Excerpt from “Translating Obscenities in Catullus” by Ward Archibald ‘17

The act of translating is a constant balancing act between literal meaning and intent, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the challenge of translating obscenities.  The translation of expletives and vulgar words is entirely dependent upon the sensibilities of the translator and the culture of the language into which they are to be transposed.  For example, a translation written during the 18th century in England will differ substantially from one composed during the 21st century in the United States.  Not only do the current obscenities change, but also cultures become more or less comfortable with blatantly vulgar words.  This distinction becomes readily apparent in translating the obscenities of Catullus, a Roman lyric poet widely known for his colorful language.  For example, Catullus uses the word irrumare or derivatives thereof to shocking effect in some of his poetry.  This word is known to be an expletive and essentially means to force someone to perform oral sex.  When approaching a word as vulgar as this, there are three main options for translating: omission, euphemism, or vulgarity.  But with the variety of words and phrases for oral sex in the English language, ranging from irreverent colloquialisms to formal terms, how would a translator best attempt to capture the intended meaning?

First, Irrumare is given by Lewis and Short to mean “to extend the breast to, to give suck” in Catullus 16 but is taken to mean, “to treat in a foul or shameful manner, to abuse, deceive” in Catullus’ poem 28.  Neither of the definitions listed in Lewis and Short truly communicates the violent and embarrassing nature of the act in either case, and the definitions themselves are euphemistic and rely upon the etymology of the word.  J.N. Adams in The Latin Sexual Vocabulary notes that “it is a denominative of ruma/rumis, ‘teat’, and would originally have meant ‘put in the teat’” but also notes that while the word may have started out to metaphorically describe oral sex, it soon became a “basic obscenity”  (Adams, 3; 126).  The avoidance by this dictionary is no surprise, as it was published in 1879, a time in which scholars and translators alike were uncomfortable dealing with such vulgar obscenities.  But it is not as if they did not understand its sexual and obscene meaning; in Catullus poem 16, it is used right next to the Latin word pedico, another clearly sexual word for which Lewis and Short gives another euphemistic definition.  Daniel H. Garrison, based on the more modern Oxford Latin Dictionary and his readings of Catullus, defines the word more clearly, saying that irrumare means, “to force someone to give oral sex (fellatio), as a means of humiliating him” (Garrison, 210).  This definition will be the primary one used for this study and illustrates the sexual and abusive natures of the verb that Lewis and Short dances around.

Lewis and Short was far from the canary in the coalmine for translating Latin obscenities euphemistically, but more so a product of a tradition that had been perpetuated for almost as long as the Latin texts had been translated into English.  When dictionaries were resorting to euphemism, it seems not only indicative that translators of the time and before were uncomfortable with the vulgarities, but also clear that translations would be hindered by the lack of an accurate and representative definition.  In short, it is not the definition of irrumare that Catullus would have chosen.  But what is? Is such a violent and sexual translation necessary for every appearance of the word?  When being used in a more metaphorical sense, this and other obscenities must be approached with different tactics.  Poem 28 is a much less violent poem than poem 16.  While definitely full of vivid rhetoric, 28 lacks the shocking and abrupt language of the earlier poem.  Therefore it may not be necessary to use the same offensive English translation, which would seem out of place in this context, as poem 28 uses a derivation of the word irrumare to establish a sexual metaphor of Catullus having been used by his praetor.  Catullus’ use of irrumare does not seem to infer that the actual sexual act occurred, as the rest of the poem deals with the fact that Catullus and his friends received no extra compensation from their time abroad and their debt rather than with other sexually explicit themes.  But the sexual and violent denotations of the word cannot be ignored: “Thus all of the uses of irrumare in Catullus are similar to the sort of threats made by Priapus; Catullus does not use irrumare to mean ‘cheat’” (Richlin, 44).  While it is true that Catullus did not literally use the word irrumare as “to cheat”, he certainly intended it to be part of a metaphor demonstrating that he had been robbed or deprived in some way by his praetor.  Therefore, this usage will be a much more subtle balance than the earlier explicit meaning, and will therefore require a careful translation.

So how do translators proceed with translating obscenities?  It seems obvious that the exclusion of irrumare fails to convey the intended meaning of the poetry.  After that, the argument could feasibly be made between explicit and euphemistic translations in every case.  While it seems possible to interpret the better translation based on the language and content of the poem itself, it is a matter of interpretation. For example, in every verbal use of irrumare, Lee consistently uses the word “to stuff”.  This approach creates some problems, because by applying a blanket approach, an author might miss out on the subtleties of what the word is expressing in each particular poem.  Therefore, the best way to translate charged obscenities such as irrumare seems to be on a case-by-case basis.  Because while the harsh and vulgar translation “face-fuck” may work for poem 16, it may be too extreme for the translation that an author is trying to construct in poem 28, and may rather overshadow the metaphor with shock value.  On the other hand, translating irrumare as “to stuff” in poem 16 may be too soft, not conveying the threat and menace behind the sentence, and forfeiting some of the shocking humor.  Hopefully, through the study of irrumare, it can be shown that this mentality should be applied to other expletives as well.


Works Cited

Adams, J. N. The Latin Sexual Vocabulary. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. Print.

Catullus. Catullus: The Complete Poems. Trans. Guy Lee. N.p.: Oxford World’s Classics, 1990. Web.

Gaisser, Julia Haig. Catullus in English. London: Penguin, 2001. Print.

Richlin, Amy. “The Meaning of Irrumare in Catullus and Martial”. Classical Philology 76.1 (1981): 40–46. JStor. Web.

Sandy, Gerald N.. “Catullus 16”. Phoenix 25.1 (1971): 51–57. Web. 15