The Magazine

Latin Lover

A new translation brings life to Catullus.

Mar 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 24 • By J.E. LENDON
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The Poems of Catullus

translated by Peter Green

California, 360 pp., $24.95

CATULLUS, BEST BELOVED of the Latin poets, is happy to have found a friend in Peter Green. Acclaimed as a belle-lettrist, justly celebrated as an English stylist, a seasoned translator of ancient poetry, and an eminent ancient historian, Green also brings to Catullus a passionate sympathy for the poet of love and hate.

When Peter Green was a youthful soldier, he served, persistent rumor insists, as the model for the irresistible Guy Perron in Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown. In his late thirties Green published a historical novel called The Sword of Pleasure, and in his fifties, a translation of Ovid's erotic poems. Nearing seventy, after many desiccating years as a professor of classics in Texas, he nevertheless brought forth The Laughter of Aphrodite, a fictionalized life of Sappho. But Green is a familiar of Mars as well as Venus, a fierce and witty controversialist, a reviewer of lively renown: His knockabout battle in print with Victor Davis Hanson over the future of classical scholarship in America was savored even by the most jaded connoisseurs of classicists' invective.

Green's edition of Catullus is bilingual--Latin on the left and English on the right--with a pointed introduction before and plump notes behind: The admirer without Latin and the classical scholar both get their due and never feel each other's elbows. The translations do not censor Catullus' language--as late as 1961, 32 of the little more than a hundred surviving poems were still considered too improper for students, even in Latin--but Green does not pander and drool, as was common at the height of over-reaction to the old prudery. Catullus can be as direct as a diamond-drill bit or as allusive as a flight of swifts. Green's notes deftly explain the obscurities of the poems, but they are far more than crutches, and much of the joy of the book lies in reading the notes straight through to enjoy the carnival of Green gleefully whacking down Catullus scholars past and present.

As an interpreter of the poems, Green is proudly old-fashioned, dismissing those who deny that Catullus' lover, who travels under the famous codename "Lesbia," was in fact the fascinating slut Clodia, the Paris Hilton of the age of Cicero. Nor has he patience for modish theories that Lesbia, and the poet himself as he appears in the poems, are mere literary fictions. To Green, Catullus is the most honest and immediate of all the Latin poets, his emotions as pure as the flash of a leaping trout.

In the past, translations of Latin poetry tended to come in three types. Highly literal translations--"trots" or "cribs"--were prepared for the help of students, following the syntax of the Latin by doing violence to English, and tending to sound rather like an understudy for Yoda: "The sparrow dead is of my girl" (poem 3). Frequently those who translated Latin into English poetry were ambitious to be taken as poets in their own right, strayed far from the original, and employed the English meters, the poetic conventions, and the damnable fustian of their day:

Alack! O thou Loves and Cupids rare,

And such wights as mayhap do dare:

Slain is the sparrow of my fair!

I satirize. But often the most useful translations were into flat, grammatical, English prose, like G.P. Goold's Catullus (1983):

Mourn, you Venuses and Cupids,

and all the lovers that there are!

My sweetheart's sparrow is dead.

Catullus has been more fortunate than most Latin poets, with excellent contemporary verse translations by James Michie and the literal Guy Lee. But attempts to draw closer than they dared to the sound of the Latin have been discouraged by the appalling spectacle of C. and L. Zukofsky (1969), whose efforts to reproduce the noise rather than the sense of Catullus in English rendered fama loquetur anus ("ancient fame will tell," poem 78B) as "fame will liquidate your anus."

Catullus wrote in a vertiginous mix of colloquial Latin and high poetic diction, and so Green translates him, while wisely avoiding the excesses possible in English: no "eftsoons" or "forsooth," but no pathetic panting after hipness, either. One never feels that the sparrow walks in peril of being addressed as "dude." Yet Green also seeks to revive the sound and rhythm of Catullus' original Latin meters. The "dancing, perky" hendecasyllable, Catullus' favorite measure, is an 11-syllable line that starts slow and sounding with long syllables, speeds up sprightly with short, and then slows down again with a mixture of long and short: dum--dum--dum--diddle--dum--di--dum--di--dum--dum.

In Catullus' own hendecasyllables the sparrow dies like this: