BMCR 2023.11.29

Catullus 64

, Catullus 64. Edinburgh: Main Point Books, 2023. Pp. 64. ISBN 9780992723385.

Translations of Catullus have never been in short supply—think of Lee (1991), Green[1] (2005), Valente (2018) and Douglas Reid Skinner (2020)[2] to name but four of many in English alone—just as there has recently been a spate of excellent translations of Horace, two of which (Stephanie McCarter[3] in 2020 and Simon Preece[4] in 2021) appeared within twelve months of each other. These all aim to stick closely to the text and produce the most accurate English version of the poet’s ipsissima verba—sometimes even matching the ancient poet metrically as well as verbally. What has been unusual about Catullus is the degree to which his poems have inspired writers to produce highly original versions of the Latin, couched in startingly modern English. Translation has always been part of reception, of course, and Frank Copley perhaps started this trend long ago with his 1957 version which seemed astonishingly racy at the time but which also kept surprisingly close to the original: but since 2004 there have been several attempts by modern poets to produce highly original and inspired recastings of Catullus’ poetry in their own poetic idiom: one thinks now of Isobel Williams’ highly publicised recent version of Catullus[5] (which incorporates Japanese rope bondage as a context and supplies illustrations to go with the translation), but the trend goes back to 2018 with Roz Kaveney’s highly engaging version of the poems[6] and before that to Josephine Balmer in 2004[7]. This is the tradition to which Jane Goldman has added her own offering in the shape of a poetic version of Catullus 64: the work of a creative writer rather than a scholar and part of the trend to recreate the past in the idiom of the new, as found also in for instance the novelist Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead (2022) which brought Dickens’ David Copperfield into the 21st century and won a clutch of prizes in doing so. Jane Goldman takes up the similar challenge of providing a modern version of an ancient poem and does so with astonishing verve and success.

Catullus’ epyllion on the marriage of Peleus and Thetis opens with the evocative lines:

Peliaco quondam prognatae vertice pinus

dicuntur liquidas Neptuni nasse per undas

Phasidos ad fluctus et fines Aeeteos,

cum lecti iuvenes, Argivae robora pubis,

auratam optantes Colchis avertere pellem     5

ausi sunt vada salsa cita decurrere puppi,

caerula verrentes abiegnis aequora palmis.

My own (highly pedestrian) translation of this passage[8] runs:

Once upon a time, pine-trees grown on the peak of Mount Pelion

Swam, they say, through the liquid waves of Neptune

To the streams of Phasis and the territory of Aeetes.

This was when chosen young men, the strength of the Argive youth,

Wishing to take back from Colchis the golden fleece,

Had the nerve to run through the salt straits in a swift ship,

Sweeping the sky-blue plains with palms of fir-wood.

Jane Goldman’s take on the same lines runs:

1      cockhead’s legendary spaffed out pines

2      seemingly swam through cunt-wet waters

3      to gold-stream waves and eagle shores

4      when a creamy young star-hard crew

5      set on filching the black sea gold pelt

6      risked speed boating their salty way

7      slick blades fanning blue waters

This may not be to everyone’s taste, but the reader can see at once that it is no slavish crib of the poem. The elegant Latin verse has been moved decisively into modern patois. The inventive expletives—and there are many inventive expletives throughout this book—are not to be found in the original: not (of course) because the Catullus of (say) poem 97 was in any way prudish but because in this poem he chose not to use any. Goldman imports obscenity where it is not in the original, presumably because she has made the choice to adopt this style of writing to convey Catullus’ epyllion to a new audience more attuned to rap and slam poetry than to Latin hexameters. Hence her translation in line 2 of the neutral term liquidas as ‘cunt-wet’, the Ennian word prognatae rendered ‘spaffed out’, and Mount Pelion translated ‘cockhead’. Interestingly she renders the term Aeētāōs (‘belonging to King Aeetes’) with the word ‘eagle’, perhaps suggesting that the word is a jingle for the Greek word ἀετός (aetos: ‘eagle’). She creates a neat colour-contrast in ‘black sea gold pelt’ and ‘fanning’ is inspired for verrentes. The sibilance of ‘salty way/ slick’ is also effective in this maritime context and ‘star-hard’ is excellent for robora.

When Ariadne vents her spleen at the faithless Theseus, Goldman gives her full throttle:

133      so you snatched me from daddy’s hearth devious

134      devious city boy to ditch me on this barren beach

135      so off you fuck flouting the bosses’ charter

136      callous fuck fuck off home you vile cheat

137      could nothing change your cruel mind’s

138      scheme did you have no mercy in you…

Once again, there are obvious departures from the original: where Catullus says (135) ‘you carry home your accursed broken oaths’ (devota domum periuria portas) Goldman simply translates ‘fuck off home you vile cheat’, and Catullus’ ‘altars’ become a ‘hearth’. In other respects, the translation follows the text closely: the repeated perfide in the Latin is reproduced here in the repeated ‘devious’, the enjambed consilium in 138 is mirrored in the enjambed ‘scheme’, and ‘ditch me on this barren beach’ is pretty accurate for deserto liquisti in litore.

Goldman has removed the divine machinery and all the proper names from the text, so that the gods become simply ‘the bosses’ (and Jupiter ‘the daddy of all bosses’), Theseus is consistently called ‘city-boy’, Thetis the ‘sea-witch’, the Parcae are ‘crone-birth-bitches…chanting truth-raps’ (307), the ‘wave of Scamander’ (357) becomes ‘the widdershins wave’, Polyxena is simply called ‘lush-girl’, Crete is ‘crack-city’, and so on. Sometimes the translation veers from the Latin to avoid what might be awkward mythological mysteries for a modern reader: when, for instance, Ariadne prays to ‘almighty Jupiter’ with the wish ‘that the Cecropian ships had never touched the Cretan shores’ and that ‘the treacherous sailor (Theseus), bearing the dreadful wages to the untamed bull [the Minotaur], had never tied up his ship’s cable onto Crete’, Goldman swerves all this referential baggage and simply has her say:

172      fucking fuck never ever should

173      arseface ships have touched crack-city sands

174      nor flashing his grim gifts for the bully beast

175      should that tar ever have tied rope on crack-island

The book comes with no introduction or notes to help the reader understand the story being told or the author’s approach to it, and one must assume that the book is meant to be read—or (better still) performed—as a stand-alone poem, a virtuoso display of language which moves from the sublime to the scatological in an instant and is never anything less than gripping. If some details elude some readers, then that is a price worth paying in the interests of a torrent of language which no footnote should impede.



[1] The Poems of Catullus. A bilingual edition – Bryn Mawr Classical Review

[2] Reviewed at: Gaius Valerius Catullus. Selected lyric poems – Bryn Mawr Classical Review

[3] Horace: Epodes, Odes, and Carmen saeculare – Bryn Mawr Classical Review

[4] Horace’s “Odes” and “Carmen Saeculare” – Bryn Mawr Classical Review

[5] Reviewed online at: SWITCH: THE COMPLETE CATULLUS |

[6] Catullus. The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus: Some English Versions – Bryn Mawr Classical Review

[7] Catullus. Poems of Love and Hate – Bryn Mawr Classical Review

[8] Godwin J., Catullus Poems 61-68 (Warminster 1995)