Of Spurious Sparrows and Catullus

Catullus, the Roman poet, is a fascinating man. He has charm and grace and poetry! Oh, the poetry!

Sadly, for those of us whose Latin is limited, he is difficult to translate.

I know. I have tried. I feel like I just mutilated a poor, defenceless innocent. Well, not that innocent. Catullus – as he is in his poetry – was something of a flirt.

Take this, known as “Catullus 2”.

Passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
cui primum digitum dare appetenti
et acris solet incitare morsus,
cum desiderio meo nitenti
carum nescio quid lubet iocari
et solaciolum sui doloris,
credo ut tum gravis acquiescat ardor:
tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem
et tristis animi levare curas!


Tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae
pernici aureolum fuisse malum,
quod zonam soluit diu ligatam.

Like all Catullus, has been translated many different ways. Some more literal, some more poetic.

And being the ever so humble snob that I am, I did not like any of them.

So, when assigned to do a poetic translation for my class, I picked Catullus. Catullus 2, in point of fact. Naturally, this turns out to be one of the more grammatically difficult poems.

The sparrow, sweet pet of my girl,
With whom she plays – and on her breast curls –
To whose demand she yields a fingertip,
And is accustomed to being sharply bit.
When in my glowing longing
I do not know what dear one she is teasing,
And the sting itself is small comfort.
I do believe it would soothe the heavy heat,
And elevate the worries of a sorrowful mind
Were I, myself, permitted to play with you in kind. 
 . . . . .
As pleasing to me as they say the little gold
Apples were to the persistent Atalanta,
Is the daily bound girdle which she unbinds.

It is quite formless, and probably strays from the proper assignment of subjects and objects, but I plan to work with it some more. I am afraid this is more my “imitation” rather than “translation”.

But you should learn Latin. And read Catullus.


One thought on “Of Spurious Sparrows and Catullus

  1. The fascinating thing I learned from “translating” and from your attempts, is that poetry tends to keep its nature. Your version, you say is not accurate? It is still a lovely poem. Which tells us something about the nature of poetry and the worthiness of the poet, I think.

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