translating CatullusIntroduction

1. other Latin measures.

2. working from the most literal meaning.

3. looking at other translations.

4. preserving the original form.

Carmen 51: Literal Translation

Another famous poem by Catullus {1} is this, Carmen 51, which describes the poet's early encounter with Lesbia. If the woman was indeed Clodia, the 'other' may be her husband, Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer.

Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos
qui sedens adversus identidem te
spectat et audit

dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, adspexi, nihil est super
[voces in ore]

lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
lumina nocte

otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis.
otium et reges prius et beatas
perdidit urbes.

We start at the Perseus site, {2} when an unconstrued, word-for-word rendering runs:

that to me is equal to a god seems
that if to speak is above a god
which seated an opponent continually you
looks and sees

sweet laughing, wretched who all
snatches away my sense, for together you
Lesbia, the instant, nothing is above
[voice in mouth]

the tongue but stiff, drawn out under limbs
a blaze flows down, sound subtle
rings in my ears, double covered
lights at night

vacant time, Catullus, you troublesome is:
at vacant time spring up excessive carrying
vacant time also kings former also prosperous
destroyed cities

Other Translations

The general drift is apparent, and translations clear up any difficulties:

A.S. Kline 2001 {3}

He seems equal to the gods, to me, that man,
if it’s possible more than just divine,
who sitting over against you, endlessly
sees you and hears
you laughing so sweetly, that with fierce pain I’m robbed
of all of my senses: because that moment
I see you, Lesbia, nothing’s left of me.....
but my tongue is numbed, and through my poor limbs
fires are raging, the echo of your voice
rings in both ears, my eyes are covered
with the dark of night.

‘Your idleness is loathsome Catullus:
you delight in idleness, and too much posturing:
idleness ruined the kings and the cities
of former times.’

Clive Brooks 2007 {4}

He seems to me quite like a god,
Perhaps one greater than divine,
Who, ever in your company,
   Sees you and hears.

Your gentle laughter, which alas
Robs me of sense; for since I first
My Lesbia, saw you I have
   No voice to speak,

My tongue grows numb, a subtle flame
Runs through my body, while my ears
Are buzzing and my eyes grow dim
   With twofold night.

Idly, Catullus, sit and fret,
As idly writhe in ecstasy,
The bane of kings and wealthy towns
   Is idleness

H. J. Walker {5}

He seems to me to be equal to a god,
he, if it may be, seems to surpass the very gods,
who sitting opposite you again and again
gazes at you and hears you

sweetly laughing. Such a thing takes away
all my senses, alas!-- for whenever I see you,
Lesbia, at once no voice at all remains
within my mouth;

but my tongue falters, a subtle flame steals down
through my limbs, my ears tingle
with inward humming, my eyes are quenched
in twofold night.

Idleness, Catullus, does you harm,
you riot in your idleness and wanton too much.
Idleness ere now has ruined both kings
and wealthy cities.

'Euripides' 2008 {6}

This man seems to be an equal of the gods.
This man, if it is right, appears to surpass the gods:
He who, sitting opposite you, gazes at you
and listens to your
sweet laughter again and again. Those things
from my misery snatch my senses: indeed,
the instant I look at you, Lesbia,
nothing of my voice is left in my mouth.

My tongue is tied, a thin flame of love
flows down through my limbs,
my ears ring with their own sound and
my eyes are covered with the twin night.

Catullus, leisure for you is troublesome:
In leisure do you rejoice and delight too much:
Leisure has, in the past, ruined kings and beautiful cities.

Verse Matters

The metre is the Sapphic, useful for intense expression (and Sappho was also from Lesbos). Catullus handles this with great skill {4}:

- v - x - v v - v - f
- v - x - v v - v - f
- v - x - v v - v - f
       - v v - f

(where - is long, v is short, x can be either, and f is the final syllable that is counted as long).


It seems wise to keep the stanza form, which is easily done:

He seems to me a god, or if
we can speak so, more divine,
a foe sat in your company
who sees and hears

your sweetest laughing. Sense at once
is snatched away when Lesbia
I see you, and in my mouth
there is no voice.

My tongue is held, and subtle fire
flows down thin limbs; my ears are filled
with siren music and my eyes flare
twice black as night.

Your sloth, Catullus, that's to blame,
excessive sloth that apt to flourish
in kings and wealthy cities, and
destroy them.

Two things then need to be done: improve the verse, and allow small departures from the literal sense to bring out the anguished tone:

He seems to me a god, or if
that's possible, still more divine,
that other in your company
who sees and hears

you laughing softly. Sense at once
is snatched away beholding you,
and, Lesbia, in my mouth
there is no voice.

My tongue is quelled, and subtle fire
flows down my limbs; my ears are filled
with siren tumult: dark eyes burn
twice black as night.

Your sloth, Catullus, that's to blame:
excessive sloth that flourishes
in kings and wealthy cities: makes them

References and Resources

1. Catullus. Wikipedia article with references.

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

3. Catullus: Complete Poems. 2001. AS Kline.

4. Reading Latin Poetry Aloud. Clive Brooks. (CUP, 2007), 92-4.

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

6. Catullus 51 Translation. Textkit Greek and Latin.


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

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


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