While in college, the Classics department of Hillsdale College, my alma mater, grew considerably. I believe that people are starting to become more interested in Rome because the Roman Empire–often in very sad ways–bears much similitude to the modern United States. But, Classical studies have not reached the eminence they once had, which is a shame. One of my delights is to read the old Latin poets, whose verses are among the most beautiful ever produced. Among poets, I give first place to the Greeks (they do have Homer), second to the Latins, and third to the English.
But of these three, I think that Latins have the best sense of humor. Look at the original and my translation of Martial below.
Exigis ut donem nostros tibi, Quinte, libellos.
non habeo sed habet bibliopola Tryphon.
‘aes dabo pro nugis et emam tua carmina sanus?
non’ inquis ‘faciam tam fatue.’ nec ego. (Martial Bk. 1, epigram 5)
You demand that I give my little books as a gift to you, Quintus.
Not I, but the bookseller Tryphon has it.
“I, a sane man, will give money for nonsense and buy your poems?”
You say, “I will not do something so idiotic!” Nor will I.
This poem does many nice things which I, as the translator, was hardly able to duplicate. For example, “Exigis ut donem” is a terribly forceful way to begin a poem–demanding a gift. Gifts are supposed to be free, you know! Then, the other half of the line becomes softer and more diminutive. “Nostros” was often used by the Latins to mean “little old me” rather than a royal plural. Then, the line ends with “libellos” (little books). Imagine someone shouting “I demand your pamphlets!” and you have an idea of how silly Martial has made Quintus look. As a matter of fact, juxtaposing “Quinte” by the “libellos” further highlights the ridiculous figure cut by Quintus.
The second line, with its alliteration of b’s and abundance of vowels has a frolicsome feel to it. Then, we see “habeo” (I have) at the opposite end from Tryphon. This gives the impression that Martial wishes to shoo Quintus as far away from him as possible.
The third line uses the separation between the first and last words in a remarkably similar manner. “Aes” (money) is as far from “sanus” as possible; hence, only a crazy person would pay for Martial’s poetry. That’s known as adding insult to injury!
In the fourth, placing “non” before “inquis” makes the refusal extra emphatic. I could have translated it as “No! I will not do something so idiotic!” “Faciam tam fatue” has a nice alliterative feel and suggests further the very haughty attitude of Quintus. “Nec ego” is so brief and laconic in order to show Martial’s exasperation with Quintus. It was expected among Roman circles of friends to pass around books for free. Quintus seems to have presumed upon an nonexistent friendship, and Martial wants Quintus to know it.
Well, I hope that you enjoyed my little explication of Martial’s poem!