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Miss her, Catullus?

By A.E. Stallings

I really enjoyed reading Steve’s post about translation. A lot of my writing time is spent not working on my own things, but translating. Translation is a great boon to a poet. You never have to face the white page alone if you don’t want to. I think of translation as a special kind of deep reading. It lets you try on other voices, and other genres (epic, didactic!). But it can be a heart-breaking business—there’s no such thing as a perfect translation, and every success is paid for by a failure. So since you are going to fail, why be dull?—be bold! Fail big! A couple of fun totally quirky (and distracting) translations:


Louis Zukofsky and his wife, Celia, experimented with homophonic translations (something pioneered by Pound, I believe) of the Roman poet, Catullus (c.85-54 BC). That is, they tried to get both the meaning and the actual SOUNDS of the Latin across, in English. The results range from the wacky to the impressive. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know Latin—just try sounding out these few lines from poem 8 phonetically:
Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,
et quod vides perisse perditum ducas.
fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles…
(for whole poem in Latin, click here –you can also click through to English translation.)
Then read the first lines of Louis Zukofsky’s translation aloud:
Miss her, Catullus? don’t be so inept to rail
at what you see perish when perished is the case.
Full, sure once, candid the sunny days glowed, solace,
when you went about it as your girl would have it,
you loved her as no one else shall ever be loved.
Billowed in tumultuous joys and affianced,
why you would but will it and your girl would have it.
Full, sure, very candid the sun’s rays glowed solace.
Now she won’t love you; you, too, don’t be weak, tense, null,
squirming after she runs off to miss her for life.
Said as if you meant it: obstinate, obdurate.
Vale! puling girl. I’m Catullus, obdurate,
I don’t require it and don’t beg uninvited:
won’t you be doleful when no one, no one! begs you,
scalded, every night. Why do you want to live now?
Now who will be with you? Who’ll see that you’re lovely?
Whom will you love now and who will say that you’re his?
Whom will you kiss? Whose morsel of lips will you bite?
But you, Catullus, your destiny’s obdurate.

I think even Catullus would have got a kick out of “Vale! puling girl.”
It’s a fun experiment that can yield surprising results–maybe it even helps if you don’t know the original language.
But my all-time favorite translation of Catullus (for original, see here) is in the Scottish brogue of G. S. Davies (from 1912):
Weep, weep, ye Loves and Cupids all,
And ilka Man o’ decent feelin’:
My lassie’s lost her wee, wee bird,
And that’s a loss, ye’ll ken, past healin’.
The lassie lo’ed him like her een:
The darling wee thing lo’ed the ither,
And knew and nestled to her breast,
As only bairnie to her mither.
Her bosom was his dear, dear haunt—
So dear, he cared na lang to leave it;
He’d nae but gang his ain sma’ jaunt,
And flutter piping back bereavit.
The wee thing’s gane the shadowy road
That’s never traveled back by ony:
Out on ye, Shades! Ye’re greedy aye
To grab at aught that’s brave and bonny.
Puir, foolish, fondling, bonnie bird,
Ye little ken what wark ye’re leavin’:
Ye’ve bar’d my lassie’s een grow red,
Those bonnie een grow red wi’ grieving.

Comments (7)

  • On September 20, 2007 at 4:23 pm Don Share wrote:

    Interesting about the Davies – I’m grateful to see it! (There’s a Penguin anthology of English-language versions of Catullus called, “Catullus in English” edited by Julia Haig Gaisser that folks might like to track down – every poem is represented, and it also has poems that wouldn’t have existed without Catullus by the likes even of Dorothy Parker!) Anyway, I wonder what you make of the Northumbrian poet, Basil Bunting, whose work was continually haunted by Catullus. Bunting was a shrewd reader of the classics (and other things), and once remarked, “Whether Catullus is being ornamental or direct, he uses invariably the most straightforward Latin syntax, the language of a man talking.” (Then, too, in his rendition of Peleus and Thetis, Bunting gets through a few dozen lines before cutting the translation short with the text: “–and why Catullus bothered to write pages and pages of this drivel mystifies me”!!

  • On September 20, 2007 at 4:54 pm Jennifer Reeser wrote:

    Total agreement here as far as the trying on of alternate voices through translation, Alicia. Your incisiveness reminded me of a most memorable modern comment (I believe it was Rachel Hadas, though I can’t credit her with its origin) to the effect that of all poetic acts, translation stands as the most selfless. I think the interpretations and applications of that statement are myriad.

  • On September 20, 2007 at 7:40 pm Steve wrote:

    Scots has been a neat resource for translators, parlty b/c it can include both very modern idioms and very “folk,” unalienated, earthy ones– sort of a middle zone between preindustrial societies’ languages (including sophisticated preindustrial societies, like Catullus’s) and ours.
    I didn’t remember Zukofsky’s Catullus as anything like that good, or that consistent. The version you quote gets better as it goes along.
    I wonder what you’d think of Creeley’s “Stomping with Catullus,” five increasingly colloquial, increasingly free translations (or “translations”) of Catullus LXX?

  • On September 20, 2007 at 8:20 pm Ange wrote:

    I’m with Steve on Z – although this is heresy in some circles, I always found the Z translation of Catullus to be obtuse and prudish at worst, just an exercise at best.
    I love Don’s anecdote about Bunting – one of my favorite poets, and not prudish in the least; so I wonder what he meant by Catullus’s “drivel?”

  • On September 21, 2007 at 6:10 am Alicia (A. E.) wrote:

    Thanks for the comments, folks. I love the Bunting anecdote! Poem 64 ,a little mythological epic about Ariadne “embedded” in an ekphrastic poem framed by the wedding of Pelus and Thetis is the sort of charming and mannered writing that doesn’t electrify as much as elegant but contemporary-feeling metrical lyrics about stolen dinner napkins or buggering or hopeless love with an older married woman. But it also would seem to show that C., who died at around 30 years old, had ambitions to branch out to other genres.
    To be honest, I don’t know the Zukofsky Catullus much beyond this one, which I rather like. I did a stint of high school Latin teaching and students certainly got a kick out of it. It was of course a collaboration, with Celia doing the heavy lifting.
    I didn’t know the delightful Creeley–or if I had I had forgotten it (thanks for bringing it to my attention!)–and found this great sound file of it over at PennSound:
    Stomping with Catullus
    It reminds me that verse translation is, among other things, a conversation of poets over the ages–the dead speaking to the yet-to-be-born, the present speaking back cheekily to its ancestors–poets speaking as contemporaries and peers, not as awed and bald scholars wearing the carpet with their shoes.

  • On September 21, 2007 at 6:11 am Steve wrote:

    Don, isn’t the Bunting you quote (the one where he breaks off in frustrated disgust) one of the “overdrafts” (Bunting’s name for translations) which Bunting decided not to publish in his lifetime? (Do you want to talk about “overdrafts” as a label for translations? I love Bunting’s coinage– and I’m not sure all American readers will get the plain sense of the word.)

  • On September 21, 2007 at 9:25 am Don Share wrote:

    Yes, indeed, Bunting coined the term “Overdrafts.” Richard Price explains it nicely: “By calling these works ‘Overdrafts’ Bunting publicly affirms that he has come to an understanding of indebtedness with the poets who, as it were, underwrite him. On that basis, he can only supply what is provisional—a draft—and must also in some sense obscure, write ‘over,’ the work of his poetic betters. But to take out an overdraft is usually to smoothen cash flow problems: in this case by translating these works, the poet keeps his own poetry moving, in currency, in credit.” (“Basil Bunting and the Problem of Patronage”) Bunting collected them in a section of his work accompanied by the amusing note, “It would be gratuitous to assume that a mistranslation is unintentional.” He did eventualy publish the Peleus and Thetis excerpt, which dates from about 1933. (Bunting experimented with a system of grouping poems under the rubrics Odes, Carmina, Sonatas, and Overdrafts over a long period of time…) Anyway, B.’s version is based on Catullus LXIV, Catullus’s longest poem – itself a kind of dissent from the old epic style which had been worn down by hack writers: the answer was to come up with mini-epics that featured a story inside a story. So you can see the chain is very long!


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, September 20th, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.