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The Stephen Spender Prize 2018 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

18-and-under category, second prize

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Read the winning entries from previous years


Edward Chan

Poem 39


To showcase his great gleaming incisors,
Egnatius is always smiling. Should the
defendants take the stand, as the QC
elicits tears from all, the Cheshire Cat
presides. Even mourning at a dear son's
funeral, when the bereaved mother is
weeping for the loss of her only true
light, he beams. Whatever the occasion,
wherever he is, whatever he is
doing, he grins. This is a sickness he
nurtures, and surely one that is neither
elegant nor in good taste, in my
estimation. So it falls to me to
caution you thus, my dear Egnatius: if
you were a Roman or a Sabine or
a Tiburtine, a pot-bellied Umbrian
or a portly Etruscan, a dark and
toothy Lanuvian or one of my own
Transpadanes, or anyone else who cleans
his ivories with fresh water, still I'd
not suffer to see you smiling always:
for there is nothing more foolish than a
vain rictus. At any rate you are a
Celtiberian, and in that Spanish
state, they reason that since each man makes
water, he should scrub his teeth and wine-dark
gums with his matinal micturate: hence
the more highly polished your princely pegs,
the greater volume of piss they attest
you have downed in your daily ablutions.

Translated from the Latin by Edward Chan
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Catullus 39


Egnativs, quod candidos habet dentes,
renidet usquequaque. si ad rei ventumst
subsellium, cum orator excitat fletum,
renidet ille. si ad pii rogum fili
lugetur, orba cum flet unicum mater,
renidet ille. quicquid est, ubicumquest,
quodcumque agit, renidet. hunc habet morbum,
neque elegantem, ut arbitror, neque urbanum.
quare monendumst te mihi, bone Egnati.
si urbanus esses aut Sabinus aut Tiburs
aut pinguis Umber aut obesus Etruscus
aut Lanuvinus ater atque dentatus
aut Transpadanus, ut meos quoque attingam,
aut quilubet, qui puriter lavit dentes,
tamen renidere usquequaque te nollem:
nam risu inepto res ineptior nullast.
nunc Celtiber es: Celtiberia in terra,
quod quisque minxit, hoc sibi solet mane
dentem atque russam defricare gingivam;
ut quo iste vester expolitior dens est,
hoc te amplius bibisse praedicet loti.

Catullus
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Translation commentary

Catullus is best known for his saucier poetry, but he writes on other topics in an equally engaging manner. His passionate disposition always makes for an entertaining read, and I feel that his more colloquial and even complaining tone can help to humanise him and bridge the gap in time, where other ancient authors can come across as very static and serious. The character of Egnatius as the vain narcissist is almost universally recognisable, and I feel that this facilitates a particularly wide sympathy for Catullus' comments within this poem.

I began with a literal translation, and then worked through the poem looking for better renderings in English, where the structure of the Latin did not map well onto English. Having considered a couple of other translations (Loeb edition and Whigham 1966), I did my best to produce a version distinct from both, choosing synonyms that, if slightly less literal, were perhaps better representative of the tone of the poem. The original work was written in a regular metre that would have been difficult to reproduce in translation. Instead, I elected to use decasyllabic lines in order to impose a structure on my rendering without having to disrupt the meaning of the original excessively in forcing the English into a metre more suited to Latin.

On a specific stylistic note, Latin poets make frequent use of harsh consonantal sounds such as 'c' or 't' to denote disgust; for example, 'minxit' (urinates). I chose to use the words 'rictus' and 'micturate' as synonyms for 'smile' and 'urine' in order to mirror the effect from the Latin.

Edward Chan