my friends have been indulging their lust for schadenfreude by
telling me that the Latin language has grown unhip. How can this be? I’ve
heard the grim portents of the end of the millennium — no flights, no
electricity, the day of Judgement, bad cell phone reception — but this late-century abandonment of the language of the Fathers is, to me, the surest sign
we’re off to hell in a handbasket. When people speak coarsely of the “dead”
languages, I inquire, “Dead for whom?” Almost invariably they respond, “For
It is a sad state of affairs. With the demise of Latin, lost will be the
poignancy of Augustine’s plaintive cries for God’s mercy; forgotten will be
the singular nobility of Virgil’s hexameter (his readers turned to swine by the
Circe of modernity); erased will be the majesty of Cicero, whose rhetoric was
considered so supreme that throughout the Renaissance many speakers
would not use a word if it did not appear in the Ciceronian corpus, believing
that if it was unnecessary to Cicero, it was unnecessary to language in general.
But of these crimes, perhaps the greatest will be the fading of Catullus, whose* * *
two-thousand-year-old bawdy and satiric lyrics are some of history’s wittiest
barbs. If Latin is truly to die, much laughter will die with it.
From the Poems of Catullus
Translated by Guy Lee (translations modified by Jack Murnighan)
Aurelius, giving to you my boy-love and self,
I ask a modest favor:
That if in your heart you’ve ever longed
To seek out something pure and unspoiled,
You’ll restrain yourself and guard the boy,
Not from the public — I’m not afraid
Of those going to and fro about
The square, intent on their own business —
It’s you I’m scared of, and your penis,
That menace to good boys and bad.
Wield it anywhere and anyhow,
As you like, given whatever chance,
With this one rather modest exception.
But should ill will or mindless madness
Drive you, villain, to the crime
Of treachery against my person,
Ah, then you’ll rue your wretched fate,
Finding yourself with feet trussed up and backdoor open
Being run through with fish and radishes!
You should not wonder, Rufus, why no woman
Wants to lay her soft thigh under you,
Even though you tempt her with gifts of rare fabric
Or the treat of a translucent stone.
Your trouble is a nasty rumor, which tells that
You feed a mean goat down in Armpit Valley
Who scares them all away. No wonder. That goat’s
A nasty brute no pretty girl would go to bed with.
So either kill this scourge of noses
Or cease to wonder why they run away.
I thought (so help me Gods!) it made no difference
Whether I smelt Aemilius’ mouth or arsehole,
One being no cleaner, the other no filthier.
But in fact the arsehole’s cleaner and kinder:
It has no teeth. The mouth has teeth half-a-yard long
And gums like an ancient wagon chassis.
Moreover when it opens up it’s like the cunt
Of a pissing mule dehiscent in a heat-wave.
And he fucks many girls and fancies himself a charmer
And isn’t afraid of either mill or mule.
But any woman who’d dare touch him
Would probably lick the ass of a diseased hangman.
© Guy Lee
For the Latin text