Please, my darling Ipsithilla,

my delight, my clever dear,

have me join you for siesta.

And if you do, make sure to clear

the way: let no one bolt the door 

and don’t you get a yen to go

outside.  Stay home and ready for

nine nonstop fuckings in a row. 

But if you're willing, tell me now:

for, having lunched, I’m lying down,

relaxed and stuffed, about to poke

right through my tunic and my cloak. 





Best of the thieves at public baths,

Vibennius and his son the queer

(the father has a nastier hand;

the son, a more voracious rear):

head off to exile and to hell,
since papa’s thefts are known to many,

and you, son, can no longer sell

your hairy buttocks for a penny.





I laughed just now at someone in the crowd:

when my friend Calvus had brilliantly laid out

the crimes of Vatinius, raising his hands in wonder,

he said, "Great gods, that little prick can spout!"







The Prick attempts to climb the Piplean mount:

     Muses with pitchforks chuck him right back out.

Original ↓



Amabo, mea dulcis Ipsithilla,
meae deliciae, mei lepores,

iube ad te veniam meridiatum.

et si iusseris, illud adiuvato,

nequis liminis obseret tabellam.

neu tibi lubeat foras abire.

sed domi maneas paresque nobis

novem continuas fututiones.

verum, siquid ages, statim iubeto:

nam pransus iaceo, et satur supinus

pertundo tunicamque palliumque.






O furum optime balneariorum

Vibenni pater et cinaede fili,

nam dextra pater inquinatiore,

culo filius est voraciore:

cur non exilium malasque in oras

itis, quandoquidem patris rapinae

notae sunt populo, et nates pilosas

fili, non potes asse venditare.





Risi nescio quem modo e corona,

qui, cum mirifice Vatiniana

meus crimina Calvus explicasset,

admirans ait haec manusque tollens,

"di magi, salaputium disertum!"





Mentula conatur Pipleum scandere montem:
     Musae furcillis praecipitem eiciunt.

Translator's Note

Catullus is known for his breezy conversational voice; his bawdy and abusive satire; his passionate and searing poems of love and hate; and his highly polished metrical verse.  The free verse that is commonly used to translate his poems today is able to capture all but the last of these qualities.  Latin prosody is so different from English prosody that attempts to reproduce Latin meters in English tend to sound odd or ungainly to English readers, either not registering as metrical or seeming monotonous in their rhythms.  By using flexible iambic pentameter or tetrameter and a regular pattern of rhymes to add polish to the lines, I have tried to suggest both the artistry of Catullus’s verse and his colloquial verve.  Although rhyme was not a feature of classical Latin poetry, it is common in witty, epigrammatic verse in English, adding punch to the punch lines and elegance to the more lyrical lines, so I felt that it suited Catullus’s voice and approach. 

I tried to rhyme at least every other line in order to establish a formal pattern, but I allowed myself to add more rhymes when I could do so without changing the meaning too much.  I gave myself the freedom to vary my rhyme scheme when necessary, and to use some slant rhymes.  Latin words tend to have more syllables than English words, so in English a translated line of Latin poetry will usually have fewer syllables, but more words.  Poems 32, 33, and 53 were originally written in hendecasyllabics (lines of eleven syllables), which I translated into iambic tetrameter (lines of four stresses, with 7-9 syllables) in the first two cases.  But in poem 53, I condensed five lines into four, so I needed iambic pentameter (with five stresses and 9-11 syllables per line) to fit in the necessary information.  Poem 105 was originally an elegiac couplet (a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a line of dactylic pentameter).  I find that hexameters drag in English, so I converted the poem into two lines of iambic pentameter.  In general, I try to match the length of the original lines, so that the poems with shorter lines have a brisker rhythm than the poems with longer lines.  Dactylic meter is very rare in English poetry, so I use the iambic meter that is the basis of most English verse.

One of the unusual aspects of Catullus’s satire is that, unlike most Latin satirists, he named names: Calvus and Vatinius in poem 53 were well-known political figures.  Vatinius, an ally of Julius Caesar, was repeatedly prosecuted for bribery and extortion by Catullus’s friend Calvus (Green 314).  Calvus was short (Green 281), so Catullus is also slyly poking fun at his friend through the bystander’s backhanded compliment.

In poem 105, the nickname of Mentula (“prick”) that Catullus gave to Mamurra, Julius Caesar’s chief engineer, was meant to be transparent.  Catullus implies that Mamurra had unsuccessful literary ambitions.  Pipla (or Pimpleia) is on one of the heights of Mt. Olympus that was associated with the Muses and their Pierian spring (Green 304). Apollonius of Rhodes referred to Pimpleia as the birthplace of Orpheus (Argonautica 1.23-24), so the ignominious routing of Mamurra by Muses with farmyard implements emphasizes the distance between Mamurra and the greatest poet.  The contrast between the elevated literary allusion and the obscene nickname of Mamurra plays up the bathos of the situation.  In poem 32, Ipsithilla may be a woman’s name, but “ipsa” (“herself”) can also mean “the mistress of the house” and “-illa” is an affectionate diminutive (Godwin 149), so it may be a way of avoiding the woman’s name while still complimenting her as “the little mistress of the house.”  If this is an adulterous liaison, avoiding using the woman’s real name would be a smart move.  In poem 33, Vibennius may have been the name of an actual bathhouse thief, but that is impossible to prove.

Because, until recently, the obscenity of many of Catullus’s poems of satire and humor prevented them from being widely published, I selected poems that are not well known, but that benefit from the contrast between metrical grace and earthy diction.  Breaking taboos adds a kick to the humor, so I have tried to reproduce the level of obscenity of Catullus’s word choices in Latin.  I have not always succeeded in that goal: in poem 33, culo should really be asshole, but that word would be very hard to rhyme.  In the same poem, cinaede refers specifically to the receiving partner in anal sex between men, but it is hard to find an equivalent in English that has the same cultural overtones. Many Roman men had sex with both male and female partners, but it was considered shameful for a man to take the passive role in sex.  Catullus liked to coin his own playful variations on words, such as fututiones in poem 32, but invented words can seem coy or distracting, so I chose to translate it with the straightforward fuckings


Works Cited:

Apollonius of Rhodes.  Argonautica.  Ed. and Trans. William H. Race. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009.

Godwin, John.  Catullus: The Shorter Poems. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1999.

Green, Peter.  The Poems of Catullus. Berkeley: U of California P, 2005.


Susan McLean


In the Classroom

Teaching Catullus in Translation

Katherine Wasdin, University of Maryland


Catullus speaks to our era. Since the 1960s, he has become a staple in Latin classes and a favorite of translators and poets.[1] His popularity is due to several factors, not least among them a growing acceptance of (and sometimes enthusiasm for) his numerous sexual and scatological poems. In this essay, I propose a lesson plan for introducing students to the vibrant intellectual and creative potential of translation using the translations of Catullus from the first issue of Ancient Exchanges.

Translation has long played a central role in Classics, particularly in traditional language pedagogy. In many courses, students are asked to translate as proof of their understanding of Latin and its various morphological and syntactical complexities. But less often are students forced to grapple with questions of what translation really does. These questions are especially important in considering ancient poetry such as that of Catullus, whose literary impact is shaped not only by its pragmatic or semantic sense but also by its phonetic and metrical qualities. Translations of his works should also be understood as interpretations in their own right, ones which make their points in different and often more subtle ways than articles and monographs. Exploring literary translation from Latin to English opens up an opportunity for students to consider the many ways a poem can signify and has the further pedagogical benefit of demonstrating the continuing reception of ancient authors in later periods.

The translations by A.J. Woodman, Susan McLean, and Anna Jackson provide an exemplary collection for such an exercise. Read together, they demonstrate the range of tactics available to translators and can give students a taste of the variety of the Catullan corpus, which features poems of friendship, romance, and explicit sexuality. Careful study of the translations published here can lead students to more sophisticated appreciation of both the content and the form (if the two can be separated) of Catullus’ poetry, as well as guiding them to be more thoughtful about their own identities as translators and readers. A final advantage of teaching with the translations in this issue is that they are fresh from the translators’ pens. In my own courses, I have been struck by the fact that students are particularly eager to engage with and analyze poems which are not discussed in the secondary readings. New translations leave open a wider field for their own discoveries since students are forced to come to their own conclusions instead of just responding to the views of experts. This discovery process is more productive if students are first equipped with some of the basic concepts and terminology of translation studies, and I hope to suggest some ways of guiding them.

In what follows, I offer a lesson plan for a series of one and a half classes on translation, designed for an intermediate to advanced Latin class.[2] First, students spend part of a class session discussing a reading on translation studies. The second class is devoted to analysis of the translations of Catullus from Ancient Exchanges. Devoting class time to translation studies does, of course, mean displacing some grammatical or cultural material but I have found it an effective complement to more traditional approaches, which run the risk of allowing students to miss the literary forest for the grammatical trees.

Reading a short introductory chapter on translation provides students with some basic terminology and concepts for discussing literary translations. Elizabeth Vandiver’s 2007 chapter, “Catullus in Translation,” offers a succinct overview of translation theory as applied to Catullus.[3] When I assign this chapter, I ask students the following questions to guide their reading:

  • What two goals for a translator of poetry does Vandiver identify and which do you think is most important?
  • What are some differences in writing poetry in Latin and writing poetry in English?
  • Vandiver quotes Hardwick as claiming that “translating words also involves translating or transplanting into the receiving culture the cultural framework within which an ancient text is embedded.” What do you think she means? Give an example from Catullus. 

The reading is short enough that it can be assigned alongside the day’s regular Latin assignment and be discussed in part of the lesson time. The goal of the discussion is for students to realize the challenges in translating poetry, particularly those connected with formal features and cultural expectations.

On the second day, students apply the abstract concepts from the reading to the translations from Ancient Exchanges. The instructor should circulate or display the Catullus translations by Woodman, McLean, and Jackson, ideally using the handy side-by-side option on the Ancient Exchanges website. Intermediate students would likely benefit from seeing additional, perhaps more literal, English translations if the poems have not already been covered. To focus the class, I would select one or two poems from each translator, such as Woodman’s Catullus 35, McLean’s Catullus 32, and Jackson’s “too much pleasure (phone sonnet) after Catullus 83” and “too much pleasure.” 

My students are often most responsive when other students present material, so I recommend that the task of introducing each poem and leading discussion be given to their classmates rather than the instructor. To cover the three translators, the class can be split into three groups, one for each author, with each group being responsible for preparing a quick presentation of around 10 minutes. If the class is being taught remotely, the groups can convene separately, perhaps in breakout rooms on Zoom or using a shared Google Doc. Each group should have clear instructions to address the following issues:

  • What are the formal features of the translation? How does the translator deal with issues of meter, word order, and lexical choice?
  • How does the translator negotiate cultural differences between antiquity and the modern day? For example, are metaphors translated literally or transformed into something more familiar for a contemporary reader?
  • How is the text presented? What other types of information are provided and how do they frame the translation?
  • What is the imagined audience for the translation? Do you think the translator was writing for students, academics, or a general audience?

Students begin their presentations by reading aloud both the Latin original and the English translation. They then respond to the prompts above and moderate questions and comments from other students. I would expect the presentations to make some of the following observations, which might be brought out by the instructor if needed: Woodman is closer to the Latin in his construction and sense, and his companion material shows that he is writing to a fellow scholar and translator in an echo of Catullus’ relationships with his contemporary poets. McLean produces a more colloquial rhyming translation with supporting materials to explain Roman culture that would be useful for students. Jackson’s translations could be considered variations on Catullus or even original poems inspired by Catullus’ works. As seen in her translator’s note, she creates a contemporary scenario involving a waitress and brings Catullus into our world. While all three translators use complex formal features native to English verse to render Catullus’ meter, their techniques vary dramatically.

The final part of this translation unit is a brief reflection. Either in class or on their own, students write a short response of about one page, explaining how studying these translations has led them to perceive new aspects of Catullus’ poetry.

As an additional exercise, students can compose their own artistic translations.[4] If they do so, I recommend that they simultaneously write an excruciatingly literal translation. I find that the literal translation allows me to ensure students understand what’s going on in the text and liberates them to try more experimental translations without fretting about demonstrating grammatical mastery. When I gave a creative translation assignment to my students in Fall 2019, I was impressed by how open they were to producing innovative verse, using as models some of the translations discussed in class. Whether or not students write their own translations, bringing the formal study of translation into the classroom has immense and transformative benefits. It teaches students how to engage with poetry as an artistic form in both Latin and English, introduces them to new ways of interpreting ancient texts, and allows them to appreciate the continuing relevance of classics in contemporary literature.

[1] See Gaisser 2001 for a collection of translations of Catullus into English.
[2] I tested similar activities in a class on Catullus and Horace in the Fall of 2019 at the University of Maryland and remain grateful for the eager participation of my students, who amazed me with their enthusiasm and curiosity. 
[3] For instructors who prefer a more general overview of translation studies, the introduction to Bassnet 2013 covers similar ground and is appropriate for undergraduates. A list of potential readings below contains further options.
[4] For those who would like to devote more class time to translation, I recommend Lindgren, Blumberg, and Langseth 2010. 


Bibliography and suggested readings on translation

Baker, Mona. (ed.) 2009. Critical Readings in Translation Studies. Routledge.
-- edited collection of contemporary essays, many on post-colonial translation theory, with introductions and discussion questions for students

Balmer, Josephine. 2013. Piecing Together the Fragments: Translating Classical Verse, Creating Contemporary Poetry. Oxford University Press.
-- useful account of the process of translation by an accomplished poet-translator

Bassnett, Susan. 2013. Translation. Routledge.
-- concise and readable introduction to the discipline of translation studies

Gaisser, Julia Haig. 2001. Catullus in English. Penguin.
-- like other volumes in this excellent but lamentably out-of-print series, contains translations from various periods and a critical introductory essay

Gillespie, Stuart. 2011. English Translation and Classical Reception: Towards a New Literary History. Wiley-Blackwell.
-- discussions of the history of translations from Greek and Latin in English literature

Hardwick, Lorna. 2000. Translating Words, Translating Cultures. Bristol Classical Press.
-- seminal application of translation theory to classics; most useful on drama

Lewis, Maxine. 2018. “Anna Jackson’s I, Clodia: Catullus, women’s voices, and feminist implications.” CRJ 10.2: 127-148.
-- an excellent article for those interested in further exploring the work of Anna Jackson

Lianeri, Alexandra. 2019. “Translation and Classical Reception.” Oxford Bibliographies Online.
-- extremely thorough annotated bibliography of translation studies with focus on classical reception

Lindgren, Marcia H., Life Blumberg, and Joshua Langseth. 2010. “From Literal to Literary: A Translation Project for Latin Poetry Classes.” TCL 1.2: 109-137.
-- thoughtful plan for a Latin course based on translation theory and practice

Maier, Carol. 2006. “The Translator as Theoros: Thoughts on Cogitation, Figuration and Current Creative Writing,” In Translating Others, vol.1, ed. T. Hermans, 163-180. St. Jerome Publishing.
-- theoretical account of the productive wonder inherent in translation

Practitioners’ Voices in Classical Reception Studies
-- online journal featuring interviews on classical reception with creative artists, including many translators

Venuti, Lawrence. 2008. The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation. 2nd edition. Routledge. 
-- groundbreaking study which popularized concepts of ‘domesticating’ and ‘foreignizing’ translations

Vandiver, Elizabeth. 2007. “Translating Catullus.” In A Companion to Catullus, ed. M. Skinner, 521-541. Blackwell.
-- clear presentation of the challenges of translating Catullus with several illustrative examples

Weissbort, Daniel, and Astradur Eysteinsson, eds. 2006. Translation: Theory and Practice. A Historical Reader. Oxford.
-- handy collection of essays on translation, including by ancient and early modern authors such as Dryden