Bernard Went Fishing with Cicero

I went fishing with Cicero. Down to one of Mark Twain Lake’s fingers, splayed some miles south and east of Hannibal, Missouri.

But it took some convincing.

I said to Cicero, “I m not so sure.”

“You ask how I returned. First, I arrived by daylight. Not after dark. Secondly, I came in my boots and toga, not in Gallic sandals and a cloak. I see your eyes fixed upon me: in anger, it appears.”

Cicero was a notoriously bad fisherman. And so I said, “But still, even.”

“Why is this my fate?”

I said nothing.

“I am obliged to record that, for twenty years past, our country has never had an enemy who has not, simultaneously, made himself an enemy of mine as well. I need mention no names.”

And so I said, “I guess.”

Born near the rural town of Arpinum, Italy, in 106 B.C.E.,

Marcus Tullius Cicero was. And, some years later, babbling Latin.

Born of the Flood Control Act of 1962 and subsequent

damming of the Salt River, Mark Twain Lake was. The pen

name, many years prior, of author Samuel Clemens’s so-

called invention.

In a recorded 22 outings, Cicero had brought zero fish in. Or so the record indicated. He echoed as much to me riding out to the near finger of Mark Twain Lake just after dawn on State Highway 9. He showed me his hands, and lamented.

And there was dust kicked up by the driving, flailed in semi-course wisps.

Cicero showed me the Roman salute: the right arm held erect, a particular angle, the left palm rested upon the sternum’s hard center, fingers touching.

Cicero showed me the conscienter affirmo.

He displayed the invito, the supplico.

Standing in the truck s bed, Cicero showed me the admiror and the ploro and the protego and said he d lifted whole crowds, auditoriums, with these hands he showed me, and, yet, now, lamented.

Eyes fixed on his palms before his face, Cicero told me that he’d managed to hook many fish. He said, “Why is this my fate?”

I said nothing.

The most brilliant lawyer in Rome, a potent political

force, defending Roman law from the threats of both

popular demagoguery and tyranny, as in his series of

speeches attacking Antony, known as the Phillipics,

Cicero was. And the Latin: keeping right up. So much so that, against the purism of the Neo-Atticists, The usage of the well educated men and women of any

era, only, should set the era’s linguistic standards, Cicero argued.

In Hannibal, Missouri, of the Mississippi River, its mud,

with rich humor, sturdy narrative, and social criticism,

in English, Samuel Clemens grew, and made stuff, up. Fiction.

His first story, translated into classical Greek, published,

first, some time prior, in 1865, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog

of Calaveras County” was. Though, its setting: somewhere else.

And there was sun, too, though overcast had been forecast and could be glimpsed: a lazy gray frame about the southeast forest line of this near finger of Mark Twain Lake.

“I have bad luck with women,” I admitted, “Men, too.”

“I should not have thought that my life, and my reputation, and my qualities—such as they are—provide suitable material for these fishes’ contempt. Accustomed though it is to complimenting distinguished Romans for good service to the state, the Senate has praised only one man for actually rescuing it from annihilation: and that is myself.”

“Okay.” I said.

His mastery over the Latin tongue: unparalleled.

A remarkable diversity in style, from solemn rotundity,

through pellucid but still formal rhythms, to various degrees of colloquialism, the translator of Cicero faces.

Essays and sketches, too, in the non-fictional mode, so-

called, though, yet, still, and often, with the pen name,

Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens wrote. From, on, while living

or visiting in: all over.

Cicero and I mounted a johnboat banked in the mud along this near finger of Mark Twain Lake. Neither of us wanted to do the shoving off. Our feet would have to get wet.

Cicero said, “One. Two. Three. Shoot.”

I pushed the metal johnboat into the lake and got my feet wet.

One, for the translator of Cicero, in particular: by the

superficial resemblance of Cicero’s language to a certain

known and outworn kind of English, an easy lulling into

an entirely misplaced confidence.

One, of that mode, so-called, penned, while, some 200

miles northwest of the ancient city of Arpinum, in Florence,

Italy, named: “Italian without a Master.” Though liberties

present themselves at the core of the project, in all reality.

Cicero screwed the bottom of his pole to its top and began lacing his line through it. He made so many minute movements with his hands, lines, hook, and showed me the swooping of a Centauri knot.

I cut the prop’s half-drowned purr and the metal johnboat settled ten yards out from an eastern bank along this near finger of Mark Twain Lake.

Cicero told me that a Centauri was no Duncan Loop. Nor was it a Blood Bight. Not a Butterfly Dropper, either. Certainly not the Hook Snell. A Quick Snell? No, Cicero told me, a Centauri.

Cicero showed me an Improved Clinch Knot, a Grinner, a tough Palomar, and a thumb knot. He told me, this is none of these.

The translator of Cicero tears tufts of hair from its head.

In medias res, and with a taste of the narratively dramatic,

too, it opens: It is almost a fortnight now that I am domiciled

in a medieval villa in the country, a mile or two from Florence.

I cannot speak the language.

Cicero used lived bait. Horse flies. Worm bits. Small frogs. Caterpillars with feathers stitched to their backs.

And there were birds, too, the occasional flock of so many small ones, and Purple Gallinues, too, a couple, and Orchard Orioles, a few Bobolinks, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Harris’s Sparrow, Thayer’s Gull, and their noises.

Cicero stood.

“So the fishes disapprove of my hooking and baiting. But—to name first the most recently deceased of the ex-consuls of that time—Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus thought well of it. Quintus Lutatius Catulus, who will always carry weight among fishermen, likewise bestowed upon me his approval. So did Lucius Lucinius Lucullus and his brother Marcus, and Marcus Licinius Crassus, Quintus Hortensius, Gaius Marcius Figulus, and the two fishermen designate consuls at the time, Decimus Junius Silanus and Lucius Licinius Murena. And Marcus Porcius Cato felt the same as those of rank: he too praised my activities as a fisherman. But why do I mention individuals? A very full house of the Senate so warmly applauded my speech on hooking and baiting that there was not a man there who did not thank me as if I had been his father. Their possessions, their lives, their children’s lives, their country—they owed all these, said every one of them, to me.”

A half-lost, maniacal laugh, and quoting Alexander Pope,

the translator of Cicero: ‘that easy Ciceronian style, / So Latin,

yet so English all the while.’

They talk Italian to me, I answer in English; I do not

understand them, they do not understand me,

Samuel Clemens wrote.

Consequently, no harm is done, and everybody is satisfied.

Cicero preformed an Advanced Aerial Roll Cast. It sang zipped on a line to an all but silent drop of the lure through the taut slow water of this near finger of Mark Twain Lake. Some 80 feet out. He made so many movements with his hips, twistings of his knees and ankles. And brought it back.

The difficulties the translator of Latin prose, the translator

of Cicero, in particular, encounters, in general, have received

much less recognition than those faced by translators of


I get the word out of the morning paper. I have to use it

while it is fresh. They fade toward night, and, next morning,

they are gone. But it is no matter; I get a new one out of

the paper before breakfast, and thrill with it while it lasts.

Cicero told me that all was ready, and delivered The Second Phillipic Against Fishes. He addressed the waters.

“If what I am now going to say is known to you already, then your fate is sad indeed: and sadder still if it is not. Now, there exist written records, to be recollected without possibility of oblivion by remotest posterity until the end of time, proving that these things happened.

The two sets of problems: different and equally


The criteria by which Samuel Clemens gives himself the

liberty to select words he does not know: sound,

orthographic aspect.

“My only complaints are these. First, that the fishes being reeled in, from exile, from the deep, the shallow, from the past, have been discredited by this new batch. Secondly, I cannot see why you do not treat everyone alike.

“You gave the doctor 1,875 fishes. Whatever vast sum, one may ask, would you have given him if he had cured your mind? The oratorical trainers from the city received 1,250 fishes: what on earth would the total have been if they had succeeded in making speakers of you?

Pitfalls, for example, by way of Latin word order, each,

their own, grapple with. Be it poetry, be it prose.

All: peculiar.

If I pronounce it carefully, the listener will understand it,

and that’s enough.

“Nevertheless, let us imagine that you fishes could have killed me. That, Bernard, is what a favour from gangsters amounts to. They refrain from murdering someone; then they boast that they have spared him!”

I said nothing. Cicero spoke on.

“What is the matter? I am not embarrassing you fishes, am I? For I doubt if you are quite competent to grasp the sort of dilemma in which this places you.

“Fear made you good fishes. However, as an instructor of good behavior, fear lacks permanency; and your unscrupulousness—which never leaves you unless you are afraid—soon perverted you into evil ways again.

Of the translator’s task, two duties, butting heads in

the present case: to be readable, since otherwise the

translator will not be read, and will have then failed

in the task of communicating the writer whom the

translator has translated.

Today, I have a whole phrase. I do not know what it means,

but it seems to fit in everywhere and give satisfaction.

“I wonder if you fishes realize that I have a very thorough knowledge of what I am speaking about.

“Are you going to let me have a reply? Are you even going to venture to open your mouth? Indeed, I wonder whether in the whole of my long speech you will find anything at all which you can pluck up the courage to answer. And you certainly speak with greater freedom than myself. For I’ve never made a public speech naked!—whereas you, straightforward fellows that you are, have let us all have a look at your torsos!

“Nevertheless I do not deny authorship. And when I say that, I am also saying that you are not ill-behaved but lunatics.

And the translator of Cicero will not at

the present day be readable or be read, if the translator

writes in rhetorical English.

Sono dispicentissimo.

“As far as my poem is concerned that is the only answer I have to give. I will merely add briefly that you understand neither this poem nor any other literature. I, on the other hand, though I have not neglected my duty to our country or to my friends, have nevertheless employed my leisure hours in literary productions of many kinds.

“You are a drink-sodden, sex-ridden wreck. Never a day passes in that ill-reputed school of yours without orgies of the most repulsive kind.

“If there were any dignity in the name, I presume that your grandfathers, too, would sometimes have called themselves the consul fishes. But they never did. So would your uncles, who were my colleagues. Or have there been no fishes but yourselves?

For the translator of Cicero, a new and special reason

for believing the often-repeated assertion: translation is

a task which cannot succeed.

Of another word he does not know, Samuel Clemens:

a French sound. I think the phrase means, ‘that takes the cake.’

“But about you fishes’ degradations and sex-crimes, that is as far as I will go. For there are some things which it would be indecent for me to describe. As far as free-speaking goes you have the advantage of me!—since you have done things which a respectable opponent cannot even mention!

On occasion, Cicero employs vocabulary with a certain

insouciant vagueness that does not facilitate the translator

of Cicero’s task.

The news, in Italian, Samuel Clemens read. The news, in Italian,

Samuel Clemens wrote. Appetite, hunger, the dominant figure

of his desire. The language he does not know: a diet.

“As you linger on within these watery rooms, are you not overcome with shame? You are brainless, I know: yet surely, even so, none of the things that are there can bring you enjoyment. When you look at those beaks of ships from below, you cannot possibly imagine that the house you are entering is your own! That would be out of the question. For all your lack of sense and sensibility, still you are aware of what you yourself are.

The structure of his writings: true is the same.

“Serious Disgrace on the Old Old Bridge. This morning about

7.30, Mr. Joseph Sciatti, aged 55, of Casellina and Torri,

while standing up in a sitting posture on top of a carico barrow

of verdure (foliage? Hay? Vegetables?), lost his equilibrium

and fell on himself, arriving with his left leg under

one of the wheels of the vehicle.”

“Do these facts never occur to you? Do you never understand the significance of this: that brave men have now learnt to appreciate the noble achievement, the wonderful benefaction, the glorious renown, of killing a tyrant?”

This is often inorganic, repetitive, and illogical; at times

suggestive of the after-dinner monologues which,

without their underlying seriousness, they might be.

Indiana, In Italian, in Italy, in print, for Samuel

Clemens, the illegible is.

And there was the sound of the water, too, singing against itself and the metal of the boat and the rocks and the mud and debris finding voice in the surface of this near finger of Mark Twain Lake.

I said to Cicero, “A fine speech.”

Here, a dilemma: is the translator of Cicero to fog

the sequence of thought as effectively as, on occasion,

Cicero does himself?

This one doesn’t. This one throws out no hints.

Cicero cast up the eastern bank along this near finger of Mark Twain Lake and I finished a sandwich before casting down it.

And so there was mirroring, too, and so then something more with the browned reflections in the lake.

Cicero reeled in a big log.

Cicero reeled in a boot without laces.

Cicero reeled in another boot (not a match, laced, a different leather and higher ankle).

Cicero began reeling in what could have been anything (a corpse, a kitchen sink, the submerged beginnings of some beavers dam, a scuba diver, Mark Twain, himself, a small, dumped refrigerator); it broke his line.

And the breeze, too, leaves applauding like so many dry palms.

Cicero reeled in the Loculus of some anonymous Legionary containing a buck knife, a smaller sack of soaked peanuts, and four coins (an Octavian, three Antonys) and tossed the latter in four flips of his thumb without making a single wish.

Cicero reeled in sopping baseballs of moss.

Cicero reeled in an apple and pointed out that the skill required to do so was significantly greater than mere bobbing.

And smells, certainly, scents of the countryside, the mellifluous offerings of the Mark Twain Lake area.

Cicero reeled in my own line, twice, on account of casting over my shoulder.

Cicero reeled in the eastern bank of Mark Twain Lake’s near finger, or so seemed to, hooked to the root of a Black Gum or Common Sassafras or Dogwood or a Bigtooth Aspen or an American Beech.

Cicero reeled in some Lilly Pads unique to the area; there were four pink blooms.

And there was overcast, too, still, sun.

Cicero reeled in a dead bullfrog.

Cicero reeled in the sun, grown pale and quiet behind the overcast.

Cicero reeled in minutes and seconds, keeping the time of each out-and-in with a pocket watch.

Cicero reeled, in fact.

Cicero reeled in history.

Cicero reeled, in spite of this, that, or the other.

Cicero reeled in some strange mirror to me, me to Cicero, to this near finger of Mark Twain Lake, and so the metal johnboat to its halves, the eastern bank, its trees, and so on—though the water was not terribly clear or reflective.

And there was the steady browning, too, of this near finger of the lake, with the overcast’s gagging the sun, the lack of real wind.

Cicero reeled in a dead mammal.

Cicero reeled in my shadow, then I in Cicero’s.

Cicero reeled in a message, in a bottle, and cast it into the woods, urgently, without so much as popping the cork.

And there was the sound of the water, too, singing.

Cicero reeled in a state of nothing.

Cicero reeled in nothing.

Cicero reeled in nothing.  

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