Book Review: Catullus: Shibari Carmina // Isobel Williams

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You might think that poems written 2000 years ago would have little in common with shibari (a Japanese form of rope bondage), but Isobel Williams has used the language and ideas of this ancient art to produce a stunning new translation of Catallus’s poems.

If you want a traditional translation, this may not be for you. Instead, Williams interprets ideas and feelings that Catullus’s own audience must have had, far better than almost any other existing translation. Williams’s background as an illustrator, rather than a classics scholar, perhaps helps in this regard. Her background, combined with the approach via shibari, helps Williams to avoid much of the cliché of other translations, and the misogyny that some previous translators have added to the already problematic content of the poems.

Alongside these translations is a selection of sketches of shibari, which use a few lines to create an entire image and so reflect the tightly bound meaning contorted into each poem.

Williams’s is not a translation that will work in 100 years, for it is grounded in her own cultural background. Her treatment of poem 34, which plays on how Latin is taught in schools and the focus on analytic translation rather than reading, is brilliant if you share the same cultural touchstones. Similarly, her insertion of a hint of Caesar’s The Gallic Wars into poem 1 relies on its overuse as a school level text, whilst also hinting at Catullus’s interesting relationship with Caesar. Yet this is what makes the poems work so exquisitely.

Catullus was writing for a specific cultural mode and so any good translation must mimic that. For example, Williams, during the book’s virtual launch, explained how she decided not to translate various cult names of Venus, as they would not mean anything to a modern audience. Instead, she replaced them with references that function in a similar way. Namely to show her knowledge and give a sense of wealth and luxury.

Williams’s translation of poem 84 ignores much of the precise meaning and instead focuses on Catullus’s snobby views on language, and how things are still much the same. As well as the joke around when ‘h’ should be pronounced, Williams includes culturally specific references to the English educational system and the perceived value of certain institutions.

With such personal poetry, names are always hard to translate. Is it better to leave them and try to explain who they are or pick names that have similar connotations? Williams merges the two rather effectively and changes names when their connotations are important, but tends to leave them when they merely refer to a random associate of Catullus.

For instance, she wonderfully translates the name “Rufus” (which means red) as “Captain Scarlet” and plays with the colour throughout the rest of the poem. She also turns the anonymised “Lesbia” (Catullus’s main love interest) into “Clodia”, which is the likely name of the person who Catullus was having an affair with. This works well as “Lesbia” does not have the same connotations to the modern reader as it would to Catullus’s Sappho-reading friends.

Williams’s translation covers such a breadth of emotion, including the conflicting and binding pain of love- pathos that can elicit tears and hilarity blended with jarringly puerile vitriol. These emotions are shrouded in words that seem almost like momentarily written notes, and so belie Williams’s skill. Each word is perfectly placed and the poems are polished till their burnished edges have lost every hint of their maker’s tools.

Words by Ed Bedford

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