translating CatullusIntroduction

1. analyzing the Latin iambic.

2. free verse and formal.

3. amalgamating several versions.

Gaius Valerius Catullus

Catullus (84-54 BC), who did much to bring new measures into Latin poetry, had returned (56 BC) from diplomatic service in Thynia when he wrote this poem, which records a happy period in that short and troubled life. Sirmio was a peninsula in Lake Garda, where the family property was located. The text is probably corrupt, and most scholars read Lydiae for the Liquidus that makes little sense. Lydia was a rich province of Asia Minor, sometimes used as a synonym for 'ancient splendour' by poets because the Etruscans were reputedly of Lydian origin.

Carmen 31: Literal Translation

If we start by running the Latin text {1} through a machine code translation program, {2} we get the general drift of the piece:

Carmen 31

Paene insularum, Sirmio, insularumque
Ocelle, quascumque in liquentibus stagnis
Marique vasto fert uterque Neptunus,
Quam te libenter quamque laetus inviso,
Vix mi ipse credens Thyniam atque Bithynos
Liquisse campos et videre te in tuto!
O quid solutis est beatius curis,
Cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrino
Labore fessi venimus larem ad nostrum
Desideratoque acquiscimus lecto?
Hoc est quod unum est pro laboribus tantis.
Salue, o venusta Sirmio, atque ero gaude;
Gaudete, vosque, o Liquidae lacus undae;
Ridete, quidquid est domi cachinnorum.

Carmen 31

Nearly of the islands, to Sirmius, of the islands
to little eye, to the wherever into being in liquid state the pools
brings to the huge sea the which and Neptune,
any you willingly who joyful envied,
scarcely himself trusting Thynia and Bithynus
to liquid the plains and to see you in safe!
to the us who is he loosened happy to the concerns,
with the mind does the load put back, and to the foreigner
to Labor have we come the tired Lares to the our men
to Desire and the longed-for bed?
This is which alone it is on behalf of the of such size labor.
to Good Health, Oh! by attractive Sirmius, and I shall be be glad;
rejoice, you, Oh! the waves of Liquid the lake;
laugh, the whoever exists of house of the loud laughs.

But will do better to work from the Perseus site, {3} when an unconstrued, word-for-word rendering runs:

of almost island, Sirmio, of island
little eye in whatever standing water
vast sea bears every which of two Neptune
what you it pleases whoever it be joyful I visit
scarcely I myself believing Thynia and Bithynians
to have left plains and to see you in safety
O what release is blest cares
when mind a burden restores as well as from foreign parts
toil wearied we come to home to ours
wished for repose to bed
this it is which of itself before labour so great
be well O winning Sirmio together with will be delight
rejoice you O Lydian lake waves
laugh whoever is house loud laughing

Other Translations

If that's still baffling, we can consult the previous renderings of a piece that's long been a favourite of poets and translators:

Thomas Hardy 1887 {4}

Sirmio, thou dearest dear of strands
that Neptunes strokes in sea and land,
With what high joy what stranger lands
Dost thy old friend set foot on thee!
Yes, barely seems it true to me
That no Bithynia holds me now,
But calmly and assuredly
Around me stretches homely thou.

Is there a scene more sweet than when
Our clinging cares are undercast,
And, worn by aliens moils, and men,
The long untrodden still repassed,
We pressed the pined-for couch at last,
And find a full repayment there?
Then hail, sweet Sirmio; thou that wast,
And art, mine own unrivalled Fair!

Sir Richard Francis Burton {3}

Sirmio! of Islands and Peninsulas Eyelet,
and whatsoe'er in limpid meres
And vasty Ocean either Neptune owns,
Thy scenes how willing-glad once more I see,
At pain believing Thynia and the Fields
Bithynian left, I'm safe to sight thy Site.
Oh what more blessèd be than cares resolved,
When mind casts burthen and by peregrine
Work over wearied, lief we hie us home
To lie reposing in the longed-for bed!
This be the single meed for toils so triste.
Hail, O fair Sirmio, in thy lord rejoice:
And ye, O' waves of Lybian Lake be glad,
And laugh what laughter pealeth in my home.

Myers and Ormsby 1972. {4}

Bright jewel of headlands, bright jewel of the seas,
And Neptune's lake, oh Sirmio, you shine
Sparkling and beautiful, of restful ease
And joy. The thought that you are mine
Turns all my cares to untold delights
On seeing you again. Can it be true
I'm safe at last among familiar sights,
Bithynian plains have faded from my view?
How blessed to put cares away from mind
And rest again on my familiar bed,
To come back home from distant toil to find
That this where my toil has always led.
So hail, dear Sirmio, delight with me,
Laugh with your master, hold your sides in glee.

H. Walker {5}

Sirmio, bright eye of peninsulas and islands,
whatever ones either Neptune bears
in liquid lakes or in the vast sea.
how willingly and happily I visit you,
scarcely trusting myself that I have left Thynia and the Bithynian
plains, and that I see you in safety.
Oh, what is more blessed that to put cares away,
when the mind lays down its burden, and tired
with the labor of travel, we come to our own home
and rest on the bed we longed for.
This is the only thing that is worth such great toils.
Hello, charming Sirmio, rejoice in your happy master,
and you, Lydian waves of the lake,
laugh whatever laughter there is in your home.

Tony Kline 2001 {6}

Sirmio, jewel of islands, jewel of peninsulas,
jewel of whatever is set in the bright waters
or the great sea, or either ocean,
with what joy, what pleasure I gaze at you,
scarcely believing myself free of Thynia
and the Bithynian fields, seeing you in safety.
O what freedom from care is more joyful
than when the mind lays down its burden,
and weary, back home from foreign toil,
we rest in the bed we longed for?
This one moment’s worth all the labour.
Hail, O lovely Sirmio, and rejoice as I rejoice,
and you, O lake of Lydian waters, laugh
with whatever of laughter lives here.

Clive Brooks, 2007{7}

Dearest of all peninsulas or islands
Which, Sirmio, either water-god can offer
In clearest lake or in the boundless ocean,
To greet you fills me with great joy and gladness,
Scarce able to believe that I have safely
Returned from Asian plains to see you.
O what more blessed than to leave the burden
Of care behind, no more to fret, and weary
With working overseas back home to venture
And in our longed-for bed at last to slumber?
This only compensates for all our labours.
Hail, lovely Sirmio, be happy meeting
Your happy master, and you shining waters,
Ring out with all your hidden store of laughter.

When the content soon becomes clear, together with the departures from the literal sense, which translators have felt necessary to convey the joyous tone in an acceptable form.

Verse Matters

The piece is written in the Choliambic trimeter {7} — I'm working now from Clive Brooks' helpful book — and though the meter is strictly maintained:
       x - v - x || - v - v - - f (where - is long, v is short, x can be either and f is the final syllable that is counted as long)

the words themselves prevent any iambic monotony. The words stresses don't generally fall on the long syllables, in fact, but create a lively and joyous rhythm.

First Attempt

If we start with almost free verse, aiming for vivacity of phrasing rather than fidelity to content, we get:

Dearest of islands and peninsulas,
and of either, which great Neptune gives
in seas and glittering lakes. How willingly
and gladly, Sirmio, I come to you,
and scarce believe I've quit Bithynia
and Thynian plains to reach you safely so.
What blessedness to lay aside old cares,
escape a mind burdened with travelling,
at such a cost, wearily, to our own home,
and take again our ever-longed-for bed,
that's truly recompense for all our toils.
So hear me, Sirmio: rejoice, as does
your master seeing how those Lydian waves
will let out laughter from that shuttered house.

That's quite far from the original meaning, and a rhymed version made from this in strict metre is even more so:

Dearest of islands and peninsulas,
of either, which the waters hold in view
from lakes and oceans that the sea-god has,
how gladly, Sirmio, I come to you.
I scarce believe I've safely left the plains
of Thynia and Bithynians to see you so.
What blessedness for mind to drop its reins
of governance, its burdens, and to go
despite the cares of travelling to our own home
and slumber in that ever-longed-for bed:
a true reward however far we roam.
So hear me, Sirmio, by your waters led
to joy in you: return that joy, make glad
this house with laughter that it one time had.

Difficult Lines

Some of the phrases are enigmatic, most particularly Neptune's rulership (lines 2-3) and the source of laughter (line 14).

Does the 'either' refer to Neptune's rulership of both lakes and seas, or that both islands and peninsulas lapped by waters? Most translators have thought the first.

The last line is a little difficult to grasp, but is probably most correctly conveyed in the versions by H. Walker and Tony Kline: laugh whatever laughter is in the house, a reference obviously to past times.

Second Attempt

Since the original is not a sonnet, or even rhymed, I think rhyme is inappropriate. Nonetheless, I'd suggest we first rework the rhymed version, bringing it a little closer to the original meaning (though with a flourish in line 3):

Dearest of islands and peninsulas,
that lakes or boundless oceans ever knew —
for both the glittering sea god Neptune has —
with gratefulness, Simio, I come you you,
but scarce believe I've safely left the plains
of Thynia and Bithynians to reach you here.
What blessed relief for mind to drop the reins
of governances that must interfere
and heap with burdens journeyings to our home
and slumbering on our own and longed-for bed,
all labours recompensed, though far we roam.
Hear me, Sirmio, let your pleasure wed
my joy in house and Lydian waves that cite
whatever laughter has its own delight.

Then, having compressed the meaning into a tight form (somewhat contrived), we release it into something closer to our original draft, but this time paying more attention to what Catullus actually says — i.e. keep an eye on all the previous versions:

Dearest of islands and peninsulas
of standing waters or the boundless seas —
for both the glittering sea god Neptune holds —
how willingly, Simio, I come you you.
I scarce believe I've left the plains of Thynia
and Bithynians to safely reach you here.
What blessedness to lay aside old cares,
and come, mind burdened with its travelling,
at such a cost, wearily, to our own home,
and take again our ever-longed-for bed:
alone the recompense for all our toils.
Hear me, Sirmio: let your rapture add
to mine, and have your Lydian waves delight
with laughter let out from this shuttered house.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

References and Resources

1. Catullus. Wikipedia article with references.

2. QuickLatin.

3. Valerius Catullus, Carmina (ed. E. T. Merrill).

4. Quoted in: Considering Some of Hardy's Adaptations. Eric Christen. NNA. The Hardy translation was written in 1887. The second is from: Catullus: the Complete Poems for Modern Readers. transl. by Reney Myers and Robert J. Ormsby. (Unwin Books, 1972).

5. Gaius Valerius Catullus. Extensive site giving poems, translations and background.

6. Catullus: Complete Poems. 2001. A.S. Kline.


The final version is included in Selections from Catullus, a free pdf book published by Ocaso Press.



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