Garry Wills states that “Montale and Pavese are more relevant than Catullus or Propertius” [“Slop and Gossip,” October 2005]. Relevant to whom? I read both Catullus and Montale in translation, and Catullus was an infinitely more vivid and visceral read. But here was a quick dismissal, by a man of obvious learning and insight. That dismissal led me to wonder what “relevance” is. Relevance is relative, isn’t it? You can’t make any statement about relevance without defining to whom. And nowhere in his essay does Wills actually define what perspective, what group, what community he’s speaking from. Who is the “we” when Wills speaks of “our culture”? Who inhabits his “community at large” (and why don’t I feel a part of it)?
Consider those translations from Latin American authors that, according to Wills, are so much more relevant to us, whoever we are. How far out into “the culture” does a translation of, say, Garcia Marquez really go? It blows up the skirts of the mainstream literary set; but their skirts get blown up by whatever John Updike reviews favorably in the latest New Yorker. Will Marquez’s Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores “rock the establishment” of educated people who don’t read more than a couple of novels a yearthe lawyers and accountants and doctors and businessmen who might at best skim The Da Vinci Code on the plane? Or how about that even larger world, the real culture, the biggest of big communitiesthe ones who don’t much care or “don’t have time” to read at all? Is Wills including them when he says “culture” or “society”? True, Hughes remaking Ovid in his own image isn’t going to rock that establishment: but neither is a translation of Cavafy or Seferis. We are all at varying degrees of remove from the center; yes, classical translations are irrelevant now, but translations of Japanese and Latin American novelists are only a few steps closer to the center.