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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.) (more…)