critics because of its extreme obscenity, but which shows why lineby-line translation is important when it comes to understanding Catullus’s poetry and the unique movement of his line. Poem 97 is a rhetorical tour de force, using the elegiac couplet as its vehicle, which gains momentum as it unfolds line-by-line, one image opening onto the next, from the outrageous to the grotesque, before coming to rest in almost surrealist fantasy. The obscenity of the poem acts as a screen, as a form of bathos or exercise of the non-poetic, to mask the poem’s aesthetic sophistication.
My focus on the differences between the three ‘books’, between the various genres within them, and on the poems’ intricate shifts in tone, voice and mood, have not been as much a focus of earlier translations. Previous translations have tended to homogenise the poems, flattening their voice and tone. But translators that elide these subtleties, these difficulties, reduce the essential texture of the work. This translation attempts to shadow the original with the purpose of highlighting and revealing these features of the source text as fully as possible. Approaches as different as Josephine Balmer’s thematic ordering, Peter Whigham’s William Carlos Williams versioning, the Zukofskys’ homophonic soundings, all tend towards their own totalising homogeneity.
The purpose of this volume is to add to the conversation between different translations of Catullus. What is clear is that Catullus’s ‘books’ have come to occupy a unique place in the canon of Englished poetry. The text of the 116 poems is translated in its entirety from the late nineteenth century onwards (and increasingly by poets). Two fundamental ambiguities – Catullus’s biography, and the ordering of the poems – turn each new attempt to translate Catullus over the centuries into a reflection of the cultural, literary, moral and emotional needs of the translator and, to an extent, his or her times. A translation of Catullus is as much a new perspective on Catullus as on ourselves, our life and culture. There is a vacuum left by a lack of facts about the poems and the poet, and a generation of conjecture rushes energetically to fill it. Each conjecture is inevitably a product of the translator’s own foibles, predispositions and epoch.
Via Petrarch, and the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century xiv . catullus