The Great Fututiones Debate.

This is one of the best letter exchanges I’ve seen. Here’s the intro:

“It is not easy to write a Life of Catullus”, Helen Morales observes in the TLS of April 22. Nor, apparently, is it a straightforward matter to translate him. Professor Morales was reviewing two books, Daisy Dunn’s Catullus’ Bedspread: The life of Rome’s most erotic poet and Dunn’s accompanying edition of Catullus’ poems. The second book gave our reviewer cause for concern. Morales wrote:

The translations themselves show little sensitivity to the Latin language. For example, in Poem 32 the poet addresses his lover, the “sweet Ipsitilla”, and urges her to invite him round. Dunn translates:

Let no one bolt the door
And don’t be tempted to go out,
But stay home and make ready for us
And nine consecutive fucks.

The Latin word fututiones, which Dunn translates as “fucks”, is no ordinary one. It is a word invented by Catullus and only appears in Latin literature in Catullus and Martial. It conveys an exaggerated amount, and needs translating in way that captures the originality of the term, the excess implied, and the humour in the poet’s urgency. In their translations Jane Wilson Joyce has “Fornifuckations”, Guy Lee “fuctions”, and Peter Green “fuckfests”. Dunn’s commonplace “fucks” misses the point. She is also inconsistent in handling metre. The elegiac poems are rendered with an economy similar to the Latin, whereas the hexameters of Poem 64, the exquisite mythological poem whose description of a wedding coverlet gives Dunn’s book its title, are translated into free verse . . .

I’ll let you read the reader responses for yourselves; I particularly like Peter Green’s letter and wishes-he’d-thought-of-it-at-the-time solution. (Via


  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    I wonder if the notion that the word “fututio” was invented by Catullus is rather like the popular misconception that a word was invented by Shakespeare if there is no preserved previous attestation of it? Bearing in mind also that we have only a tiny fraction of the literature of the Romans (in Catullus’ case, we just barely got him at all; one manuscript for nearly all of him.)

    It’s an obvious formation, and the fact that it appears only in Catullus and and Martial is hardly surprising. It doesn’t lend itself to Tacitean prose …

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    This very passage is (unfairly) pilloried in this week’s “Pseud’s Corner” in the UK satirical magazine “Private Eye.”

  3. (unfairly) pilloried in […] “Private Eye.”

    But you repeat yourself. Anyway, what do they say about it?

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    They don’t comment; the pillorying consists in quoting it in that section, which is supposed to be snippets of unbearably pretentious and probably basically meaningless drivel from all over.

    Not infrequently one concludes that the compiler of the exhibits has really just missed the point. Occasionally the author of the snippet was probably actually *aiming* to end up in Pseud’s Corner. It’s something fairly well known among the sort of UKanians who read upmarket weeklies. I suspect the humour doesn’t travel well.

  5. Ah, I knew about the section but didn’t realize there wouldn’t be any commentary. Thanks!

  6. David Marjanović says:

    So Ancient Rome is when people still had fucks to give.

  7. As David Marjanović would say: thread won!

  8. Let me see if I can make it into Pseuds Corner.

    First, the suggested coinages of “fucketations”, “fuckifications” etc are disastrous. As David Eddyshaw points out, we have no way of knowing how common, artificial or natural fututiones was, and nor can we be sure what register Catullus was (successfully or unsuccessfully) aiming for. But there’s nothing to suggest that, within the conventions of Roman private poetry, he wasn’t speaking other than naturally. The various coinages of “fuck” + Latinate suffixes come across as archly laborious attempts to combine dirty, flippant and literary: whatever effect Catullus intended, it wasn’t laboured.

    Second, do we know that derivations from fut- were automatically obscene or even jocosely coarse? The Roman matrices for the linguistically taboo would have been very different from those of modern English – how much do we understand them? (I ask in genuine ignorance.) And very likely linguistic taboos in 1st century BC/AD Latin would have been as heterogeneous as in English. It may be that fututiones is the equivalent of something like “the beast with two backs” – not perfect as a translation, but at least not undergraduate.

    Third, if “fucks” is to be used, “nine consecutive [or straight] fucks” doesn’t ring naturally, at least in my dialect. Do people say, “Remember that night last week when we had two fucks?” No, they say “…when we fucked twice.” “Nine straight fucks” is the kind of translationese that the Zukofskys seemed to delight in. Setting aside metrical considerations, I suggest: “And we’ll fuck our brains out nine times in a row” – too wordy but at least it avoids the tone of pointyhead-trying-to-talk-dirty that’s a long way from Catullus. Others’ mileage may differ…

  9. I agree – those mixed English-Latin coinages definitely rub me the wrong way.

  10. SFReader says:

    I have a feeling that he is going to a prostitute who charges separately for each fuck.

    And he boasts that he has now money for nine…

  11. Lord, what would they say
    Did their Catullus walk that way?

    Now at last we have the answer to Yeat’s question – the respectable bald heads would say “fuck fuckulation fucketition fuckfest fornifuckation!” Not so surprising, really.

  12. Trond Engen says:

    Ian: Second, do we know that derivations from fut- were automatically obscene or even jocosely coarse?
    It may be refuted in the futere..

  13. Trond Engen says:

    Future. I re-edited against the clock and was beaten with a split second.

  14. Fututurus est?

  15. David Eddyshaw says:
  16. And here’s a nice summary passage from there:

    In a dead language it is not possible to classify obscenities by degrees of offensiveness with any precision. One can set up a group of obscenities on the evidence partly of comments by Latin writers themselves, and partly of the distribution and use of certain words. But neither ancient comments nor distributions permit one to establish subtle distinctions of tone. Nevertheless there are signs that mentula, cunnus, culus, futuo, pedico and irrumo were more offensive than coleus, fello, ceueo and criso. And in the excretory sphere basic words for ‘urinate’ (meio, mingo) seem to have been less emotive than that for ‘defecate’ (caco; cf. merda, pedo), though caco itself may have been milder than the sexual obscenities.

    […] Those words which can be identified as basic obscenities from the comments of Latin writers (notably mentula, cunnus, futuo, pedico) have a distinctive distribution: they are common in graffiti and epigram (Catullus, Martial, the Corpus Priapeorum), but almost entirely absent from other varieties of literature (including satire, if one excludes the first book of Horace’s Sermones). Certain sexual or excretory words not commented on in Latin literature which show the same distribution can plausibly be regarded as similar in status. It remains to add that various words of infrequent attestation are impossible to categorise (e.g. muto, sopio, salaputium).

  17. David E, John C: thanks. Adams’ summary above seems sensible about what can be assumed. I don’t find in his discussion of fut- words any indication that the terms had universal obscenity in the way that their English semi-equivalents do, and the fact that Cicero would actually put his views on polite/impolite words into a letter reinforces that usage wasn’t universally accepted.

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