In the Classroom: Teaching Catullus in Translation

Essay By Katherine Wasdin

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