realized a couple of lines into the translation that there was actually a perfect model for this kind of thing in English. Now whenever I read this poem in English I have to sing it to the tune of the “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. Once you hear it, you can’t un-hear it:
“Hexametris epigramma facis” scio dicere Tuccam.
Tucca, solet fieri, denique, Tucca, licet.
“Sed tamen hoc longum est.” Solet hoc quoque, Tucca, licetque:
si breuiora probas, disticha sola legas.
Conueniat nobis ut fas epigrammata longa
sit transire tibi, scribere, Tucca, mihi.
I know what Tucca’s saying: “You write hexametric epigrams.”
Well, Tucca, it’s allowed, there’s even, Tucca, quite a precedent.
“But this one’s long.” That’s common too, there’s near unanimous consent.
If you approve of shorter epigrams, just read two-liners then.
Tucca, let us agree, I should be free to write long epigrams,
and you, Tucca, should be quite free to up and skip right over them.
There are a couple things going on in this poem that I think place it pretty squarely in the tradition of classical satire and that might connect it to Rochester. You’re absolutely spot on to notice the way that Rochester’s narrator, especially in the more classically satirical works like “A Ramble in St. James’s Park,” is always left unmarked in this way that conflates the author and speaker. I see the same sort of thing happening in this epigram too. The classicists Ralph Rosen and Victoria Baines have made the argument that this is really the crucial and complicating ingredient in classical satire, which “thrives on disingenuousness and authorial evasion, even as it adopts a rhetorical pose of utter sincerity.” “Each [satirical] poet,” they continue, “portrays his work simultaneously (if paradoxically) as both spontaneous and meticulously contrived.” That sounds a lot like Martial and Rochester to me. No wonder, then, that you went with the most impromptu (ahem, drunk) sounding version of Rochester’s little epigram on Charles, or that I’m always struggling to balance Martial’s formal precision with his chattiness. That’s the challenge. No wonder we keep translating—and they keep yawning.
Tyler Goldman’s poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry International, Colorado Review, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere. He has received scholarships and awards from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Academy of American Poets, and the University of Utah, where he is currently a doctoral student in English Literature and Creative Writing.
Christine Wunnicke lives in Munich, Germany. She has published eight award-winning novels, a biography, and several translations. The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, translated by Philip Boehm, will appear in April 2019 from New Directions.
Banner image: Two men and a woman making love; Pompeian wall painting, from one of the Therms (baths), the south wall of the changing rooms, painted around 79 BC. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.