#168: AN INDECENT OBSCURITY. Catullus may well be the most ferociously passionate poet who has survived from antiquity. Of Sappho we have only a pitiful few fragments; of Catullus, over a hundred full poems in a variety of meters and moods. He damned and delighted with equal intensity: his most famous opening line is “Odi et amo,” a line so flatly simple as to be the bane of translators for the following two thousand years. (Frank Bidart probably got closest to it by a cunning use of italic: “I hate and love.”) His blistering obscenity is still unmatched: his range of raunch made quailing use of the anal, oral and olfactory, and he was pitiless toward anyone who hadn’t the good fortune of being young. He moved with the sophistication of the wealthy and well-placed, and had never heard the adage that there was no shame in poverty. His most famous erotic target, Lesbia, is addressed in tones of helpless devotion, jealous suspicion, and heart-scarred rage; but there is an Etruscan boy in there as well, Juventius, who had the audacity not only to favor a poor man over a poet but to wipe his lips after Catullus had kissed him. Catullus’s eye for the most appalling and indiscreet detail is like a fly in an outhouse.
Like Baudelaire or Racine, like Du Fu or Wang Wei, Catullus is famed for being untranslatable. I’d been looking through the more recent translations, hoping to find some good news; nothing much to report. There are occasional successes and felicities: Carl Sesar, for instance, renders Poem 56 as a limerick (“I caught a kid humping his lass, / and the chance was too good to pass, / a true son of Venus, / I whipped out my penis, / and pronged a piece off of his ass.”). Peter Green’s scholarly edition has some terrific and helpful annotation, and a good character index. What persists, though, is the terrible problem of tone: not just the level of politeness (or lack of it) in, for instance, rendering sexual terminology: do you make love to someone, have them, screw them, fuck them, what? How do you address in the endearments of Latin, when “girls” and “guys” sound like fifties teen-pop songs? Down deeper, how do you speak in Catullus’ voice? The British translations especially often sound like dons’ dismal attempts to be, you know, “with it” (sigh). Something in the freedom of Catullus’ original voice makes his translators sound like assumed identities or just mannered imitation, with no conviction, no lower registers. For all that modern crime novels have done their best to convince us that universities are hotbeds of adultery and murderous passions, maybe Catullus’ experience is just not commonly available to most students of classical languages. Maybe, joking aside, it’s a case that, as actors say, you have to find the role inside you to play it. In the meantime, there is Catullus, locked away in the indecent obscurity of a learned language. We’re waiting.
--Selected Poems of Catullus, translated by Carl Sesar. Mason and Lipscomb, 1974.
--The Poems of Catullus, translated with commentary by Peter Green. California, 2005.