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Le Mille Ciotole di Catullo Posted by on Sep 25, 2012 in Culture, Literature

Last week, while researching for my quiz about Italian airport names, I came across the poems of the Latin poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, who was born in 84 BC in Verona.

When I was at secondary school I studied Latin, and Catullus was on our reading list. We all used to like his poems, because his descriptions of love are so passionate and sensual, but can also be very aggressive and violent when he is attacking a political enemy such as Cicero, or rude and vitriolic when he sends his farewell poem to his lover. Catullus’s most famous lover is Clodia, whom he nicknamed Lesbia. The word Lesbia in Catullus’s time didn’t have today’s meaning, it came from the Greek island of Lesbos, on which in the Seventh century BC lived the Greek poetess Sappho, whose work Catullus highly admired. So it was in her honour that he decided to rename his own lover ‘Lesbia’.

While I was reading through some of his long forgotten poems, I came across an interesting website which compared numerous Italian translations of Catullus’s probably most famous love poem: Carmen 5. This poem has been translated throughout the centuries by many poets and even set to music. It’s better known as ‘Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus’, taken from its first line, or in English: ‘A Thousand Kisses’. Now, this is a very sensual poem, and although it’s not pornographic, as usual some very prudish scholars felt the need to censor it, with almost comic results! Why bother translating it if you find it scandalous? The mysteries of human mind.

Here is the original Latin poem (do any of you read Latin?):

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis.
Soles occidere et redire possunt;
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
Da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum;
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Salvatore Quasimodo was a great 20th century Italian poet, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959. Beside writing his own poems, he did some wonderful translations of Latin and Greek poems. Here is Quasimodo’s translation of ‘Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus’ into Italian:

Viviamo, mia Lesbia, ed amiamo,
e ogni mormorio perfido dei vecchi
valga per noi la più vile moneta.
Il giorno può morire e poi risorgere,
ma quando muore il nostro breve giorno,
una notte infinita dormiremo.
Tu dammi mille baci, e quindi cento,
poi dammene altri mille, e quindi cento,
quindi mille continui, e quindi cento.
E quando poi saranno mille e mille,
nasconderemo il loro vero numero,
che non getti il malocchio l’invidioso
per un numero di baci così alto.

And here is Geoff’s humble translation into English:

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and for us every wicked whisper of the old ones
is worth no more than the vilest penny.
The sun may die and then rise again,
but when our brief day ends
we’ll sleep for an infinite night
Give me a thousand kisses, and thereafter one hundred,
then give me another thousand, and thereafter one hundred,
then a thousand, continue, and thereafter one hundred.
And when finally we have kissed many thousands of times
we’ll hide the true number
so that the envious don’t casts the evil eye
on seeing the vast amount of kisses we have shared

Now here is a silly censored translation by the abbot Luigi Maria Rigord [1739-1823]. Rigord changes the opening ‘viviamo’ (let’s live) to ‘beviamo’ (let’s drink), and ‘amiamo’ (let’s love) to ‘scherziamo’ (let’s joke), but the most important change is that ‘baci’ (kisses) become ‘ciotole’ (bowls), transforming this sensual poem into an ode to a piss-up (a vulgar English expression for a bout of heavy drinking)! See if you can make sense of it:

Beviam mia Lesbia, scherziam davvero
Ed il ronzìo di quanti siano
Vecchi più critici stimiamo un zero.
E vanno, e vengono i dì; ma poi
Che un breve giorno tramonta, ahi! devesi
Notte perpetua dormir da noi.
Dammi di ciotole per mio contento
Mill’e poi cento, quindi prontissima
Mille altre versami con altre cento
Poi torna a porgere, finché ti paia,
Sian altre mille, poi cento aggiungimi,
E poi bevuteci tante migliaia;
Di ben confonderle siam pronti all’opra,
Che non sappiamle, che non c’invidii
Se tanto numero mal uom discopra.

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Comments:

  1. Edoardo:

    Bravo Serena, un po’ di cultura fa bene.
    Bravissima Geoff’s translation of the poem.
    Abbot’s translation from latin is figurative because he is not allowed to be direct on these matters.
    Thank you both again.

  2. Allan Mahnke:

    Tante grazie Serena!

    Yes, we’ve had the luxury of having read all of Catullus in school many years ago and now again we return often. We remember also that this lovely poem is not even remotely one of the naughtier he left us. It is just a beautiful poem. As lovers of Latin we thank you!

    But even more, thank you for this blog. We always look forward to reading what you have.

    Kathryn & Allan

  3. andreas:

    Salve Serena!
    E’ davvero una cosa misteriosa: baciarsi fa male e bere fa bene? A proposito, mi e’ piaciuta molto la truduzione di Geoff. L’unica cosa non posso capire perche’ si traduce ‘severior’ come ‘perfido’ quando vuol dire ‘molto severo'(certo piu’ severo per essere precisi)? (Ho avuto un po’ di latino all’universita’.)
    Andreas

    • Serena:

      @andreas Salve Andreas, sono d’accordo con te: i baci sono da censurare ma l’alcol no? La nostra traduzione l’abbiamo basata su quella di Quasimodo, che è molto vicino all’originale ma non letterale. Anch’io ho fatto latino a scuola e all’università, ma è troppo arrugginito per tentare una traduzione direttamente dal latino. Volevo più che altro far capire il senso della poesia.

      Saluti da Serena

  4. Robin:

    Buonasera Serena/Geoff
    Vi prego, potreste scrivere un blog che spiega gli usi della parola “porgere”?
    Grazie in anticipo
    Robin


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