Down and Dirty: Translations of Catullus

August 11, 2017

Once upon a time in a state far, far away—Indiana—a gentleman named Norman Taylor waxed indignant. “I happened to come across one of the books sold in a book store, 308 State St., for use in Purdue University classes,” he wrote to the university president and the governor of the state. “This book was named ‘Carmina of Catullus.’ I think it is one of the most FILTHY books I have ever had the misfortune to see … I would cite especially poem #97 on page 158 of this book for you to read and see if you do not think it just pure FILTH.” To his credit, Mr. Taylor must have bought at least two copies of Barriss Mills’s translations of the Carmina of Catullus, because he enclosed one copy with his letter to President Hovde and another with the letter he sent to Governor Branigin.

President Hovde passed the letter along to the translator, along with a copy of the governor’s reply, “writ by hand,” in Professor Mills’s own annotation. “Better such tripe died untranslated,” Governor Branigin thundered, “than exposed to students who had a thousand times better read of virtue and valor. I join you in your condemnation.” [1]

“Died untranslated … ” a dire fate, and one not allotted to Catullus. Translations of #97 [2] abound; the poem, ironically enough, is usually read as one of the Roman poet’s more moral strictures, however grossly expressed. In fact, the poet’s tone parallels Mr. Taylor’s rather remarkably. Surely that righteous Hoosier could have singled out a more scandalous example in the Carmina, but this is what he read and reviled:

I swear, it’s difficult to tell,
by sniffing, which is Aemilius’
mouth and which is his tail.
Neither is cleaner or dirtier
than the other—or rather
his ass-hole’s the cleaner and better
of the two—it hasn’t any teeth.
His mouth has half a yard of them,
and gums that look exactly
like an old wagon-box.
And besides, it’s always gaping
as wide as a mule’s cunt
when it’s pissing in hot weather.
He screws all the girls he can find
and makes himself out a charmer,
and somehow he’s managed to escape
being sent to the grinding-mill
and donkey’s work. But the girl
who’d touch him would be willing
to lick the scrofulous backsides
of the public executioner. [3]

Would Mr. Taylor have preferred Frank O. Copley’s sprightly rhyming and much freer version?

you take that guy Aemilius,
he’s one of whom you’d say
you couldn’t tell which end was up—
a stinker either way

in fact, I am inclined to think
I like him upside down
just slightly more than right side up—
for I can’t see his frown,

and ugly mug with foot-long fangs
and gums like rotten leather;
and when he smiles, you’d think it was
a cess-pool in hot weather.

but he’s the guy that loves the gals
a Devastating Male—
my God, when will they catch the man
and lock him up in jail?

why, any girl that would so much
as look at him—I’d say
she’d lick the hangman’s running sores
and kiss the pus away. [4]

Not a single word bluer than “cess-pool.”

Mills takes twenty-one lines to badmouth Aemilius, and Copley uses twenty. The original is only twelve lines long, and Carl Sesar manages to squeeze these into thirteen:

You wouldn’t think it made much difference
sniffing around Aemilius’ mouth or his asshole,
one being no better or worse than the other,
but I figure his ass is a whole lot better,
it’s got no teeth. His mouth has teeth in it
a half a yard long, the gums are all rotten,
sagging down loose as an old covered wagon,
and when he smiles the lips spread open wide
like a mule’s cunt dripping on a hot summer’s day.
This is the big lady the ladies all fuck for?
I’d plug his face with a horse dick instead.
A girl who’d go near a creep like that, she
could get down and ream a sick hangman’s ass. [5]

By this time, dear reader, I would not be surprised to find you sympathizing with Governor Branigin. “Non ita me di ament quicquam referre putaui” does not seem to rank among Catullus’s subtle masterpieces, and an argument could be made that “better such tripe died untranslated,” although it might be more persuasive on aesthetic than on moral grounds.

So why do we go on translating poems like these? Why don’t we stick to “virtue and valor?” Is it just for the sake of scholarly fulfillment, that we must have a complete Catullus? Is it just for a sociological insight into Roman mores? (O mores!) Ellen Elias-Bursać has cited the Croatian critic Tonko Maroević making his own argument against certain translations, a case for specific items of “the finest of their writing” so idiosyncratic they need not, ought not, be released into a wider world. “Instead of sharing these special totems of identity they should keep them within the circle of cultural intimacy.” [6]

I’m not sure I’d include Catullus #97 in the category of “finest of their writing” or “totems of identity,” but I suppose we could make a case for cultural intimacy. Nevertheless, I have myself translated poems as seemingly inconsequential as “Non ita me di ament quicquam referre putaui,” and even two or three as raunchy. So my first justification for such work is the sheer fun of it, the challenge of delving into the language and the exuberance of the sentiment—to make it my own, my English.

Yet what’s amusement and exercise for the translator may have no life beyond his or her immediate circle. Aemilius and Catullus being dead (to use the ablative absolute), who cares about the rankness of the former or the rancor of the latter? Is there anything intrinsic to the poem to justify translation? Is it especially clever, enlightening, linguistically rich?

Maybe not, and yet here we find it, not only in the complete poems of Catullus, but also among the selected. Among those that, as Carl Sesar wrote in his brief introduction, “I felt most fully and love the best.” In a telephone conversation, he amplified:

Catullus intended to offend, which is why he is so loved and hated. It’s outrageous, one of Catullus’s trademarks, although not to everybody’s taste, of course. It was a challenge. No matter how nasty or repellent he gets in certain of his poems, he manages to do it with such great impact and such style you’re forced to swallow them as art. That poem is one of the great scatalogical poems of all times. It’s so notorious it has to be included. I’m not claiming it’s a great masterpiece. If you’re going to do a selection, it simply couldn’t be left out. It’s a tour de force, and some very challenging lines. I couldn’t pass it up. It’s not one of his great short poems, but it ain’t bad. [7]

And so, for the fun of it, let’s go back to the original Latin and root around a little in the FILTH.

The poem begins, after an initial Non, [8] with a parenthetical relationship [9] between the speaker and the gods: ita me di ament, “may the gods love me in this way.” Mills alludes to this with a noncommittal “I swear” that assumes it’s just a formulaic cliché. Others also treat it as a conventional oath, not taking it literally. [10] They avoid the verb ament in a poem which is otherwise all about ways of loving. And none of them makes anything of ita, which can mean only “in this way, like this, thus.” It is a forceful word, commanding attention. But what can this way of loving possibly be? Is it the way Aemilius loves and is loved? Is it the way the Catullan speaker “loves” Aemilius?

Or does that stressed initial non do double duty as a zeugma, and is the parenthesis really saying, “May the gods not love me in this way”? (This is what I suspect, but have not the erudition or the skill to prove.) Whichever way it goes, the whole poem hangs from ita. A translator’s choice here becomes consequential in a way that Sesar’s substituting “horse” for “donkey” or “mule” is not consequential. [11]

Hic futuit multas et se facit venustum further muddies the FILTHY waters. Literally, “he has fucked many women and makes himself charming / agreeable / winning.” Catullus delivers the line straightforward, unqualified. (For all his freewheeling, Copley’s version comes closest here.) It seems to stand out from the rest of the description—is this perhaps how the speaker would like to be loved by the gods? It certainly hints more at rancor and envy than at accuracy in the rest of the description. Except that se facit is more ambiguous than that—more “presents himself.” Is he faking it? Most translators think so. But then how do we—the poet included—explain Aemilius’s sexual success?

Maybe, after all, #97 is simply an inconsistent, bad poem that has managed to survive embedded in the canon of a subtle, brilliant poet. Or maybe there’s a lot more going on here than even the most careful and worshipful of translators and readers have guessed. It has happened before. But, after all, reading #97 this closely has left me feeling, like Mr. Taylor, a little soiled, and you might be feeling the same way by now.

Good. That, at least, is what Catullus wanted.

[1] Dr. Mills’s son was a college classmate and is a friend of mine, which is how I came into knowledge and possession of this text. I keep my own copy tucked into an autographed copy of the book. Return to Text

[2] Non (ita me di ament) quicquam referre putaui,

utrumne os an culum olfacerem Aemilio.

nilo mundius hoc, nihiloque immundius illud,

verum etiam culus mundior et melior:

nam sine dentibus est. hic dentis sesquipedalis,

gingiuas vero ploxeni habet veteris,

praeterea rictum qualem diffissus in aestu

meientis mulae cunnus habere solet.

hic futuit multas et se facit esse venustum,

et non pistrino traditur atque asino?

quem siqua attingit, non illam posse putemus

aegroti culum lingere carnificis? Return to Text

[3] The Carmina of Catullus: A Verse Translation by Barriss Mills (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Studies, 1965), 158. Return to Text

[4] Catullus—The Complete Poetry, trans. Frank O. Copley (East Lansing, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1957), 111–2. Return to Text

[5] Selected Poems of Catullus, trans. Carl Sesar (New York: Mason & Lipscomb, 1974) [pages not numbered]. Return to Text

[6] Ellen Elias-Bursać, “Savior, Spy: Thinking About What We Do,” Metamorphoses 1, no. 2 (1993): 25. Return to Text

[7] Carl Sesar, personal communication, 12 October 2012. Return to Text

[8] For some discussion of the flexibility of Latin word order and its rhetorical use, see “Getting Horace Across.” Return to Text

[9] Latin texts nowadays usually enclose the clause in actual parentheses, but there is no textual validation for this in the words of Catullus himself. It’s a modern textual emendation. In two other poems, Catullus uses a parallel construction with different verbs. Return to Text

[10] Peter Green, “god help me;” Guy Lee, “so help me, Gods!” Len Krisak, “So help me God;” James Michie, “So help me God,” C. H. Sisson, “So help me gods;” Peter Wigham (channeling Scarlett O’Hara), “as God is my witness.” Return to Text

[11] The actual word asinus means “ass” or “donkey” (see “Apuleius Translated”), but an accidental pun in American English can justify a change of species. Return to Text

Additional translations:
Peter Green, The Poems of Catullus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
Len Krisak, Carmina (Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2014).
Guy Lee, The Poems of Catullus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
James Michie, The Poems of Catullus (New York: Random House, 1969).
C. H. Sisson, The Poetry of Catullus (New York: Orion, 1967).
Peter Whigham, The Poems of Catullus (London: Penguin, 1966).