Translated by Jeannine Diddle Uzzi and Jeffrey Thomson
230 pages, Cambridge University
When I first learned of Jeannine Diddle Uzzi and Jeffrey Thomson’s recent Catullus translation, The Poems of Catullus: An Annotated Translation (Cambridge University Press, 2015), I knew without a doubt that I would be reviewing this translation. I can’t deny that it was partly due to Thomson’s telling me that the project was conceived with every intention of fully celebrating Catullus in all of his characteristic lewdness (a quality that most previous translators have treated gingerly, at least when viewed through a contemporary lens). It’s true that I’ve never forgotten the titillation I experienced when my eleventh-grade Latin teacher insisted to my class that the verb fututio could only rightly be translated as “fuck,” as in novem continuas futuiones, translated by Uzzi and Thomson as “nine perpetual fuckings” in Poem 32, in which Catullus entreats a woman named Ipsitilla to pay him an amorous post-lunch visit: “call me now: I’m in bed / full, lying flat and / pitching a tent.”
But while Catullus’ “exuberant obscenity” (as Daniel H. Garrison puts it in the introduction to my old high school textbook, The Student’s Catullus)[*] may act as lure for eleventh-graders or for those of us who simply maintain healthy relationships with our inner teenagers, Uzzi and Thomson are careful to remind us that “Catullus’ poetry is highly constructed and painstakingly crafted.” Here, vulgar language is not an indicator of frivolity or immaturity, but instead follows from “a literary erotics in which eros and logos are conflated. Poetic composition is an erotic pursuit for the Catullun speaker…” Thus we are made to understand that, more than anything, Catullus’ corpus “recognizes the beautiful pain oferotic desire as an essential condition of humanity, and it celebrates the unique ability of poetry to express that desire.” This is a portrait that brings to mind Auden’s famous assertion that “a <>poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” Catullus’ passion for language manifests in every aspect of his verse: elegance laid side by side with an aggressive and scathing wit, love that alternates rapidly between buoyancy and bitterness, and, always, craft choices that are as concise and tactile—as tangibly visceral—as the emotions they embody. In essence, Catullus’ work offers up a translator’s dream—a captivating playground of language and poetics, of Hellenistic influence and “uncannily modern” style.
In their introduction, Uzzi and Thomson write that their new translation was born out of “the desire to approximate the experience of the ancient audience for the modern” and as a reaction against the frequency with which “Catullus has been approached as a poet tied tightly to his historical context, ancient Rome of the late Republic, and useful primarily to students of Latin and classics.” Indeed as a high school Latin student and beginning poet, I recall feeling a certain gnawing disjunction between the resonant and intensely emotional world of Catullus’ poems and the rather skeletal historical sketches I was offered. What is most exciting about The Poems of Catullus: An Annotated Translation is the shrewdness with which it identifies and attempts to bridge the gap between Catullus as an historical figure and Catullus as a deeply influential and enduring poet. In discussing the Lesbia cycle, for example—Catullus’ signature sequence of poems addressed to a female mistress, employing a pseudonym that can only be seen as a clear nod to Sappho—the translators skim past the often hotly-debated questions of Lesbia’s historical identity and factual specifics of the affair, settling instead on the idea that “interest in an historical Lesbia has prevented readers from approaching Lesbia as she is best approached: a referent for Catullus’ core poetic concerns” and that “the relationship between the speaker of the corpus and the Lesbia he creates is certainly erotic, but it reflects not only the relationship between a lover and his beloved but also the relationship between a poet and his poetry, and a man and his identity.” Reading these assertions, I nearly leapt from my seat with glee—how obvious, how true; and yet I’d never heard the statement voiced before!
Okay, so maybe that’s a pretty nerdy reaction on my part, but the point is that once these conflations are recognized—between logos and eros, between lover and poet, between poetry and beloved, between language and physical flesh—access to Catullus’ corpus suddenly swings open like a barn door. Everything that previously felt disjointed or jarring (the wild swings from sweeping, classical invocations and formulas to raging and graphic invectives directed at the poet’s close friends or enemies) begins to make sense as poetic awareness. Take Poem 42, for example, (titled “Light Infantry” by Uzzi and Thomson). Here we see the poet calling upon his poems, his words, to assemble as an army and reclaim themselves from the hands of his hostile mistress through an assortment of language techniques. The poem opens with a call to arms: “Come here, my little verses, / all of you everywhere, as many as / there are line up!” Then comes a series of three maneuvers. The first is straight attack: “Surround her! Capture my poems! / ‘Give back my lines, you filthy cunt, / filthy cunt, give back my lines!’” Here Uzzi and Thomson’s translation adjusts the word order slightly to further emphasize the flanking created by the Latin—Redde, putida moecha, codicillos!—as the demand encircles its victim. When the first attack fails, the speaker rallies the troops for a second, more forceful attack, aligning himself with his recruits and joining the fray: “We must do more than ask! / If nothing else, we’ll make the bitch blush. Shout now in a louder voice…” When this second attempt fails as well, he again adjusts his methods: “Perhaps we should change our approach, / try something like this: ‘Fair and proper maiden, / please return my lines.’” Now colloquial pejorative gives way to classical convention and nicety. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, of course, but few poets will fail to recognize the timeless advice from mentor to student that one must assemble as wide-ranging a toolbox as possible and be willing to use whatever rhetorical tool might be necessary for each poem.
Indeed, the physicality of Catullus’ poetics shines repeatedly in Uzzi and Thomson’s translation—the poet’s conflated passion made palpable through sound and rhetoric. And though it would be nice to see the Latin side-by-side alongside the English in order to optimally experience this effect, it doesn’t take much to see how attentive and creative the translators have been in attending to the sonic elements of these poems. In Poem 34, for example, “Diana’s Song,” the third stanza is rife with painstakingly replicated metrics, and the poetic landscape is made lush with the sibilance of “s” sounds, the fullness of repeated “m”s, the hard contrast of “g”s:
Mountain mistress at the
gates of sylvan green,
secret glen, sounding stream,
we sing Diana.
By contrast the Latin stanza relies on a “q” for hardness rather than a “g” and prefers the “m” somewhat more than the “s”:
montium domina ut fores
But we can clearly see how the barter of translation works—how desired sound and texture can be skillfully recreated, not verbatim but with a rich and nuanced understanding of the poem’s world and its desired intent.
And thus, poem by poem—with meticulous attention to the intricacies of Catullus’ carefully crafted language, and a stunning and thought-provoking introduction—Uzzi and Thomson’s The Poems of Catullus: An Annotated Translation widens the gaze through which Catullus’ corpus is to be viewed. And in doing so, the translators do so much more than modernize him. They relocate him from the sideshow tent of classical and vulgar eccentricity and place him, deservedly, on the main stage as an influential, timeless, and deeply passionate poet.
*Garrision, Daniel H. The Studen’t Catullus. Norman Oklahoma: Univerity of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Julia Bouwsma lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, critic, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her poems and reviews can be found in: Cider Press Review, Colorado Review, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, Salamander, Sugar House Review, and other journals. She is the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and the Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine.