No one knows the exact date of Gaius Valerius Catullus’s birth, but as the weather is glum today and as the pandemic grows longer and deadlier, and as we need a break, I’ve decided to celebrate Catullu’s birthday right now.

Catullus, a Roman who lived around two thousand and seventy years ago, wrote lyric erotic poems that resonate with those lucky or unlucky in love. This may be truer for young men than for young women, because Catullus complained a lot about his women —mostly that they weren’t pliant enough or weren’t faithful enough or were  bitches, and he could be vulgar, nasty and slanderous about former lovers and equally nasty and obscene to men, especially the politicians he didn’t like. He wrote a variety poems, many of them to friends (I particularly like number 9), three that arise from the death of his brother, and a lot that are plain invective about everything from a bad cold to being screwed over by politicians like Julius Caesar, whom he despised. And when Catullus writes about wanting to screw somebody or getting screwed, he gets bodily specific about what he means.

Translating poetry, you understand, is a matter of making choices. A literal word-for-word translation gives you the prosaic meaning and none of the poetry of the original. A word-for-word translation isn’t to be scorned; it’s to be read and then put aside. What we hope to get when we read a poem in translation is the meaning of the original, yes, and at least some of the qualities of the original — qualities in English that are parallel to qualities in the poem’s original language.

Probably Catullus’s best known lyric love poem begins with “Let’s live and let’s love.” This is poem number 5 (out of 113) and it’s addressed to a women he calls Lesbia. Now, Lesbia may or may not be a mask for Clodia, a woman who was married when Catullus wrote this. He wrote many poems to Lesbia and it’s possible they referred to other women, or to no particular woman at all. Clodia, the real woman, was soaked in sexual scandal throughout her life, and since Catullus wrote wonderfully free erotic poems it’s not surprising that these two Romans should be linked in literature, even if not in life. This particular thirteen-line poem is a light and playful love note that comes across even in a literal translation.  Translations are further down the page, but take a look at the original:

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbābimus illa, ne sciāmus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

In Latin, of course, the meaning and role of  words in a sentence depends on how word endings change, whereas in  English the meaning depends on the order of the words;  furthermore,  we use a number of “helper” words to gather meaning, so sentences in Latin tend to grow longer when turned into English. And in classical Latin, poems were not rhymed. Here’s a quick, rather literal translation…

Let’s live, my Lesbia, and also love
And as for all the gossip by grave old men,
Let’s say it’s worth one cent.
Suns can set and rise again —
Once the brief light goes down for us
Night’s one everlasting sleep.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then another thousand, then a second hundred,
Then up another thousand, then a hundred,
Then, when we’ve made many thousands,
We’ll scramble the number — we’ll not know,
Nor will the malicious find out and envy us,
For how many kisses there were.

A lot of poets have translated this particular poem into English. Here’s a pair by Shakespeare’s friend, Ben Jonson, a writer who dominated the literary scene back then. The poems appear in one of Jonson’s plays and in which they’re addressed to Celia, not Lesbia, and the poems, with their nice couplets, aren’t exactly translations, but verses inspired by some of the lines in Catullus:

Come my Celia, let us prove,
While we may, the sports of love.
Time will not be ours for ever:
He at length our good will sever.
Spend not then his gifts in vain;
Suns that set may rise again,
But if once we lose this light
‘Tis, with us, perpetual night.
Why should we defer our joys?
Fame and rumour are but toys.
Cannot we delude the eyes
Of a few poor household spies?
Or his easier ears beguile,
So removed by our wile?
‘Tis no sin love’s fruit to steal,
But the sweet theft to reveal;
To be taken, to be seen,
These have crimes accounted been.

Kiss me, sweet: the wary lover
Can your favors keep, and cover,
When the common courting jay
All your bounties will betray.
Kiss again! no creature comes;
Kiss, and score up wealthy sums
On my lips, thus hardly sundered,
While you breathe. First give a hundred,
Then a thousand, then another
Hundred, then unto the other
Add a thousand, and so more;
Till you equal with the store
All the grass that Romney yields,
Or the sands in Chelsea fields,
Or the drops in silver Thames,
Or the stars that gild his streams
In the silent summer-nights,
When youths ply their stolen delights;
That the curious may not know
How to tell ’em as they flow,
And the envious when they find
What their number is, be pined.

Catullus’s poetry is free and easy going when compared to other Latin poets. If you look at, say, the poetry of Propertius you’ll see the difference. Propertius wrote a volume of poems on erotic themes, and some people like them, but compared to Catullus they’re stiff and haven’t his deft looseness or ease. OK, class dismissed.