The Books of Catullus is the first full English translation of Catullus to take him at his word. It divides the Roman poet’s complete works into the three ‘books’ in which many scholars believe the poems were originally received in the Late Republic (c. 60 bc). The length of each book, or grouping, correlates to the usual length of a single roll of papyrus from that period. These ‘books’ gather poems in different metres and concentrate on specific themes. Poems 1–60 are polymetra, from hendecasyllabics to the Sapphics of Poems 11 and 51, on love and friendship. Poems 61–64 concentrate on the theme of marriage. Poems 65–116 are short epigrams written in elegiac couplets.
This translation concentrates on the range and variety of tone Catullus achieves, qualities sacrificed in most versions to a homogenising, singular translator’s voice. Through syllable count, ventriloquism and mapping the registers of the originals – poem 16 ghosts the voice of Frank O’Hara, for instance – these versions shadow the originals, true to scholarship and at the same time true to Catullus’s poetry line by line. ‘It would be worth ten years of a man’s life to translate Catullus,’ said Ezra Pound. Simon Smith has found it so.