Tag Archives: Translations

Io Saturnalia: My Translation of Catullus Poem 14a

John Reinhard Weguelin. The Roman Saturnalia. 1884.

The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia held on December 17th in the Julian calendar involved decorating, partying, eating, gift giving and general conviviality.   This special day, gradually expanded to a full week, was dedicated to the agricultural deity Saturn whose temple in the Forum was the center of sacrifices for the holiday.  A general spirit of frivolity was felt throughout the city as Romans of all classes participated in the merrymaking.  Catullus, the 1st century B.C. poet, calls Saturnalia the “best of days.” In his Carmen 14a, Catullus describes his great annoyance when his friend, Calvus, gives him a joke gift—a book of bad poetry!—for Saturnalia.  Catullus then plots the sweet revenge he will inflict upon Calvus (Translation is my own):

Oh Calvus, if I didn’t love you more than my own eyes
I would hate you as much as I hate that guy Vatinianus.
What could I have possibly said or done to make you
destroy me with so much bad poetry?  May the gods
do very bad things to that client of yours who originally
sent you this wicked gift.  Because if, as I suspect, Sulla
the elementary school teacher gave this new and well-chosen
gift to you then this situation has not turned out so badly
for me, and, in fact, it is good and fortuitous, and your
efforts are not in vain. Oh great gods, what a horrible
and accursed little book! That very book which I am
convinced you sent to your friend Catullus on this best
of days, Saturnalia, so that I might die again and again
on this day!  I will not, absolutely not, let this go,
you trickster.  As soon as it is light out, I am running
to the bookshop and collecting all the poisonous poetry I can
find for you—Suffenus and Caesius and Aquinus.  I will
pay you back with these punishments!  And as for you,
bad poets, goodbye! Go away!  Go back to that place where
you got your bad feet, the troubles of our generation,
you absolute worst of all poets!

We know from his other poems that Calvus is one of Catullus’s most dear and well-respected friends.  In addition to being a poet, Calvus is also a lawyer and Vatinianus who is mentioned in the first few lines in the poem is an odious man that Calvus once prosecuted.  Catullus considers Calvus an excellent poet and the two close friends would have contests and challenge each other to poetry duels.  A book of lousy poetry seems a fitting joke gift between these men.  What makes Calvus’s gift especially bad (and funny) is that he regifted it!  Catullus calls Calvus out in the poem for his regifting—Calvus received the book as payment from one of his clients, named Sulla, and Calvus then passes the book off to Catullus.  Catullus also calls Sulla, the original giver of the books,  an elementary school teacher, which in ancient Rome is an insult to Sulla’s intelligence.  The part of the poem that has always amazed me is that Catullus threatens to get Calvus back by emptying the bookshop of every bad piece of poetry he can find, and he names names!  Of the three he mentions, Suffenus is the poet whose writing we know the most about; in Carmen 22, Catullus describes Suffenus’s verse as akin to lines composed by a goat herder or ditch digger.  Oh to have seen the look on Calvus’s face when he reads that book of poetry.  Nice burn, Catullus!

To all of my fellow readers: Io Saturnalia, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.  May you receive lots of excellent books of poetry during your Saturnalia celebrations!

Leave a comment

Filed under Classics

An Addendum to my Personal Canon

When I recently wrote a list of the books that have had the greatest impact on my life, I naturally included several ancient authors.  Each work on the list is something I have translated myself and I was thinking about those texts in the original Latin or Ancient Greek.  But I have had many inquires about my favorite translations of these texts, so here is my addendum.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are the old chestnuts that I return to time and again:

Homer, Iliad: The Robert Fagles translation is still my favorite (the intro. to this text written by Bernard Knox is worth the price of the book alone).  For those who want something more daring, Chapman’s translation of Homer is also something I have really enjoyed.  And for those who want something really daring, Christopher Logue’s interpretation of the Iliad, entitled War Music, is stunning (regular readers of my blog will know that I flipped my lid over this and wrote four different posts about it.)

Presocratic Philosophers: Since these authors are in fragments, the best book I have found that includes both interpretations as well as translations is The Presocratic Philosophers by G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven and M. Schofield.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon: Once again, I have to go with the Robert Fagles translation of this which is a Penguin Edition.  This edition also includes translations of the Libation Bearers and the Eumenides.

Euripides, Trojan Women, Medea: The Oxford World’s Classics editions translated by James Morwood are my staple translations for all of Euripides. The Trojan Women and Medea are in separate volumes.  The edition with Medea also includes Hippolytus, Electra and Helen.  The edition with Trojan Women also includes translations of Hecuba and Andromache.

Sopocles, Oedipus, Antigone: The Penguin edition is my favorite which is translated by Robert Fagles and includes all three of the Theban plays. (Can you tell that I am partial to the translations of Fagles?)

Plato, Symposium: The Tom Griffith translation by the University of California Press is still my favored edition and also includes engravings by Peter Forster.

Aristotle, Poetics: I still go back to the first translation of this I’ve ever read by Leon Golden published in 1968 by Florida State University Press.  It also includes an excellent running commentary.

Catullus, Carmina: Although the English is a bit Archaic since it was originally published in 1913, I still love the Loeb translation edited and revised by G.P. Gould.  This edition also includes the poems of Tibullus which I also highly recommend.  Tom, whose erudite writing about classic literature can be found at Wuthering Expectations, recommended the Horace Gregory translation published in 1952 which I am thoroughly enjoying!  I have been reading the translations from Gregory this semester as I translate the Latin text with my students and it has been a most enjoyable experience.  Sometimes a different translation, even an older one, gives us fresh eyes.

Vergil, Aeneid: I’ve always loved the Robert Fitzgerald translation of the Aeneid which is the Vintage Classics edition, that is, until Robert Fagles published his. I also am excited to read the new translation of it that will be published by the University of Chicago Press in the fall of 2017.  Word on the street is that David Ferry’s new translation is fabulous.  Stayed tuned for my official opinion.

Seneca, everything he wrote, especially The Trojan Women: I love the dual language edition by Elaine Fantham which has been out-of-print for quite a while.  The introduction and the commentary are extraordinary.  There is also a new translation of all of Seneca’s plays that was just published by The University of Chicago Press.  Elaine Fantham was part of the team of editors and translators on this project before she passed away and I am very eager to devote my full attention to these new translations.  Stay tuned for my thoughts!

Cicero, De Senectute, Pro Caelio: The Penguin Editions of both of these translations are excellent. Cicero: Selected Works, translated by Michael Grant includes De SenectuteCicero: Selected Political Speeches includes the Pro Caelio. These are the editions that I use to teach Cicero in my classes.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Heroides: For the Metamorphoses I have always loved Rolfe Humphries’s translation that was originally published by The University of Indiana Press in 1960.  The translation by Allen Mandelbaum published in 1995 is also excellent.  Finally, the A.S. Kline translation is also very good and is available online here: http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Ovhome.htm

The Loeb edition of the Heroides, translated in 1914 by Grant Showerman and revised by G.P. Gould, is still my favorite. This edition also includes the Amores which I very highly recommend.  Maybe I also should have included the Amores on my personal canon?

Propertius, Elegies: (Many read Catullus and Ovid and unfortunately bypass Propertius.  But his poems are just as good and important.)  Once again, I have to go with the trustworthy Loeb edition translation by G.P. Gould.

Lucan The Civil War: (A very underappreciated epic from the Latin Silver Age)  And yet again, I have to go with the Loeb edition of Lucan translated by J.D. Duff and originally published in 1928.

I realize that there are quite a few Loeb editions on the list, but the dual text and the older translations have always appealed to me.  Please leave further suggested translations for any of these authors in the comments!

13 Comments

Filed under Classics, Opinion Posts

Let us Live and Let us Love: My Translation and Interpretation of Catullus Poem 5

512px-john_reinhard_weguelin_lesbiaLesbia by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1878.

A dear friend who is also a classicist read my essay for the Seagull Books Catalog and pointed out that my translation of Ovid was so literal and awkward that most readers probably wouldn’t understand its meaning.  I spend my life eliciting grammatically precise, literal translations from my students so that I can assess their learning of Latin syntax.  But his message inspired me to stretch my translation skills beyond the literal and to come up with passages that readers could actually appreciate and enjoy.  Of course I also don’t want to stray so far away from the Latin that I completely abandon all rules of syntax and grammar, so it will be interesting and challenging for me to strike that balance.  I’ve decided to do a series of translations of Latin authors on my blog that will be dedicated to my friend who ever so gently gave me some suggestions for my Ovid translation.  Or, when I become frustrated with a particularly difficult Latin passage, I will blame him.

Since I am teaching a Catullus course in the spring semester, and he is my favorite Latin lyric poet, I will begin my translation series with one of his most popular poems. Gaius Valerius Catullus (c.84-54B.C.) had a passionate love affair with a woman named Clodia.  But Clodia was no ordinary woman.  Her family was of old, Patrician, noble stock and she was married to an older, prominent and powerful man, the proconsul Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer.  As was the case with most upper class Roman marriages, Clodia’s was arranged for political and economic gains and there was no real love or affection in the marriage.  But she does find love with Catullus, who wrote several poems about her and their relationship.  I imagine him spending hours perfecting this masterpiece composed in hendecasyllabic meter and sending it off to her in secret.  And, just in case it might be intercepted by the wrong person, he disguises his love with the pseudonym “Lesbia.”

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Let’s live and let’s love, My Clodia,
And let’s consider worthless
The gossip of crabby old men!
Suns rise and set:
When the fleeting daylight finally sets for us,
We must spend one perpetual night together.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then another thousand kisses,
Then a second hundred,
And then give me another thousand kisses
And then give me a hundred kisses.
Finally, when we have kissed many thousands of times,
Let’s mix up the number of those kisses
So that an envious man will not be able to put a curse
On us if he finds out the exact number of our kisses.

There are, of course, more salacious and explicit poems that Catullus composed about Clodia.  But I find that the subtlety and simplicity of Poem 5 makes it particularly erotic.  The standard interpretation of lines 1-6 are is the theme of carpe diem (seize the day) , with reference to our mortality but I have always viewed these lines rather differently.  The chiasmus in the first line (vivamus mea Lesbia amemus) brings to mind an image of Catullus and Clodia intertwined in bed among tangled sheets, eager for their much anticipated  sexual encounter.  He begins his poem, and his encounter with her,  slowly and languidly with the hortatory subjunctives (vivamus-“Let’s live” and amemus-“Let’s love”) and builds up to the intense immediacy of the imperative da -“give”-as he demands many kisses from her.   He is in the throws of fervent lovemaking when he uses the periphrastic (we must sleep for one perpetual night) and the anaphorae— the repetition of deinde, centum, mille—mimic the rhythm of their lovemaking.   And finally, when he has climaxed, he comes back to the more languid subjunctive forms (sciamus, possit, sciat), and suggests that the intimate details of their encounter, the exact number of their shared kisses, be mixed up so that no one will know and spoil their furtive encounters.

The hyperbole in this poem–“give me  a hundred kisses, then a thousand,” etc.–, which many have found silly, demonstrates just how much he loved her and was willing to risk to be with her.  They had to be very careful to meet secretly at the home of a trusted, mutual friend.  Catullus mentions in the first line of Poem 5 that men are gossiping about their love affair and in the last line comes back to the idea that there are those who envy the pair and wish them harm.  I imagine Catullus as a man of means, he was a wealthy Roman with high social status, who was willing to use and even risk those means to be with Clodia.  Some might accuse me of being a bad feminist, but I greatly admire Catullus, a strong man who would move heaven and earth and defy convention to spend time with the woman he loved.

I also imagine that Catullus was an infinitely patient man as weeks and even months must have gone by in between the times he was able to spend with Clodia.  When he does get to spend the night with her he doesn’t want it to end and his wish that they be suspended in one perpetual night together demonstrates how few and far between their trysts must have been. In an age of instantaneous, electronic communication and social media we seem to have lost our patience for anything and anyone who doesn’t give us immediate pleasure all the time.  I am realistic enough and old enough, some might say jaded enough, to know that an enduring love like Catullus’s is extremely rare or non-existent in an age where we so quickly swipe left, delete, unfriend, block, ignore, hide and cast aside.

Catullus’s poetry is deceptively simple and every time I translate his poems I find another layer of meaning.  Up next, I will attempt a translation of Catullus Poem 7 which is the companion piece to Poem 5 and also involves kisses.  In addition, I will explore the influence of the Greek, Alexandrian poets on Catullus’s style.   For anyone who wants to read all of Catullus’s 116 poems in translation, the Oxford World’s Classics Text by Guy Lee and the Loeb by F.W. Cornish are my favorite translations.  The Loeb translation is a bit archaic as it was published in 1913, but I find the style fitting for Catullus.

My friend who inspired these posts suggested that I translate one of  Horace’s Odes, which are nearly impossible to render into mellifluous English.  I would also like to translate some of Seneca’s Trojan Women and Ovid’s Heroides.  I would love to have more suggestions for Latin authors to translate, so please leave some requests in the comments for me!

19 Comments

Filed under Classics