Return to an old friend: Catullus 3

Why have I entitled this post “Return to an old friend”? Essentially, I have previously attempted to translate Catullus 3 (while this blog was still in its infancy) but never quite managed to produce a translation with which I was completely satisfied. When I tried to produce a rhyme scheme, I ended up with a stiff, contrived metre with little emotional effect. I also never really managed to find the right register – not helped by my habit of including somewhat archaic English. However, more recently I created this new translation, which I felt was more satisfactory, though certainly not perfect.

Below is the text of Catullus 3 (taken from the Perseus Digital Library: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Catul.+3&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0003)

Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque
et quantum est hominum venustiorum!
passer mortuus est meae puellae,
passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quem plus illa oculis suis amabat;
nam mellitus erat, suamque norat
ipsa tam bene quam puella matrem,
nec sese a gremio illius movebat,
sed circumsiliens modo huc modo illuc
ad solam dominam usque pipiabat.
qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illuc unde negant redire quemquam.
at vobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis;
tam bellum mihi passerem abstulistis.
o factum male! o miselle passer!
tua nunc opera meae puellae
flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli.

My translation:

Weep, Venuses! Weep, Cupids too!
You men who claim to be sympathetic – weep!
My girl’s sparrow is dead – that sparrow,
Belonging to my darling girl,
Whom she loved more than her own eyes:
For he was sweet – sweet as honey – and he knew her
Just as well as a girl knows her mother;
Nor did he ever flit away from her lap – he hopped around,
Now here,
Now there,
Chirping ceaselessly, to his mistress alone.

Now he drifts away, down that path of shadows.
They say he’ll never return – that nobody returns
From the dark shadows of Hell – a curse upon them!
A curse upon those shades,
Who devour all beautiful things,

And who took away such a beautiful bird from me.
Oh, evil deed! Poor bird!
It’s because of them that my girl’s eyes
Grow red, and swell,
Weeping.

This translation continues my recent experiment with a comparatively loose, free metre and varied line lengths. This is perhaps harder to justify here than with my previous translation of Ovid’s Fasti 295-310. Catullus 3 is what would today be called a solemn elegy, commemorating the death of a beloved pet, and therefore perhaps calls for a more solemn, steady metre. However, I think it possible to justify my interpretation. This poem, as well as commemorating the death of the sparrow, describes the grief felt both by the poet and by the sparrow’s owner (who can be identified with Catullus’ mistress, Lesbia) strong emotions such as grief can arguably be expressed using a fluctuating, varying metre, while the frequent caesuras and breaks in the syntax in my translation are also mimetic of the pain caused by grief.

I should admit that I took liberties with the original poem at some points. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of my translation would be my treatment of the second line: “quantum est hominum venustiorum” I rendered as “You men who claim to be sympathetic”, and added an emphatic third repetition of “weep!” (forming a tricolon in the translation, whereas the original poem only includes one “lugete”). Not only does my translation turn “venustiorum” into “sympathetic” (in itself a controversial rendering, losing the intriguing double meaning of “men of Venus”/”men of charm”); it also adds an ironic twist to these words, implying that it expects them to prove their sympathetic characters by weeping. The reason I liked this interpretation was that it added an edge of bitterness to the tone of my translation from the beginning: a bitterness that recurs when the poet curses “malae tenebrae / Orci”.

Unfortunately, just as I was unable to capture the double meaning of “venustiorum”, my translation also loses the possible double meaning of “solam”, which seems to me both to refer to the sparrow’s special love for his mistress (he chirps only to her), and to foreshadow the loneliness of the girl after the sparrow’s death. I feel that using the word “alone” (as other translators have done), is probably the best way to capture both these meanings in English. Of course, I may well be reading too much into the original Latin – perhaps this double meaning is not actually present in the original!

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