Odi et Gaol: Catullus 85 between Latin and Gaelic

I was incredibly intrigued lately to learn that Iain MacGilleathain, lesser known brother to Somhairle MacGill-Eain, had produced a translation of the Odyssey into Gàidhlig. There being a veritable dearth of information on John, I ordered Iasad Rann, which is a collection of his verse (and a few prose pieces) in Gaelic, Latin, and English, either written by himself, or translated from Gaelic, Latin, English, or ancient Greek. Today I share with you some thoughts on Catullus 85:

Catullus 85 is one of Catullus’ best known poems. Here it is:

ōdī et amō. quārē id faciam fortasse requīris.
nesciō, sed fierī sentiō et excrucior.

The short elegaic couple opens with a powerful juxtaposition of two emotions, I love and I hate, delivered with short verb forms, and placed on an equal footing. It is this opposing, yet simultaneous, experience that sets the poem on fire. The lack of any transitive objects intensifies our focus on the emotional states in view. The poem then softens,  ‘why do I do this, perhaps you ask‘, moving us to the question of the poem – why? The poet externalises this question, invites the auditor into a dialogue, while fortasse (perhaps), lessens the intensity. The second line of the couplet continues in a softer or weaker vein, I don’t know, which resolves in an entirely unsatisfactory manner the question just introduced. And yet therein lies the knot of the poem’s experience. The play of vowel sounds in the second line, almost entirely e-i-o, produces a cohesive assonance. The final thought, but I feel it [to be so], and am tormented. The poem ends as strongly, and painfully, as it begins, with the visceral impact of excrucior.

Here is MacGilleathain’s Gaelic rendering:

Tha gaol is gràin
am chàil-sa ‘n-nochd;

cha tuig mi ‘m fàth,
‘s tha ‘n cràdh gam lot.

Iain’s version maintains the juxtaposition of the Catullan original, with gaol (love) and gràin (hatred) placed side by side with a simple and succinct conjunction is. Since Gaelic typically uses these nouns to express the verbal ideas of love and hate, the transformation from verb to noun forms is entirely appropriate. What’s lacking from MacGillleathain’s is the sense of the interlocutor, the question of “perhaps you ask why I do this”. We have instead am chàil-sa ‘n-nochd, indicating the kind of voracious vigour and appetite of this/these desires (assuming my own understand of the Gaelic is correct!). But what our second line does achieve is raising the intensity of the emotions in line one.

Line three, though, combines the Latin 1b and 2a into a single thought, “I don’t understand the reason”. fàth here being the cause or reason. The inexplicability of the tormented experience of love and hatred remains the same. The final line, as with Catullus, returns us to intense feeling, expressed as pain, with cràdh. This time gam lot. The word lot most likely recalls ‘lot’ in the English sense, allotment, share, portion, though it can also mean an injury or wound. This homonymy plays well here, the translator-poet evoking our sense of agony (cràdh), both in the woundedness that is love, and the woundedness that bestirs hate, as well as one’s ‘lot’ (echoing Catullus’ unspoken idea that certainly we don’t choose to feel this way!).

The Gaelic rendering has a fairly simple iambic dimetre, as I hear it, and you can hear it too, in the translator-poet’s own reading. The assonance of a/o sounds, and some consonance throughout the lines, as well as the rhyme of gràin/fàth, and nochd/lot, round out the poetic treatment here.

longe absit a me, to make any poetic judgment on MacGilleathain’s rendering, but it’s a fine rendering in my view, and preserves the powerful sentiment of the original, in a new linguistic vessel.