I cannot translate Catullus, nor can anybody. Peter Green's bilingual edition, published by University of California in 2006, is the best I've seen, but Green was smart to include the Latin. Although one can find readable translations of Virgil and Ovid, Catullus's lyric poetry must be read in Latin. The flexible Latin word order defines the tone and meaning. Latin words can be placed anywhere in the sentence; only the endings change to show the sense. These effects can't be duplicated in English, which depends on a rigid word order. The two languages are like oil and water.
Catullus was one of the Novi Poetae--"new poets" of the first century B.C.--who brought the Greek meters of lyric poets such as Callimachus and Sappho into Latin literature. His poems were short and personal, as opposed to the historical epics favored by earlier Romans. And his friend Cornelius Nepos, a biographer who apparently did something similarly radical in prose (his lost book Chronica was three volumes), encouraged him.
Here is my literal translation of Catullus 1, the dedication. I tried whenever possible to duplicate the word order.
"To whom do I present the elegant new littlebook* [*one word in Latin]
polished just now by a dry pumice?
Cornelius, to you, for you were accustomed
to think my trifles were something,
when you alone of the Italians dared
to explain all time in only three volumes.
These volumes were learned--by Jupiter!--and laborious.
So take for yourself whatever or what kind of a little book this is. And, O protectress Muse, may it last longer than a single age."
How on earth does one convey the sound, playfulness, and double meanings of words? Libellum (meaning little book), placed at the end of the first line, describes the size but certainly not the quality. It is a charming false modesty, which the reader appreciates. His poems are dazzling. Expolitum (meaning "polished" or 'smoothed") falls at the end of the next line, and refers both to the smoothing of the ends of the scroll and to polishing the style. The phrase arido modo pumice precedes expolitum, and means literally "by a dry just now pumice." The "just now" between the adjective and noun indicates just how fresh the process is. Catullus wants us to think this poetry is tossed off but he also admits it is polished. He also refers to it as nugas--trifles.
And what of the two lines, Quare habe tibi quidquid hod libelli/qualecumque, quod,... ("So take for yourself whatever and what kind...") What can one do with all the q's?
Those of us who have taken comp lit classes have agonized over translation.
That's why I'm heartened by the translation of prose classics. The new translation of Dr. Zhivago by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is available today in bookstores. I was excited to see it, but I was simply so laden with packages that I couldn't fit it into my bike pannier. I have the old translation in a beautiful Everyman edition--hastily done, according to Pevear--and it has always been one of my favorite books. Pevear and Volokhnosky have a good track record. I love their translation of Anna Karenina, though the Maude translation is even dearer to my heart.
I am looking forward to reading Lydia Davis's new translation of Madame Bovary. There has been a surge of online enthusiasm for Flaubert, and the new Bovary was even promoted in Book Page, the free paper. The edition is beautiful, with a detailed historical and literary introduction and notes, and Davis' note on translation is fascinating: she looked long and hard at eleven other translations. My husband has read Madame Bovary in French and was not impressed, but perhaps I'll finally understand the fine prose of Flaubert. I'm hoping that Lydia Davis will come through for me in a way that other translators have not done.
NOTE: Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, recently recommended The Aeneid as a favorite book. I don't have a Facebook page and I've never really understood what it's for, but I was thrilled that he mentioned The Aeneid in an interview in The New Yorker.
My students, however, were more cynical. They know Facebook, know his reputation, and seemed to think it was some kind of PR trick.
The New Yorker asked Zuckerberg about Ender's Game, a sci-fi novel he had recommended elsewhere as one of his favorites. He said:
“...there are definitely books—like the Aeneid—that I enjoyed reading a lot more."