THE POEMS OF CATULLUS: An Annotated Translation

By J.D. Uzzi and J. Thomson (introduction and notes by J.D. Uzzi)

CUP (2015) p/b 224pp £14.99 (ISBN 9781107682139)

‘Most modern translations of Catullus tend toward the literal’ U. claims in her introduction (despite, for example, Lindsay 1948, Gregory 1956, Whigham 1966, Raphael & McLeish 1978, Clucas 1985, Rabinowitz 1991, Pelling 2009). The campus Catulli has become a crowded field through which U./T. seek a course for their translation somewhere between literal rendering and adaptation. Their stated aim is to ‘capture in English the spirit and essence, the intentio, of each of Catullus’ poems’ so that a modern audience might experience ‘reading Catullus as a Roman might have’.  An ambitious (cl)aim!  For a modern parallel U. looks to Eminem who is ‘by no means a modern Catullus’ despite ‘myriad similarities’. For example U. finds an echo of Eminem’s ‘I ain’t much of a poet’ in the ‘mock self-deprecation’ in Catullus 1 (‘Dedication’ – all poems are given a title). More generally, ‘rap as a genre offers a great deal of food for thought where Catullus’ corpus is concerned.’

Much is made of Lesbia (she ‘may even stand for immortality’), but some of the detailed observations fall short of being convincing. In poem 11, for instance, it is not the speaker who is compared to a flower, but his love (amorem qui … cecidit).  This ‘emasculation’ of the poet leads to the final line of poem 8 being translated ‘But you Catullus, come on, be a man’. The original might suggest Catullus has a struggle to get over his love for this puella, but it has no specific reference to anxiety over his masculinity (at tu, Catulle, destinatus obdura). A single elision in poem 85 conflates the three opening words to ‘a single figurative word’ odetamo. Nice try (the two emotions are best understood as happening at the same time) but et amo doesn’t elide!

Notes and Glossary of Proper Names are handy support for new readers of Catullus. The translation is lively and generally follows the sense of the Latin. Sometimes a compression, as in 85 where the faciam-fieri contrast is sacrificed, works well:

I hate and love. Perhaps you wonder why.

I don’t know, but I feel it, and I am crucified.

On the other hand extraneous material can be unnecessary and fail to improve on Catullus. In 64, sea-nymphs ‘bobbed’ (not quite as dignified as exstantes) and their breasts are described as ‘full and soft’, of which there is rightly no trace in Catullus. ‘Woven verse’ is an excellent description of the coverlet, but the weaving is often not a precise reflection of the Latin text(ile). Ariadne for example ‘burned to the core with raw desire’ or she ‘churned her cares in a heart beset’, translations which are impressionistic.

How will these versions compete in an already crowded field? If they succeed in their aim, they should bring more readers to Catullus and make them curious about the original poems.

Alan Beale


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