RSS Feed

Category Archives: Latin Poetry

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus wrote some very rude poems. And Roz Kaveney has made some very rude translations of them.

The Rome of Catullus and Kaveney is not one of colonnaded arcade and pomerium, of lush gardens fringing the Tiber and aqueducts delivering sparkling water to mansions on the Palatine. It’s a place of back alleys with ‘come-smeared walls’, where a lover ‘fucks / three hundred men queued up’, ‘sorry dregs’ who wash their teeth with urine in a time of ‘filth, love and death’.

Unlike some earlier translators, Kaveney does not beat around the bush of euphemism. Take for example what is presumably the gold standard, the Penguin Classics Poems of Catullus. Where Penguin has ‘remove yourselves’ (poem 33), Kaveney has ‘fuck off’. Where Penguin coyly refers to ‘services’ (41), Kaveney explains these are ‘fuck[ing] her scraggy arse’. In poem 42, Penguin’s ‘indelicate syllables’ are spelled out by Kaveney as ‘Fuck, felch, quim, rim’.

To be fair, though, sometimes even euphemism shrinks before Catullus’s meaning, as in Penguin’s poem 28: ‘Yes, Memmius, once / you filled me truly / slowly – daily – / with the length of your great beam’. (Kaveney renders this as: ‘My dear commander, Memmius, without oil // to smooth things, fucked me in the mouth and arse’.)

Would you like some more? Here is Kaveney’s translation of poem 16 in full:

Eat out my pussy while I fuck you hard
my hands up both your arses. Silly boys,
you prissy queens, because my verse enjoys
making hot love, that doesn’t mean I’m tarred

with the same filthy brush. I might be chaste
as anything. A poem might say “fuck,”
dabble its fingers in all kinds of muck,
turn people on perhaps, if they’ve a taste

for all that sort of thing. Old men with piles
don’t get hard otherwise; bored wives are wet
reading my verses. But you still don’t get
to think I’m a slut or virgin. Snarky smiles

will get you hurt. Oh, I will make you shout,
fistfuck your arses while you eat me out.

Catullus was a great innovator, one of the ‘new poets’ of the late Republic, who experimented with verse forms inherited from the Greeks. His mark can be seen on the work of Ovid, Tibullus, Sextus Propertius, Milton, Yeats and Pound. Kaveney’s translations are skilfully and unobtrusively rhymed in iambic pentameter; almost a third of them are sonnets, a form received from our own past, of course. Poems 63 and 64 are two of the longer poems that Catullus is famous for. The first tells the story of Attis who castrates himself (‘new girled’ ‘She plucks the last / bits of her former flesh / out by the chords’) to please the mother goddess Cybele who sets a lion on her. Poem 64 is another short epic about the marriage of Achilles’ parents, Peleus and sea nymph Thetis (part of which Virgil appropriated for the Aeneid).

The first century BCE was a time of scandal, chaos and civil war and Catullus’s poetry is ripe with intrigue and politics. Caesar and his lieutenant Mamurrus ‘are twins in sleaze / … You know it’s true. / They’ve fucked each other and they’ll fuck Rome too’ (57). There is bitterness, despair – but also love. For one lover, he wrote (48):

Juventius, to kiss your eyes is sweet,
as honey. I will not be satisfied
with thirty million kisses – so complete
is my devotion, I’ve not even tried
to cease from kissing. In a field of wheat,
harvest the grain and put each grain beside
the kisses I will give you. We’ll defeat
comparison, then kiss once more in pride.

Catullus also translated Sappho’s poem 31 for his great lost love, Lesbia (probably Clodia Metelli) (51):

He’s like a god, I think, or maybe more
than gods, the man who’s sitting next to you,
he gets to watch you. It is almost too
much that he hears your sweet laugh. I am poor

in spirit, Lesbia, because that sound
robs me of sense. It leaves me blind and dumb,
Soon deafness and paralysis will come.
I moan, and stagger, lie there on the ground,

and that’s just when you laugh. I cannot bear
to think of him, or you. And worse by far,
I know the truth, that all my problems are
trivial and silly, lighter than the air

and yet great kingdoms fall through such as this,
an idle dreamer, longing for a kiss.

Catullus, the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus: some English versions by Roz Kaveney is available from Sad Press https://sadpresspoetry.com/catullus/

Antony John 30th June 2019

The Books of Catullus Translated by Simon Smith (Carcanet Classics)

The Books of Catullus Translated by Simon Smith (Carcanet Classics)

When Bernard Dubourg contributed his article on translation to Grosseteste Review (Volume 12, 1979) he asserted a very important and necessary truth:

“The technique of translation, of which no one can properly define the terms, serves to conceal the fact that a good translation contains a greater number of possible senses than the original, being the result of two labours instead of one, and it’s for the reader to profit by it.”

It was Ben Jonson who wrote about the way our use of language reveals who we are when he said “Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind.” Just as no one person can read the mind of another the shark’s fin of language cuts its way through the water carrying with it the knowledge of what is held in bulk beneath: the fin of words is suggestive of a weight below the surface. The associations accumulating around words have shifted over centuries and we can only read from our own position in the NOW: we bring to bear upon our close scrutiny of language the sum of our own reading. We cannot read as Sir Philip Sidney did when in the late 1570s he became the first poet to translate Catullus into English with his four line version of poem 70 from Book III:

“UNTO no body my woman saith she had rather a wife be,
Then to my selfe, not though Jove grew a sutor of hers.
These be her words, but a woman’s words to a love that is eager,
In wind or water streame do require to be writ.”

However, it is possible that he may have read Thomas Wyatt’s version of Petrarch from some half a century earlier in which the poet’s attempt to hold tight his lady’s love is compared with the impossibility of seeking to “hold the wynde” in a “nett.” When we arrive at Simon Smith’s version of poem 70 we are firmly in a modern world in which the language bounces off the walls of everyday association:

“My woman would marry none, so she says, other
than me, not if Jupiter pressed his case.
Declares: – what a woman pledges a keen suitor
is better scripted for air and quick streams.”

The opening assertion of possessiveness (“My woman”) is followed by such confidence with the use of the word “none”; and this is so quickly followed with self-doubting humour in “so she says”. And there’s the rub of course! The lady’s words are the centre of focus and the extreme comparison with Jupiter sounds hollow. Script is air and airs are of course now streamed making them available for all! These poems by Simon Smith are bursting with sharpness and, as in the work of Frank O’Hara, whom Smith clearly reads with critical engagement, the seemingly informal or even offhand is in fact “accessory to an inner theatre”
Nine years earlier than that Dubourg article on translation the American poet, editor and translator, Cid Corman, opened the Zukofsky number of Grosseteste Review (Vol. 3, no. 4) with some comment upon Catullus:

“The question at issue is not whether Catullus would have liked these versions or not – though I might like to think so – or whether they have the same weight or speed as the original. These versions ARE originals. Related, yes, beyond any doubt. A semblance of Latin syllabics in English and English itself extended anew – as if the language itself were being renewed in our mouths.”

In his introduction to this entirely new version of the Latin poet Simon Smith points us forward to what should be immediately recognisable when he says that the poetry of Catullus “forms a significant strand of our shared poetic DNA” and that “a poet working in English must first translate Catullus in order to understand his or her own work and the work of their generation.” In Dubourg’s terms these new translations of Catullus reveal to us two poets at work and the correspondence between the two opens up a freshness of speech which is a delight to hear.

Ian Brinton, 18th April 2018

%d bloggers like this: