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:

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,

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!


More Catullus: 70

Another foray into translating Catullus. The original Latin of Catullus 70 (from the Perseus Digital Library) is here:

nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti
in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

And my translation:

My lady says that she’d prefer
To wed no other man than me,
Were Jupiter himself to woo.

She says; but what a lady says
To ardent lovers, should be writ
In the wind and flowing wave.

In terms of content, a link between this poem and Catullus 72 (translated earlier on this blog) can clearly be seen. Both portray the poet’s changing attitude towards his love (referred to in 72 as “Lesbia”), although this is less explicit in 70: they begin with Lesbia’s assurances of her faith to the poet, and then demonstrate how the poet has begun to mistrust her. Both employ the image of Jupiter as a rival to the poet for her affection. This similarity extends also to structural features: both poems seem to fall naturally into two halves, highlighting fundamental changes in the poet’s opinion of his love.

In terms of technical achievement, I am rather pleased with my translation: it reads very smoothly in iambic tetrameter (with the final line varying only slightly from this metre). However, it seems to me that certain aspects of the original Latin have been lost. I could find no way of replicating the emphatic “nulli” at the beginning of the first line, without compromising the evenness of my English translation.

I think I am justified in extending the translation, transforming a four-line poem into two verses of three lines each. I do not feel that the original poem is fast-paced; instead, I think that it is a reflective, thoughtful poem, which can best be conveyed with a slow pace. The original Latin contains emphatic enjambments: “malle / quam mihi” and “amanti / in vento”. Adding more lines will inevitably change the number of enjambments present, but I endeavoured to maintain their nature: “prefer / to wed” and “writ / in the wind” have a similar effect to the enjambments in the original Latin.

The style of my translation can be described as archaic, almost Shakespearean. Words that stand out as examples are “wed”, “woo”, “writ” and possibly “ardent”. I felt that this creates a more wistful, nostalgic tone. Because, in our imagination, such words are often linked to courtly love and romance, I am suggesting that the poet is longing for a time when he trusted what his love said to him.

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.