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  • On Brandon Brown, "Sparrow," from The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus
  • Judith Goldman (bio)

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,rumoresque senum severiorumomnes unius aestimemus assis!soles occidere et redire possunt;nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,nox est perpetua una dormienda.da mi basia mille, deinde centum;dein mille altera, dein secunda centum;deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,aut ne quis malus invidere possit,cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Revive my lovebird. I've got an aim to muss. Sure, the rumors will sound severe, but right now sock it to me with your duende. We'll fiercely cum a million times. Then we'll…Catullus asserts that he and the lovebird will kiss many thousands of times and then he shall conturbabimus them. Conturbabimus literally means something like "to throw into a mob." Some scholars interpret this as referring to an image in which Catullus counts his kisses on an abacus, which can then be violently thrown into disarray. I suggest that conturbabimus is a metaphor for confounding the coinage. The economic standard in disarray, the society "loses count."

Brandon Brown's translation of Catullus 5—possibly the most famous and most translated lyric of the Catullus corpus—recalls Yves Bonnefoy's (translated) bon mot declaring translation a matter of declaration: "You can translate by simply declaring one poem the translation of another" (186). Bonnefoy was thinking of Wladimir Weidlé's joke that Baudelaire's "Je n'ai pas oublié, voisine de la ville…" is a translation of Pushkin (186). The connection between Brown's text and its inciting site involves much more than Weidlé's near whimsical (if intuitively insightful) positing of a similarity of tone or approach, its hint at unconscious influence. Yet to call "Revive my lovebird" a translation is clearly a provocation.

It would be easier to call Brown's work an "adaptation." Currently, this term is most often applied to derivative works that change the medium and/or genre of the original and thus occasion more or less significant changes to that work.1 Such transformations are at times produced out of reflections on different modes of fidelity or infidelity and the politics of their (im)possibility—for instance, Mieke Bal's new films, which attempt in their formal features to approximate the accented translation of displaced speakers talking in an unfamiliar hegemonic language.2 "Adaptation" becomes "appropriation" in works that critique originals they confiscate and dramatically chop, distend, and otherwise re-imagine for political purposes, often to countermand the silencing or other oppression of the subaltern in the original work (such as Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea or J.M. Coetzee's Foe).3 When used to label intra-generic, intra-linguistic translations that edit or add to originals or that do not exchange languages at the level of lexia, however, "adaptation" can function as a pejorative term, as it does in Atoine Berman's discussion of "the system of textual deformation that operates in every translation" (286). While no process of translation can be entirely free of unconscious linguistic resistances that lead translators to domesticate the foreign, as Berman suggests, some translations—particularly those he calls "adaptations"—lack concern for neutralizing foreign-ness: "the play of deforming forces is freely exercised," he writes, in "ethnocentric, annexationist translations and hypertextual translations (pastiche, imitation, adaptation, free rewriting)" (286).

Brown comments that conturbabimus signifies "throwing into a mob"; as bookkeeping jargon, the word conjures an image of deranging the counters of an abacus when a calculation is being made.4 As he goes on to say, "I suggest that conturbabimus is a metaphor for confounding the coinage. The economic standard in disarray, the society 'loses count.'" Brown's discursive detour into commentary after a spate of largely homophonic translation (translation that, relying on sound, substitutes homophones in the translating language--more on this below) points not only to the latent allegory related to the poem's content and form embedded in Catullus's suggestive word but to its allegorization of Brown's activity as translator. Along with other trivia the poet famously inflates, kissing is a hot topic in Catullus's corpus, one...

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