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Doctor Josephine Balmer

Nationality: United Kingdom

Year: 2005

Subject Area: Arts and Humanities

I was awarded a Wingate Scholarship in October 2005 to work on a poetry and classical translation volume, The Word for Sorrow. The grant was to enable me to write in the seclusion of my cottage in West Cornwall which, to pay its bills, is normally rented out as a holiday let for much of the year.
In The Word for Sorrow, my initial aim had been to continue the work of my previous translations from classical poetry, Sappho: Poems and Fragments, Classical Women Poets, and Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate, as well as my first poetry collection, Chasing Catullus: Poems, Translations and Transgressions, which also included creative versions of classical verse. After translating Catullus, it had seemed logical to move on to Ovid’s equally witty, sinuous erotic verse, such as the Ars Amatoria or Amores. But I soon found myself drawn to Tristia, his often neglected poems of exile, written after the poet’s sudden and mysterious banishment from Rome to the Black Sea in AD 8. I had often been struck by the depth of emotion they appeared to display, detailing with piteous, almost unbearable precision, the deprivations and dangers of the urbane poet’s new life at the empire’s furthermost eastern frontier.
And then fate intervened. I was working on some initial translations from Tristia using an old second-hand copy of Lewis’ Elementary Latin Dictionary, when I noticed a faded name and a date, early in 1900, inked on its fly-leaf that I had never registered before. I later ran this name through a few internet search engines, discovering that my dictionary’s original owner had been posted with the Royal Gloucester Hussars to Gallipoli in 1915, to the Dardanelles, near Ovid’s own place of exile and which Ovid had just described crossing in the poem I was translating. And so The Word for Sorrow came about, versions of Ovid’s verse alongside original poems exploring the history of the old second-hand dictionary used to translate it.
But having been awarded the scholarship and begun work in earnest, how were Ovid’s complex and often highly stylised poems to be approached and how were they to be transformed? What sort of volume would The Word for Sorrow be? I already knew this was to be a poetry collection so my versions wouldn’t necessarily conform to what might be termed a ‘standard’ translation (and besides, Peter Green’s excellent 1994 Penguin edition already filled that role with aplomb). And I soon realised that apart from poetic intent, there were also practical considerations; I couldn’t possibly hope to cover all of Ovid’s exile poetry (Tristia contains 50 poems in all, in five books, with another 47 poems and four books in a further collection, Epistulae ex Ponto). I would also need to selective about what I used from each poem, as many ran to more than a hundred lines.
However, working on the book in Cornwall, I saw that narrative drive would prove to be the key; the Gallipoli poems and Ovidian renditions needed to spark off each other, to hold the dramatic tension between the two as each story progressed. For this reason I began to condense Ovid’s originals here and there, or used just part of a much longer poem (although many of the versions, of course, do offer complete translations of the originals, whereas others represent a shorter, more impressionist vision of their tone or content). Occasionally I also mixed the line order of the original poem in order to provide a natural continuation from the end of its preceding poem. In this context, I found myself working on the book almost as if a novel, writing each translation and its partner poem in sequence – a luxury of the additional time and space the Wingate Scholarship had given the project.
I also realised that I wanted the Ovid poems to seem like pages from a translator’s notebook, the detailed sketches before the finished original; to present snap-shots of a work in progress (as indeed all translations are, even after publication - like Valéry’s famous dictum on poetry: never finished only abandoned). For this reason I decided to refer to the Roman poet throughout by his cognomen or family name Naso – the name he calls himself in his poetry – rather than the traditional Ovid, his nomen or clan name, in order to distinguish my character from the ‘Ovid’ of literary tradition, my own construct from that of the western canon.
The story doesn’t end there. As I wrote in my original application, I’d originally come to Tristia anticipating a raw expression of grief and loss, a moving exposition of the plight of the exiled artist. But of course nothing in literature – particularly not in Latin poetry – is ever that simple. Able now to devote far more time to detailed study of Ovid’s verse, I realised that what I had instead was something far more complicated, full of literary in-jokes, knowing mythological references, jokes, puns, all alongside the account of Ovid’s apparent misery in Tomis - a work constantly changing register, from high tragedy to high comedy in the blink of a line.
I also had the time now to explore recent scholarship on the poet, which proved even more disconcerting. In particular, the theory that Ovid’s account of his exile amounts to little more than an elaborate literary hoax, conjured up not in the wasteland of Tomis but from the comfort of the poet’s Italian country estate. So how to square this revised impression of Tristia with the poems I was writing about Gallipoli? The more I preserved, the more immersed I became in the project, the more I understood how Ovid’s lightness of touch, his constant changes in register, were exactly what was required for The Word for Sorrow too. For one thing the letters home from British officers in Gallipoli I’d researched were full of the same sharp changes in tone, from horror one minute to jaunty, often inane, comments the next; making the best of it, not wanting to upset loved ones with too much reality.
Following my approach with Ovid, I also decided to give my dictionary owner a new name, not just to preserve his anonymity but also to widen my narrative net, to include the story, the testaments, not just of one man but of many of those who fought in the campaign. I saw now that I could use the device of the dictionary and its parallel lives as a jumping-off point for other themes, other layers of narrative beyond a simple Gallipoli/Tomis or text/dictionary equation. For just as Ovid’s often ironic poetic voice interposes itself into his narrative, so could my own, offering a third story of discovery, the detective story running like an undercurrent beneath. And added to the journeys of Ovid and the RGH soldiers there was now mine too, exploring my own past; for which of us has a history family untouched by the devastation of 1914-1918?
My new location in Cornwall, too, also began to appear in my work, as I wrote hitherto unexpected poems exploring my own role as writer; a writer living in the remote and often other-worldly landscape of West Penwith at the western edge of Britain, translating a work written in a remote ‘barbarian’ location at the eastern edge of the Roman empire.
In this and indeed in so many other ways, the Wingate Scholarship gave me the opportunity to develop the project more organically than I could otherwise have hoped, for which I am extremely grateful. I feel the work has benefited immeasurably, not just from the space and time to work at a far less frantic pace on the translations, but from the location in which it was written. Certainly without the benefit of a Wingate Scholarship, The Word for Sorrow, would have been a very different – and, I feel sure, far less rewarding – project.