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The Friday poem: a translation of Catullus by Claudia Jardine

A translation of good old Catallus (c84-54BC) by Claudia Jardine.

Introductory remarks by Claudia Jardine: A lot of New Zealand writers have had a go at Catullus [in Anna Jackson’s I, Clodia and Other Portraits, quite literally]. He holds a special place in the heart for most Latin students, being the usual introduction to Latin love poetry and all its fuss and flutter. He was also a curator of words like pedicabo and irrumabo, verbs so scandalous they weren’t translated until the 20th century. Writing in the late Roman Republic, he is perhaps the most famous of the Neoterics. This group of poets gave epic poetry, the traditional form, the middle-finger and opted to write about personal subjects in a variety of metres. The following translation of the last 40 lines of Catullus 61 was a joint-winner of the 2015 Touchstone Prize for Literary Translation, awarded by the Wellington Classical Association. The original poem is a hymn to marriage, with these final lines making up the last address of the poet to his friend. Apparently “Wannabe” by The Spice Girls was written in a thirty minute frenzy. I wish I could say the same for this, in reality it was many hours spent caressing a thesaurus, counting on my fingers, and chanting under my breath. It’s a fairly literary translation in the original glyconic metre.

Catallus 61

Husband, you may now come closer;

she waits for you beside the bed

florid lips like petals begging

to be plucked, the brightest blossom

among the woodland flowers.

 

But gods above! Beauty has not

neglected you either, young man;

you’re fairer than Venus in her

negligee – yet the day departs!

Go on in, and don’t hold back.

 

Lingering, are you? Come on now,

Venus will help to set the mood.

Clearly you want what you really

really want and cannot begin to

hide the love between you.

 

Whoever might wish to number

the multitude of tricks you’ll try

would be better off counting each

sand-grain in Africa, or each

unsteady star in the night.

 

Pleasing as it will be, practise!

Start a family, settle down,

get that genepool up and running

so future generations may

always grow from the same ground.

 

Oh how I long for little ones,

bouncing away on mother’s lap!

Cherub-cheeked, with gleeful chortles,

making grabs at their dear father,

curling up their soft, pink hands.

 

May they look just like their father!

May all who meet them recognise

their parentage without trouble,

and may their mother’s purity

shine most boldly in their eyes.

 

For just as wise Penelope

gave Telemachus matchless fame,

the birth-right of your children is

to have their matrillineage

constantly endorsed by praise.

 

So close the doors to your young friends,

for we have had our fill of fun,

and start upon your married life –

persistently perform your task

with feisty application!


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