Thursday, June 12, 2014

I’ll See Your Catullus and Raise You a Priapeia

This wasn't shocking
in 79 AD
Yesterday, my neighbor dropped by with a mid–19th-century Latin textbook. While she was in my study, she made note of my copy of the Carmina Burana. Had she kept looking, she would have seen various other Latin texts in the room, including a 1999 edition and translation of the Priapeia.

Later that night, I was looking at the blog io9 and saw the article “A Latin Poem So Filthy, It Wasn’t Translated Until The 20th Century.” Now, the twentieth century is a span of time that saw a hell of a lot of changes. Technological and social change has only accelerated through human history, and what was unprintable in 1904, is legal to publish in 1994, (and showing up on blogs in 2014, but that’s another century).

So, yes, the poem by Catullus that starts “Paedicabo ego vos et irrumabo,” (for a translation, I’m offering “I’ll ass-rape and face-fuck you”) didn’t get translated in nineteenth-century editions. Lots of things didn’t, especially since many of the editions were printed with the thought that they’d be going into the hands of sixteen-year-olds (let’s be serious: this poem is not going into a poetry anthology intended for high school juniors).

Publishers are less squeamish because they don’t have to be. Until the 1960s, a publisher who printed this sort of stuff would have been criminally liable. That Vintage is able to print Fifty Shades of Grey and Amazon is able to send it through the mails is thanks to a few important court cases, one of which involved gay men.

One of these cases is famous, it’s the Ulysses obscenity trial. The U.S. government claimed that the great modernist novel Ulysses was a dirty book. The judge in the case said he felt sorry for anyone who purchased the book looking for erotic thrills. The other case is less well known, but in 1954 the publishers of the early gay rights magazine One were accused of sending obscene materials through the mail.

One was not a physique magazine; no pictures of scantily clad or amusingly figleafed bodybuilders. This was politics. For example, one 1963 article argued that gay men ought to form stable, committed partnerships, and act as if they were married, even if the law did not permit it (I know, pretty radical stuff). The government called it obscene. One fought back and won. Advocating for gay rights was not patently obscene (this was combined in a case, Roth v. United States, that found that pictures of naked women weren’t either).

Years later, the Presidential Commission on Pornography (during the Reagan Administration) actually put the Advocate (news) on its list of pornographic publications, while not including Playboy (stereo equipment reviews, and, oh yeah, naked women) on the list. The Advocate seems to have been swept up in things because it was typically stocked next to the gay porn. The Meese Commission wasn’t big on nuance.

Now, happily, we live in a society in which an honest translation of Catullus can be published. The same is true of the Priapeia. When I read the Catullus poem, I was well prepared, because I read this poem long ago:
Pedicabere, fur, semel; sed idem
si prensus eris bis, irrumabo.
quod si tertia furta molieris,
ut poenam patiare et hanc et illam,
pedicaberis irrumaberisque.
Priapus was the Roman god of the fertile garden. His worship probably predates all the sedate ones. He was typically depicted in the garden as a horned god with a massive penis (as in “so big, the blood pressure drop for an erection would kill you”). Yeah, that’s classical literature, folks. And it’s not just decorative. If you search online, you’ll find the 1890 translation by Leonard C. Smithers and Sir Richard Burton. They fudge it:
Thief, for first thieving shalt be swived, but an
Again arrested shalt be irrumate;
And, shouldst attempt to plunder time the third,
This and that penalty thou shalt endure,
Being both pedicate and irrumate.
Yeah, they left all the dirty words untranslated (other than using the archaic “swive,” which is “fuck” in Middle English. It’s another poem that doesn’t get an honest translation until the twentieth century. Hooper (1999) provides this translation:
You’ll get fucked, thief, for the first time.
If you’re caught again, you suck me.
Should you try a third incursion,
just to suffer both together,
you’ll give fuck and suck in sequence.
Let me correct the second line. Irrumabo is “I will face-fuck you.” The poem has that same combination of pedicare and irrumare (I looked these up to get the right spelling; one online dictionary simply notes that irrumare is rude) that we see in Catullus.

Oh, those filthy Romans. And what a pleasure that we live in an era that isn’t putting up some false front of gentility. Maybe if teenagers knew what smut was tucked away in Classical literature, there’d be more interest in languages.
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