13 March, 2006

Basia #7: notes

Johannes (or Janus) Secundus, a Dutchman, was a 16th-century Keats; he died at the age of 24, and his collection of Basia or Kisses was published posthumously. The basium, at least in classical usage, is not the lover's kiss (suavium), nor the cheekpeck exchanged by acquaintances (osculum), but the kiss on the lips between close friends. The sense here is obviously sexual, but not as lewd as might be thought. 'Basium 7', like others in the collection, is an imitation of Catullus. I made an attempt at a French version, but only got so far, producing a little Surrealist-dissociative piece with an attractive rhyme:
Cent centaines de bises,
cent milles,
mille milles,
autant mille milles
que les gouttes dans la mer de Sicile,
que les toiles dans le ciel sur l'asile—
The last line uncontrollably transforms stars (étoiles) into webs, canvases, sails or paintings (toiles), which in conjunction with asile suggests the paranoid delirium of Leonardo's free-association daydream, so admired by Breton et al. (Alternately, the last line could end 'sur la ville', or one could follow an even more conventional route: 'que les clairs/yeux des étoiles dans le ciel'.) Already in the first movement there is rich potential for the later development of sound-play, as cent easily becomes Neaera's eyes, presque sans son, or Secundus' own sens; gouttes suggests goût, mille and ciel suggest miel for flavo (l. 24), Sicile suggests Secundus' vision which is later difficile, toile might become toi, là—and so on. I attempted German as well, although a silly stereotype (not to mention my rudimentary command of the language) impeded me only too soon, spawning a Pythonesque sort of irascibility:
Hundert hundert Kussen,
nein, hunderttausend,
nein! Tausend Tausenden!
It should be one goal of translation to hear the original language through the new. Louis and Celia Zukovsky demonstrated the absurdity of this approach taken to its limit in their own phonetic rendering of Catullus, a work widely cited in books about literary translation. But the idea of nudging a poem's semantics in a new direction, given wit, I find valuable; hence mollish for molles (soft), and ogles for its cognate oculis (eyes), a substitution which fits the voyeuristic theme of the poem.

Update. I am informed that the verse-form of 'Basium 7' is the Catullian form (used in hymns 34 and 61) of 'Glyconics mixed with Pherecrateans'—delightfully obscure!

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