BMCR 2024.04.16

Switch: the complete Catullus

, Switch: the complete Catullus. Manchester: Carcanet, 2023. Pp. 220. ISBN 9781800173392.

Many ancient poets are well served by translations which manage to stick close to the original text: see for instance Emily Wilson’s recent versions of Homer’s Odyssey[1] and Iliad[2], Stephanie McCarter’s versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses[3] or her version of Horace’s lyric poetry[4], all of which attempt (successfully) to reproduce the content and even the style of the original in readable English.  Catullus, on the other hand, has been inspiring a different sort of version, which often moves far away from what the poet actually wrote, but without totally losing sight of the original.  There are (of course) traditional translations of Catullus, but recently these have been outnumbered by freer reworkings of the gist of the text couched in the modern vernacular.  Since Frank O. Copley gave us his 1957 version (which seemed astonishingly racy at the time), there have been many fresh attempts by modern poets to produce highly original and inspired recastings of Catullus’ poetry in their own poetic idiom: look for instance at Roz Kaveney’s highly engaging 2018 version of the poems[5] and before that to Josephine Balmer in 2004[6], and only last year we had Jane Goldman’s recasting of Catullus 64[7].  Now we have Isobel Williams, who pushes this tendency to unimagined levels of novelty and at times soaring far away from the Latin into whole new worlds of fantasy and exuberantly inventive language.

She does not diverge from the Latin all the time, of course, and some of her translations would not be totally out of place in a Loeb.  Take for instance poem 70:

Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle

     quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.

dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,

     in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

A literal translation of this might read:

‘My woman says that she would prefer to marry nobody else but me—not even if Jupiter himself asked her. This is what she says: but what a woman says to her ardent lover one ought to write on the wind and the fast-running water.’

Williams gives us:

She says she wouldn’t marry

Anyone but me

Even if God Almighty

Got down on one knee.


Her words. But what a woman

Tells a rampant lover

Scrolls out on the wind

And the swollen river.

This is impressively done:  the rendering of ‘Jupiter himself’ as ‘God Almighty’ is effective, as is the emphasis on the short word dicit in the original reproduced with the staccato pair of syllables in ‘Her words.’  ‘Rampant’ is excellent for cupido and ‘got down on one knee’ is perfect for petat.  Above all, Williams creates a rhythmic momentum and a rhyme scheme which suits the original:  the first couplet, with its confident swagger, is reproduced with perfect rhymes and unbroken sense in two exact halves, whereas the diffident second couplet sees her use half-rhymes and a long enjambed sentence as the poet’s imagination runs riot.

Similar felicities abound everywhere in this collection: her version of poem 31 is beautifully crafted, creating a sonnet which turns Catullus’ Latin into English verse of real quality.  In this poem she omits the names Thynia and Bithynia—calling them simply ‘the plains of drudgery’—and unpacks the mythological reference of Catullus’ ‘liquid pools and the vast sea which both Neptunes bear’ with ‘the gods of sweet and salt in clear lakes and interminable seas’.

Readers unfamiliar with the ancient world need help with mythological, prosopographical and geographical references.  She gives us a ‘Players of Ancient Rome’ chart in the introduction with some guidance on the facing page to sort out who is who, and in poem 11 for instance, the poet’s reference (lines 5-6) to ‘Hyrcanians or effeminate Arabs, or Sagae and arrow-bearing Parthians’ is simply rendered:

Or nameless towns for soldiery and rent-boys,

Or Parthia to be shot at by the locals.

The ending of this poem—in which the poet bids his friends to deliver a message to his ‘girl’—is almost as dramatic as the original:

cum suis vivat valeatque moechis,

quos simul complexa tenet trecentos,

nullum amans vere, sed identidem omnium

     ilia rumpens;

nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,

qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati

ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam

     tactus aratro est.

This becomes:

Goodbye. May God bless all who sail in you,

Three hundred Romeos at a time rammed in your

Hold. Forget romance. It’s your obsessive

Quest to give them all a hernia.


Don’t use my love as collateral.

It died, thanks to your little weakness, like

The elusive flower slashed by the

Combine harvester.

This does alter the original: where the poet addresses his male friends and refers to his girl in the third person, Williams has him address her directly.  The nautical imagery (’all who sail…rammed in your hold’) is not in the Latin—although it does permit a wonderful pun on ‘hold’ from Catullus’ verb tenet. The form and style of the English, however, do a terrific job of recreating the non bona dicta with a perfect combination of sentiment and scorn.

Other poems manage to stay within easy shouting distance of the original while updating ancient to modern: Poem 13, for instance, updates Catullus’ ‘good big meal, not forgetting a pretty girl, wine, salt/wit and all the jokes’ to ‘the sushi/ a user-friendly sub, some coke, Doritos/ and jokes that are actually funny.’

Catullus 61-68 are poems which can be off-putting to modern readers unfamiliar with the literary tradition and Williams makes them accessible without dumbing them down: the opening lines of 63 reproduce the haste and the pace of the original Galliambics, but obviously omit some of the detail, with:

Skimming deep realities Attis scudded over water

Pierced the sunless forest rimming the home of the goddess mother

Crested a personal best of disgust mind undone

Sawed into his scrotal sac with sharp serrated stone

Felt the tag of maleness gone

Warm blood spattered on the ground

Rasped taut skin

With snowdrift hands

Once again, this has some inspired touches: ‘skimming…scudded’ wonderfully conveys the opening line with its sense of speed (celeri) and movement (vectus) and even manages to keep Attis central to the line as he is in the Latin. Other neat touches include ‘warm’ for recente, ‘snowdrift’ for niveis and above all the sibilant alliteration of the self-emasculation which is less prominent in the Latin but which works brilliantly in the English.

The wedding song (61) is given more extensive reconstruction, so that lines 114-18

tollite, o pueri, faces:

flammeum video venire.

ite concinite in modum

‘io Hymen Hymenaee io,

     io Hymen Hymenaee.’


OK choirboys, hoist your torches,

Goldilocks is on her way,

Don’t sound ragged, here’s an A:

All things bright and beautiful

Rhyme and hymen and unreason

Welcome to the wedding season.

This new version of Catullus certainly contains more than its fair share of lively wit and astonishing originality, but Williams goes much further than others have done in making this very much her own work rather than simply a clever translation of the text.  She concedes that her ‘versions are not (for the most part) literal translations, but take an elliptical orbit around the Latin, brushing against it or defying its gravitational pull’ (p. 18).  In achieving this she imports allusions to such disparate sources as the motto of Woking Girls’ Grammar School, the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, Swinburne, Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Shakespeare (especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and so on.  Her version of the Callimachean poem 66 is a smorgasbord of modern references (all helpfully referenced in a welter of footnotes) mostly located in the milieu of Woking and referring back to names from the recent past such as Fanny Craddock and Dusty Springfield.

The book is entitled Switch and Williams’ main source of reference in this book (besides Catullus) is the imagery and language of Japanese rope-bondage (Shibari); she even quotes several lines of untranslated Japanese in the course of her version of poem 7.  Her thesis, as outlined in the brief introduction, is that Catullus ‘was held in emotional bondage by affairs with men and women’ and she makes full use of this imagery in her language and in the line-drawings which illustrate the text, while also claiming (in a light allusion to Eliot’s Prufrock) that she is ‘not Miss Whiplash, nor was meant to be.’

Williams describes some of Catullus’ poems as ‘vengeful, smutty attacks’ and she does not hold back in her own use of vengeful English smut, where this is warranted by the register of the Latin.  Gellius’ autofellation (88.8) is as innocently rendered (‘self-fellating’) as the original, while the puella defututa of 41.1 is accurately enough called ‘Lady Fuck-me’ and Catullus’ soubriquet Mentula (referring probably to Mamurra) becomes ‘Mr Man-tool’.  Names in Catullus which may be significant are sometimes so rendered:  Flavius in 15 becomes ‘Mr Blond’, Volusius ‘Mr Voluble’ (his cacata carta becoming ‘Andrex annals’ in 36), Porcius simply ‘pig’ (47): whereas others (Juventius, Varus etc) stay as they are.

Poem 97 shows these features at work: Williams reimagines the poem as a complaint to an unspecified ‘Membership secretary’ about the revolting Aemilius, using the blunt terminology of the Latin but couching it in modern patois (‘Fucks his bitches’, ‘rimming’) while also splendidly translating Catullus’ ‘eighteen-inch teeth’ into ‘snaggled NHS tombstones’ and adding her own coda to complete the image (‘his direct debit turns up like clockwork. We’ll never get rid of him that way.’).

This book is extraordinary in every way.  It takes poems which we have read many times and makes us see them with fresh eyes.  The theme of Shibari is both a unifying feature and also a distancing technique, adding a flavour of the exotic and the bizarre which lurks beneath the all-too familiar surface of this poetry.  Switch fizzes with new ideas and forces us to re-read and re-evaluate this most quixotic of poets afresh.



[1]  Homer. The Odyssey – Bryn Mawr Classical Review

[2] Emily Wilson The Iliad (Norton 2023)

[3] Ovid: Metamorphoses – Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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

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

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

[7] Catullus 64 – Bryn Mawr Classical Review