BMCR 2005.01.11

Catullus. Poems of Love and Hate

, , Poems of love and hate. Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2004. 159 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 1852246456. $23.95.

Josephine Balmer (henceforth B.), a freelance writer and translator, has published translations of Sappho (1992) and Classical Women Poets (1996). In 2004, Bloodaxe Books offered two more volumes: Chasing Catullus: Poems, Translations, & Transgressions, simultaneously with the volume under review. The collection of B’s own poems took its title from one of the poems in the collection, most of it (like much poetry) inspired by other poetry, chiefly from the ancient world. In that volume, she describes herself as “overwriting the past like a palimpsest.” The versions of Catullus in Poems of Love and Hate can likewise be read as poems inspired by Catullus and can best be judged as translations if we allow the translator a degree of autonomy. This allowance must be made for any translation: with the present volume, the reader will need to exercise the usual forbearance.

For this collection B. has selected the shorter poems. She omits more than a thousand lines of “the longer mythological and ritual verse” including his two great masterpieces, the story of Attis (63) and the epyllion about the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (64). Also set aside are the Hymn to Diana (34), both marriage hymns (61-62), the “Lock of Berenice” adapted from Callimachus (66), and all but the opening 40 lines of poem 68, whose personal narrative is autobiographical in its presentation. These poems are promised in a later volume. Poems of Love and Hate concentrates on the personal poet at the expense of the poet’s poet, more or less withdrawing him from the literary sphere and translating poems best suited to a view of the poet “as accessible as possible, as enjoyable — but most of all funny — to those with no knowledge of Latin or of the poet.”

While acknowledging the tendency of scholars to view “the Renaissance order of the poems” as a deliberate arrangement made by the poet himself, B. prefers to view them as “randomly scattered” in the received edition and to re-order them in her translation by theme, beginning with the Lesbia poems and continuing through “Prostitutes, Pimps, and Not So Respectable Women” to “The Wages of Sin: Betrayals and Recriminations,” a total of thirteen thematically arranged sections. There are several appendices to aid the reader: nineteen pages of notes, a list of characters, another of places and mythological figures, and a third of ancient writers and sources. Keys to the poems allow the reader to identify the traditional numbering, and there is a page of selected bibliography.

Poems of Love and Hate is a version of Catullus for the general reader. As Catullus now rivals Virgil and Ovid as the most popular Latin poet (and is unrivaled as the most intimate), he is fair game for the popularizer. This version reads best without a Latin Catullus near at hand, as B. is selective in what effects she will track closely and what others she will add that are not in the original. As a rule, the Latin poems retain their length in this translation, though I can detect no effort at a meter. Instead, there are many rhymes and half-rhymes, placed with no particular order or system but with a detectable preference for the closing couplet. There are also some well placed internal rhymes, such as Lesbia’s sparrow “whom she teases as she pleases.” As everyone knows who has enjoyed Cole Porter’s lyrics, half-rhymes can have a comic effect. But put in a poem that is not supposed to be funny, such as C. 70 (B.’s no. 11), “court her” placed to rhyme with “water” is jarring and incongruous.

B. is at her best with the light poems, which she translates with a colloquial flair that does justice to Catullus’ most distinctive style and a playfulness that suits his sense of humor. The plea to Ipsitilla ( C. 32, B.’s no. 25) begins with a tag from the Beatles’ “Please please me”; Volusius’ cacata carta ( C. 36) come out as “shit-smeared sheets.” In C. 35 “poor little thing” is wrongly condescending (or sarcastic) for Caecilius’ girl friend, but “well and truly banged” (though not exactly translating anything in the original) does nicely for Vatinius as prosecuted by Calvus in C. 53 and “sad scrofulous tart” does poetic justice to moecha putida in C. 42.

Any poet’s lyric voice is the most unforgiving of the translator; readers of this volume are well served when B. captures just the right tone, as in this simile at the end of C. 65 describing a nearly forgotten request for a translation of Callimachus:

like an apple sliding off a pure young virgin’s lap,
a token sent in secret from her own betrothed,
hidden, forgotten, poor girl, beneath her flowing clothes
but at her mother’s step she leaps up, lets it drop,
sends it tumbling, sets it bumping, out across the ground,
blush stealing across her grave face at being found.