Raleigh Review vol. 6, no. 1 (spring 2016), pp. 89-91.
Will Justice Drake
Classical Made Colloquial: The Poems of Catullus
Jeannine Diddle Uzzi and Jeffrey Thomson (trans.). The Poems of Catullus: An Annotated Translation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015. $25, paper.
Prior to reading Uzzi and Thomson’s translation of Catullus’s “little book,” as he names it in his opening poem, I had experienced Catullus only in line-by-line literal translation. These two translators have produced a work both evocative and readable for the modern English speaker, resurrecting the spirit of Catullus in a modern body. The poems of Catullus are gritty and vulgar in their action. They are primal in emotion but witty in delivery. The translators’ task is to capture for the reader Catullus’s passion and still deliver his colloquial tone. Uzzi and Thomson certainly accomplish this feat.
Where literal translations leave Catullus sounding elevated, Uzzi and Thomson get dirty with Catullus. Translating lines such as “When he married a mere babe, / a bride greener than jailbait, / she begged to be watched like a juicy grape,” Uzzi and Thomson reimagine Catullus as a master of modern insults (“17: Hometown Hero”). They continue his street-speak with phrases such as “pitching a tent” in “32: Sweet Ipsitilla” and “I’ll assault the brothel door / with graffiti” in “37: Cathouse Tavern,” giving Catullus the feeling of a vandal rather than a bickering peer to his addressees.
Beyond the contents of these poems, Uzzi and Thomson extend their modern interpretation of Catullus by altering his titles. Catullus and other ancient writers did not title their poems, instead numbering them. Uzzi and Thomson supplement Catullus’s numbers with titles as today’s reader would expect, preparing the reader for the tone of the poem. They reinforce the colloquial language with titles like “BYOB,” a poem that invites rather than abuses one of Catullus’s acquaintances. In “Legalese,” the speaker pleads for his beloved’s pact to be sincere. “Low Rent” exposes sexual activities between a married woman and another man. The speaker calls all involved parties by name in true Catullian defamation.
To maintain the quickness of Catullus’s delivery, Uzzi and Thomson liberate themselves from the original lines. For readers, this feels equally freeing. The translators supply all the necessary interpretation of Catullus’s mood, such as in the somber “70: Wind and Water,” which becomes seven lines rather than the original four in Latin. All his sharp, passionate, angry voice travels forward through time. The translators transport him to us, never asking us to work our own way to him via knowledge of historical context. We can visit an authentic Catullus in this text without needing to know the tendencies of Latin speech. As Uzzi says in her introduction, “even Charles Martin’s translation, by many accounts the best English language translation of Catullus to date, follows Catullus’ line breaks as if English-speaking readers had somehow internalized the Latin original.” She proves her point in poems such as “104: The Last Word on Lesbia,” in which she translates the original first single line into two lines to say, “You think I could say anything bad / about my love, my life…,” delivering Catullus’s irony in this translation. Catullus’s readers know he can certainly speak ill words, but the translators allow us to think during the short moment between lines that Catullus might be protesting that fact.
Though Uzzi and Thomson include much of themselves in this translation through a modern lexicon, they do not derail the work with excessive informalities, as when they preserve a sincere tone with the title “86: On Beauty,” in which Catullus weighs external beauty against his beloved’s charm. Further, Catullus’s love poems remind us that his passion manifests as more than just anger. Catullus desires deeply, and when he fails in his romantic endeavors, he turns to self-deprecation, addressing himself, “Who will want you? Who will think you’re worth it? / Who will you kiss? Who bite? / But you Catullus, come on: be a man” (“8: It’s Over”). The translators are also especially sensitive to his intention in the long poems situated in the middle of the work. The poems retain their mythic qualities and the emotional engagement Catullus earns from his readers.Whether Catullus is wooing his beloved or slandering his enemies in his short poems, or invoking legends in his long verses, Uzzi and Thomson speak honestly on his behalf when he summons “…Eros, who contaminate[s] joy with sorrow, / light passion in a suffering breast” (“64: Epyllion”).