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The Stephen Spender Prize 2014 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

Open category, third prize

Read the judges’ comments
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years

Robert Hull

Epigrams, Book 3, Number 44

Would you like to know why it is, Ligurnus,
that no one greets you with enthusiasm?
why it is that whenever you turn up somewhere,
hurried exits tend to take place,
and large breathing-spaces develop?
It's because you're too totally The Poet.
For those round you, it represents
extreme hazard. Nothing, no creature
makes one as nervous, or is as feared. No tiger,
enraged at the theft of her cubs,
is as alarming, no snake burning with thirst
in blistering sun, no, not even
the malevolent scorpion: nothing
possesses your capacity to terrify.
I ask you, who could possibly survive
the tortures you inflict on me?
You read poems at me when I'm standing
casually around, or when I'm relaxing
on a couch. You read at me when I'm in a dash
for the public lavatory, then while I'm on the thing.
I escape to the steam-baths, there you are,
at my ear. I go for a swim, so do you –
and your Poem. I'm on my way to dinner,
you waylay me – a Poem.
I arrive, you're there waiting
to wrestle me from my food –
a Poem.
I'm in bed, exhausted, you'll come by
with – what else? – a Poem.
Don't you notice the acute misery you cause?
Don't you really, you innocent, harmless,
utterly terrifying man?

Translated from the Latin by Robert Hull

Epigrams, Book 3, Number 44

Occurrit tibi nemo quod libenter
quod, quacumque uenis, fuga est et ingens
circa te, Ligurine, solitudo,
quid sit, scire cupis? Nimis poeta es.
Hoc ualde uitium periculosum est.
Non tigris catulis citata raptis,
non dipsas medio perusta sole,
nec sic scorpios inprobus timetur.
Nam tantos, rogo, quis ferat labores?
Et stanti legis et legis sedenti,

currenti legis et legis cacanti.
In thermas fugio: sonas ad aurem.
Piscinam peto: non licet natare.
Ad cenam propero: tenes euntem.
Ad cenam uenio: fugas edentem.
Lassus dormio: suscitas iacentem.
Vis, quantum facias mali, uidere?
Vir iustus, probus, innocens timeris.


Translation commentary

Marcus Valerius Martialis was born in Romanised Spain on the first of March (hence the Martialis) around AD 40. He went to Rome in his early twenties, and Rome is the setting, often the subject, of his epigrammata, the short poems that became familiar all over the Roman world. Epigrammata – yet most of Martial is anecdotal. Many poems – published in carefully organised books – are narrative glances at individuals presented as fictitious: social types whom we might recognise now, so his poems feel 'modern', as well as conveying a sense of physical and social Roman space. But his real attractiveness as a writer is the warmth and sense of fun, the absence of ego and malice that inform the crusty-seeming accounts of his fellow-citizens.

I first encountered Martial in James Michie's brilliant Penguin versions, done into couplets in lines of different lengths. But trying to deploy rhyme might have worked towards inappropriately Michie-fying my own versions. Moreover, rhyme often needs syntactic manoeuvring space to get the timing of adjacent lines right, and this can make a translation very expansive.

I 'listened' to Martial. My long-lapsed A level Latin was initially inadequate as a means of resurrecting the sound of Latin verse. But repeated readings aloud brought me to some sense of the rhythms and textures of Martial's language. I came into some sort of touch with his 'voice', and those of his protagonists here. Martial's line, eloquently terse in inflected Latin – Et stanti legis at legis sedenti, / Currenti legis et legis cacanti – can hardly stay tersely eloquent in translation: English prepositions and modal verbs add words, relax the syntax. I've aimed for tone, and tried to catch here the speaker's comic, only partly simulated fury and exasperation.

Robert Hull