Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Catullus Censored: Not for Texting

Get out your Catullus. Latin professors all over the world will be translating Poem 16 with their students.

Or not.

Classicists will be chagrined to learn that the English multimillionaire financier, Mark Lowe, accused of attempting to hire a hitman to kill a female employee, Jordan Wimmer, also harassed her by texting a line from Catullus’s poem 16, "Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.”

“Only in England would someone practice sexual harassment with Catullus,” I said, frantically flipping through my Merrill edition for Poem 61.

“Can you imagine what kind of country that is?” my husband asked.

“They don’t know who Catullus is here,” I said - and am I sad or merry?

The Guardian blogger, Charlotte Higgins, is gleeful over the BBC's reticence about translation. (They take the Fifth or something.)

The word pedico isn’t even translated in my dictionary.

Lewis & Short, the scholarly 1879 lexicon, says it means "to practice unnatural vice."

Honestly, what a weird line to select. Not Catullus's best poem - and why Lowe would send his employee a line from an invective against Furuius and Aureli, two writers “who judge Catullus from his verses to be as bad as themselves” (Merrill) is beyond me. It is madly out of context.

The line, in my best 19th century English, means:

“I will practice unnatural vice on you and I will 'give suck.'"

Catullus goes on to call Aurelius "one who submits to unnatural lust" and Furius the one who "practices it." He tells them they're wrong to assume he's homosexual because they are. Just because he writes about "milia multa basiorum" (many thousands of kisses) doesn't mean he's "badly masculine."

Here's a translation by Peter Whigman - and notice the first and last line, which are the same, are not translated, because the Latin says it all.

Pedicabo et irrumabo
Furius & Aurelius
twin sodomites,
you have dared deduce me from my poems
which are lascivious
which lack pudicity....
The devoted poet remains in his own fashion chaste
his poems not necessarily so:
they may well be
lacking in pudicity
stimulants (indeed) to prurience
and not solely in boys
but those whose hirsute genitals are not easily moved.

You read of those thousand kisses
You deduced an effeminancy there.
You were wrong, Sodomites. Furius & Aurelius.
Pedicabo et irrumabo vos.


Anonymous said...

The line means
"I will bugger you and face-f**k you" -- in other words threatening anal and oral rape. Though Catallus might have meant it as burlesque, I can certainly understand why someone receiving such a text might feel a bit threatened!

Frisbee said...

Yes, I'm familiar with that translation (chez Wikipedia), and, yes, I was being ironic when I translated the words with the euephemisms from my scholarly dictionary (which is, by the way, still the standard Latin dictionary used by scholars! Lewis & Short is so good otherwise that it's like an icon).

I'll leave aside the question of sexual haassment case (which I haven't followed - I know only about the employer's mad use of Catullus out of context, which I agree was certainly self-destructive if not threatening: at the very least one would burst into tears upon receiving that text. The guy is a classicist so God only knows what was going through his head.

The tone of the poem is lighter than the English translation might suggest. "Bugger" would be an inappropriate translation for Americans, and the Romans weren't, after all, British: you'd have to go with an equivalent (which is...well, I'm not sure). I'm not familiar with the word "face-f." . A word like "blow" would probably be more appropriate. (Sorry,, everybody, but I'm actually talking about the damned Latin!)

But the tone of the poem depends on the knowledge of C's whole cycle of poems. Catullus, in addition to writing about the woman called Lesbia, had written some gay love poems to Juventius, and the reference to "milia multa basiorum" (v.12 of this poem) can have a double meaning: versions of the phrase appear in Poem 5 (addressed to Lesbia) and in Poem 48 (addressed to Juventius), but this reference here is probably to Catullus's gay Juventius poem, according to my text, and it makes sense. So Catullus' threats are not necessarily of rape here. He likes the double entendres.

As Merrill, the editor of my CAtullus text, says: "[pedicabo, etc.] are here not to be understood in the literal sense, but only as conveying vague threats, in the gross language of the day..."

So you see it's all about tone! Catullus wrote both heterosexual and homosexual tones, so his opening line is more a crude joke than a threat. There are the usual references to his poems as mollicula, voluptuous or soft, which certainly lessen the sense of threat! So it isn't really much of a threat.

Catullus also wrote some friendly poems to Aurelius and Furius.

More than you ever want to know about C, and I'd have to reread all the Lesbia, Juventius, Furius, and Aurelius to convey it clearly.

I'm defending Catullus, not whatever is going on in that dreadful case!

Ellen said...

Dear Kathy,

I'm back from teaching too and Izzy is now asleep, but I will send her the URLs. I'll bet her teacher brings this up -- tactfully I imagine.