Translating poetry 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 good translation gives you a poem which has, you hope, at least some of the qualities of the original, or qualities in English that are parallel to qualities in the poem’s original language.
Here’s a Latin poem by the Roman poet Catullus. (Don’t get in a sweat, we have some translations coming up.) It’s in the form of a note to his love, a woman he calls Lesbia. “Lesbia” may or may not be a mask for Clodia, a woman who was married when Catullus wrote this. Catullus wrote many poems to “Lesbia” and it’s possible they refer to Clodia (this gossip is two thousand years old), but they may refer 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. Today, this particular thirteen-line note is very likely Catullus’s best known poem. Here’s 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.
And here’s a quick, not-quite-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 —
With us, once the brief light goes down
Night’s an 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,
The many kisses there were.
(You can find other translations on the Web, but don’t go hunting right now. We’ve got a couple of nice and easy-to-read translations coming up.)
Young male scholars have been using a variation of those lines for centuries, but whether or not they work on a woman is up to the woman. A lot of poets have translated this particular poem into English. Here’s a pair by Shakespeare’s friend, Ben Jonson. The poems appear in one of Jonson’s plays in which they’re addressed to Celia, not Lesbia, and the poems aren’t exactly translations, but are 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.
And this other poem…
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 they’re great, but compared to Catullus they’re stiff and haven’t his feeling of looseness or ease. Now all you mini-classicists who remember a little Latin from your school days, try your hand at translating some Catullus. OK, class dismissed.
This was posted by Gene Mirabelli who has already redone the last couple of lines of his translation fifteen times.