John T. Kirby · Purdue University
Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate; of poetry, Latin poetry is particularly difficult; and of Latin poetry, Catullus is among the most resistant to translation. One is inclined to agree, with Robert Frost, that poetry is precisely that aspect of literature which cannot be translated from one language to another.
That said, Catullus is also one of the most interesting and important sources for the life, literature, and culture of Rome in the first century BCE. So some attempt must at least be made to render the verse of Catullus into English that is resasonably accurate and readable. (The Latinless reader must take my word for it about the beauty of the original Latin text.)
Catullus is a great favorite of his readers, because of the immediacy and intensity of his poems. He is important as a reflection of the so-called 'Neoteric' style that was popular at the time in Rome; and he is recognized as a literary influence on Vergil. Moreover, the evidence in his poems indicates that he had connections with the upper echelons of Roman society in his day. Thus, for aesthetic, literary, and historical reasons, he is one of our most prized sources from antiquity.
Not too long ago it was the fashion to quarry the literary remains of an ancient author for materials from which to construct his or her biography. Catullus was no exception in this regard. Indeed the intimacy and vividness of the narrator's affair with the woman he calls 'Lesbia' makes it almost irresistible to envision these as transcripts of an actual romance. The niceties of literary theory, however, abhor the so-called 'biographical fallacy,' and demand a rigorous distinction between author and narrator, on one hand, and between reader and narratee, on the other. One of the enticing possibilities regarding 'Lesbia' is that she may be a cipher for Clodia, the wife of Quintus Metellus Celer ('Clodia' and 'Lesbia' actually have identical scansion patterns, for example). If this is the case, it would link Catullus to some of the most interesting (and scandalous) people of his time, by means of an adulterous liaison. But even if the whole Lesbia cycle is pure poetic fiction, it stands nonetheless as one of the great portraits in western literature of a grande passion from its beginning to its end.
Catullus's ability to capture, distil, and express the deepest stirrings of love and hate is virtually unrivalled, and certainly unsurpassed. If an English translation can capture some glimmer of that poetic magic, it will have done as much work as one can realistically expect it to do. But these versions, like all translations of great literature, are only a stopgap measure, meant to entice the reader into gaining enough facility in the original language to read them as they were written. (Those signed 'JTK' are by Professor Kirby; those marked 'adapted from ...' are adapted from versions that may be found, along with their Latin originals, and translations in numerous other languages as well, at Rudy Negenborn's very useful Catullus Website.)
1. CATVLLI CARMEN I [JTK]
To whom do I dedicate this slim [lepidum, cf. Gk lepton]
new chapbook [libellum],
written out on parchment just now polished [expolitum] with dry pumice?
To you, Cornelius [Nepos]. Why? because you were always the one who would
think that my trifling attempts [nugae] were worth something,
even back when you were the only one who dared to
unfold the complete history of the Itali in three papyrus-scrolls,
learned ones, by God, and full of labor.
So: here, have this little book,
whatever it's worth: which, O patron goddess [= his Muse? Minerva/Athena?],
may it last enduring, more than one generation.
Cui dono lepidum nouum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli, tibi; namque tu solebas
meas esse aliquid putare nugas
iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aeuum tribus explicare cartis
doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis.
quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli
qualecumque; quod, <o> patrona uirgo,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo.
2. CATVLLI CARMINA II, IIb [JTK]
Sparrow, delight of my girl,
with whom she plays, whom she holds in her lap
to whom she holds out her fingertip when you seek it,
provoking your sharp bites,
when it pleases her to make some sweet joke, while my desire gleams.
You are also, I think, the solace of her sorrow,
When my passionate fire dies down.
How I wish I could play with you the way she does herself,
And relieve the cares of my sad heart!
. . .
It is as pleasing to me as they say
The golden apple was to that swift girl,
Which untied that long-bound sash.
Passer, deliciae meae puellae,
Quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
Cui primum digitum dare appetenti
Et acris solet incitare morsus,
Cum desiderio meo nitenti
Carum nescio quid lubet iocari,
Et solaciolum sui doloris,
Credo, ut tum grauis acquiescat ardor:
Tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem
Et tristis animi leuara curas!
. . .
tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae
pernici aureolum fuisse malum,
quod zonam soluit diu ligatam.
3. CATVLLI CARMEN III adapted from a translation by Walter Sullivan [JTK]
Mourn, oh Cupids and Venuses,
and all people of charm and refinement [hominum uenustiorum]:
the sparrow of my girlfriend has died,
the sparrow, delight of my girl,
whom she loved more than her own eyes.
For it was honey-sweet and it knew its
mistress as well as a girl knows her mother,
nor would it move itself from her lap,
but jumping around hither and thither,
he used to chirp continually to his mistress alone:
now he embarks on that gloomy journey
from which, they say, no one ever returns.
Curses on you, evil shadows of Orcus,
you who devour all beautiful [bella] things,
so lovely [bellum] a sparrow have you taken away from me.
O evil deed! o miserable little [miselle] sparrow!
Now because of you my girl's swollen little eyes
are red from weeping.
5. CATVLLI CARMEN V Adapted from a translation by Rudy Negenborn [JTK]
Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us judge all the rumors of the old men
to be worth just one penny!
The suns are able to fall and rise again:
When our brief light has gone out,
we must sleep one never-ending night.
Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will shake them all up, so that we don't know,
and so that no evildoer can put a hex on us when he finds out
how many kisses we have shared.
7. CATVLLI CARMEN VII Adapted from a translation by T. P. Wiseman [JTK]
You ask, Lesbia, how many kissifications
of you are enough and to spare for me.
As great as the number of the sands of Lybia
to be found in silphium-bearing Cyrene
between Jove's torrid oracle
and the sacred tomb of legendary Battus;
or as many the stars which in the silence of night
behold the stealthy loves of mankind:
so many kisses to kiss you with
would be enough and spare for love-crazed Catullus,
too many for the inquisitive to be able to count
or bewitch with their evil tongues.
8. CATVLLI CARMEN VIII Transl. Kelly Syler
Poor Catullus, you must stop being silly,
and count as lost what you see is lost.
Once the sun shone bright for you,
when you would go whither your sweetheart led,
she who was loved by me as none will ever be loved.
Then there took place those many jolly scenes
which you desired nor did your sweetheart not desire.
Truly the sun shone bright for you.
Now she desires no more: do you too, weakling, not desire;
and do not chase her who flees, nor live in unhappiness,
but harden your heart, endure and stand fast.
Goodbye, sweetheart. Catullus now stands fast:
he will not look for you or court you against your will.
But you will be sorry when you are not courted at all.
Wretch, pity on you! What life lies in store for you!
Who will come to you now? Who will think you pretty?
Whom will you love now? Whose will people say you are?
Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you bite?
But you, Catullus, be resolute and stand fast.
11. CATVLLI CARMEN XI adapted from a translation by Bryn Stromberg [JTK]
Furius and Aurelius, companions of Catullus,
whether he reaches the furthest of the Indies,
or the shore where the beating of the eastern
waves resonates far and wide,
whether he reaches the soft Hyrcani or Arabae,
or the Sagae, or the arrow-carrying Parthi,
or the waters that the
sevenfold Nile stains with silt,
whether he will go across the lofty Alps,
to see the great monument to Caesar,
or the Gallic Rhine and the faraway
you who are prepared to try all these things,
and whatever else the will of the gods will bring,
announce to my girl* a few
Let her live* and flourish with her adulterers,
whom she holds, 300 at a time, in her embrace,
loving none of them truly, but repeatedly*
busting the groins of all of them;
nor let her remember my love as she once did,
which by her faithlessness, has fallen,
just like the farthest flower of the field
has been killed by a passing plow.
* (indicates intertextuality with a different Catullan poem)
43. CATVLLI CARMEN XLIII Adapted from a translation by Greg Drudy [JTK]
Hello, girl, you with neither the smallest nose,
Nor pretty feet nor dark eyes
Nor long fingers nor dry lips
Nor, for that matter, elegant speech [nimis elegante lingua].
Girlfriend of the spendthrift from Formiae,
Does he report that in the province you are considered beautiful [bellam]?
Is our Lesbia to be compared with you?
O tasteless and crude age!
58. CATVLLI CARMEN LVIII [JTK]
Caelius: our Lesbia, that Lesbia,
that same Lesbia, whom Catullus loved
more than himself and more than all his own,
now at street corners and in back alleys
glubit [literally 'peels'] the descendants of greatsouled Remus.
70. CATVLLI CARMEN LXX Adapted from a translation by A. J. Robison [JTK]
My woman says to me that there is none
With whom she'd rather spend her days than I,
Should even Jove himself ask her to wed.
Yes, so she says, but women often lie,
And loving words they speak ought to be written
In rapid winds and water flowing by.
72. CATVLLI CARMEN LXXII Adapted from a translation by Matt Rivers [JTK]
You used to say once that you alone knew Catullus,
Lesbia, and that you'd rather be holding me than Jupiter himself.
At that time I loved you not as the common man loves a girlfriend
but as a father loves his sons and sons-in-law.
Now I know you: so even if I burn the worse,
you are cheaper and more trivial to me.
How can this be, you ask? Because a hurt of such a kind
forces a lover to love more, but to wish the beloved less well.
75. CATVLLI CARMEN LXXV [JTK]
Here's where my mind has been dragged down to by your faithlessness,
Lesbia; here's how much my mind has destroyed itself by its own doing:
Now it is not possible to wish you well, even if you became very good,
Nor to stop loving you, no matter what you do.
Huc est mens deducta tuâ mea, Lesbia, culpâ
Atque ita se officio perdidit ipsa suo,
Ut iam nec bene uelle queat tibi, si optima fias,
Nec desistere amare, omnia si facias.
85. CATVLLI CARMEN LXXXV [JTK]
I hate and I love. Why am I doing this, you may ask?
I do not know. But I can feel it happening, and I am on the rack.
Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
86. CATVLLI CARMEN LXXXVI [JTK]
Quintia is beautiful to many. To me she is fair, long-limbed,
statuesque: I admit each of these attributes singly, but:
beautiful, the total package? No. There's no charm [uenustas],
no spice [mica salis] in such a towering stature.
Now Lesbia! There's a beautiful woman: it's not just a visual beauty
-- she's also stolen all the charisma [Veneres] of all other women.
Quintia formosa est multis: mihi candida, longa,
recta est: haec ego singula confiteor.
totum illud formosa nego: nam nulla uenustas,
nulla in tam magno est corpore mica salis.
Lesbia formosa est, quae cum pulcherrima tota est,
tum omnibus una omnis surripuit Veneres.
87. CATVLLI CARMEN LXXXVII [JTK]
No woman can say she has been truly loved as much
as my Lesbia was loved by me.
No trust [fides] so great was ever kept in any bond [foedere] before this
as was found -- on my part -- in my love for you.
107. CATVLLI CARMEN CVII Adapted from a translation by Matt Tomey [JTK]
When something good happens to one who is
desirous and hopeful, yet not expecting it,
It is especially pleasing to his soul.
Therefore, this is pleasing, and dearer than gold to me,
because you, Lesbia, have restored yourself to desirous me.
You restore yourself to desirous, unexpecting me, you return yourself
to me. O happy day! [lit. 'O light of a fairer mark!']
Who lives more happily than I alone? [Who can imagine
things more to be hoped for than this life?]