Catullus 72

Well, I did warn you that most of my blog posts would be literature-based!

But before I start…

Very possibly the cutest book I have ever seen. (Apologies for the low image quality)

Recently, I have been translating more Classical poetry, with a focus on the poetry of Catullus. One poem which I particularly enjoyed was Catullus 72, but before I produce my effort to translate it, I will outline my philosophy regarding the translation of Classical poetry. I have always approached this area with perhaps a little more freedom and creativity than a purist would approve of. My usual objective is to try to elucidate the poet’s emotions, and focus on conveying them, using as far as possible equivalent vocabulary and structures to those used by the poet. Essentially I think that, if anything will be “lost in translation”, it should be the vocabulary and structures – not the emotion they contain.

 Original Latin (Perseus Digital Library):

My translation:

Once, Lesbia, you used to say
‘Twas only I that knew you.
Instead of me, you would not choose
Jupiter to possess you.
Back then, not as the mob prizes
Their girls did I adore you:
Instead, as fathers sons-in-law
And sons, I found I loved you.
But now I know you. Though I burn
More powerfully for you,
Yet, to me, much cheaper now
And far less worthy are you.
How can this be, you ask? Such injury
To one who loves you
Drives him to love you more, but be
No longer a friend to you.

Catullus 72 is characterised by fascinating dichotomies: present emotion is set against past feeling, and carnal love juxtaposed with affectionate friendship and familial love. I think that my translation is for the most part successful at drawing this out. Rendering the imperfect “dicebas” as “you used to say” underlines this word as a reference to the distant past; meanwhile, my placement of “Once” at the beginning of the poem replicates the effect that “dicebas” has in the equivalent position in the original. Later, “Back then” again serves to reproduce the position and effect of a past-tense verb. An important creative decision I took in the first half of the poem was to add “I found”, which is not in the original. This adds what is almost a note of surprise to the revelation of Catullus’ feelings for Lesbia. I also decided to turn Catullus’ use of his own name (in line 1) into simply “I”, which I felt was needed in an English translation to convey adequately its personal nature.

While the first half of Catullus’ poem seems to flow smoothly, the second half – which shifts abruptly to the present tense – is fragmented by caesuras in the 5th and 7th lines, conveying Catullus’ confusion and pain. Adding “But” to the very beginning of the second half was my way of conveying the force which “nunc” carries, itself placed at the beginning of its line: this is vital for emphasising the division between the two halves.

What to me stands out the most about my translation is the hypnotic repetition of “you” at the end of every second line. I intended this to capture what I felt was the spirit of the poem: the subject matter is remorselessly focused on Catullus’ fluctuating feelings for Lesbia. Indeed, this is particularly striking during the first half of the poem, with the word “you” appearing in conjunction with words connoting powerful emotions. Examples are “knew you” (with “knew” perhaps meant in a Biblical, carnal sense, as referenced by Godwin – see my bibliography below), “possess you”, “adore you”, and the simpler and heartfelt “loved you”. Perhaps surprisingly, the recurrence of “you” required little freedom of translation: it appears so frequently in the original Latin that excessive creativity proved unnecessary.

Overall, it now occurs to me that this is not such a good example of my approach to the translation of ancient poetry! Unusually for me, I made little change to the words used by the poet, but managed to convey the emotions he felt in what I hope was an effective manner. I also took the opportunity to add a minor innovation of my own, by making every second line end with “you”.


n.b. the ideas above specifically concerning my translation of Catullus 72 are, of course, my own. I referred, however, to the book edited by John Godwin and the journal article by John T. Davis for some extra depth of analysis of the original. I have also cited the Perseus Digital Library, whence I obtained the original Latin text.

Catullus. Catullus: The Shorter Poems. Ed. John Godwin. N.p.: Aris & Phillips, 1999. Print.

Crane, Gregory R., ed. “C. Valerius Catullus, Carmina 72.” Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University, n.d. Web. 6 July 2012. <;. Gregory R. Crane is the general editor-in-chief of the entire Perseus website. This specific text was edited by E. T. Merrill.

Davis, John T. “Poetic Counterpoint: Catullus, 72.” American Journal of Philology 92.2 (1971): 196-201. Print.


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