BMCR 2021.01.18

Gaius Valerius Catullus. Selected lyric poems

, , Gaius Valerius Catullus. Selected lyric poems: translated with an introduction and notes. Cape Town: uHlanga Press, 2020. Pp. 86. ISBN 9780620888387

This little book is excellent. It showcases a selection of sixty of Catullus’ poems with Latin text and facing poetic translation. The selection is of whole poems from all parts of the collection, the authors having clearly (and wisely) chosen not to present excerpts from the longer poems, keeping only 65 from poems 61-68. Wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qualas they say in German, and some readers (including this one) might wish that poems such as 4, 12, 17, 30, 31, 34, 45, 46 had made the cut—but the line has to be drawn somewhere, and the authors clearly made the decision to prefer the directly personal poems involving key figures such as Lesbia, Gellius, Iuventius, and Mamurra. That said, the selection is certainly representative and varied, and if this book inspires readers to go out and read the other poems, then so much the better.

The introduction is brief and confident. The authors give us the standard account of the ‘life and works’ with the disclaimer that “almost no detail of the following account is certain,” and the target reader of this small volume can easily look elsewhere for deeper discussion of the facts behind the verse. Names which occur in the poems are referenced at the back of the book with pithy and helpful notes.

This is, then, not a book primarily for scholars but for the general reader. The authors print a readable text, with plausible emendations where needed: At 6.12, for instance, they print Lachmann’s nil ista ualet for the mss. reading †nam inista praeualet†, at 21.11 they read a temet (Froehlich) for the me me of the mss., and Baehrens’ acta for the mss. amitha at 116.7. Lacunae in the text are sometimes filled (Ritter’s uocis in ore at 51.8, Munro’s uersicolorum anno putidus euomuitat 95.4) but not at 65.9, despite the availability of (e.g.) Palmer’s numquam ego te potero posthac audire loquentem. Their only use of the crux desperationis is at 107.7-8.

The translations are superb, capturing the feeling and the tone of the original without being slavishly tied to literal meanings. The versions are fluent and contemporary without ever losing sight of the Latin, and many of them could well stand alone as poems in their own right—which is only to be expected given Skinner’s impressive track record of his own original published poetry as well as his successful translations of Italian verse. The translations mirror the text in line-numbers (and even word-placing where possible), and yet they leap off the page without sounding like translations. Take, for example, 35.13-15 where they print:

nam quo tempore legit incohatam
Dindymi dominam, ex eo misellae
ignes interiorem edunt medullam.

Ever since she read the draft of his
Cybele poem, flames have licked
the marrow of the poor girl’s bones

This does the job perfectly: matching the Latin line for line and even phrase for phrase, keeping the metaphors of fire and marrow and matching the clarity and force of the original.  The sensitive side of Catullus is beautifully recaptured in the English, with some inspired renderings (‘agonised’ for misero at 51.5, for instance), while the more jocular side prompts a lively use of slang and colloquial English which always gets the spirit (if not always the exact letter) of the original. At 10.12-13, for instance,

praesertim quibus esset irrumator
praetor, nec faceret pili cohortem


Why? Because the governor was an arse
who didn’t give a shit about his staff

One could quibble about tiny details in the translations—why add ‘chips’ to the mackerel at 95.8 or ‘you pricks’ to 16.1?—but overall the version is a triumph.

Catullus would be delighted with this lepidus nouus libellus. A volume such as this may look easy to produce but is in fact astonishingly difficult. The book itself is beautifully produced on superior paper, excellently proof-read and typeset and inexpensively priced. Catullus’ ambition (1.10) for his book (plus uno maneat perenne saeclo) is here amply assisted by Whitaker and Skinner, and the Veronese poet would be delighted to see his poems so lovingly and faithfully recast for another generation to enjoy.