Martial – Marcus Valerius Martialis – was a first century Roman poet. He came to live in Rome from Augusta Bilbilis, near Calatayud in modern Spain, and made his name through his hundreds of short poems or ‘epigrams’. Witty, punchy and far too foulmouthed and sexually explicit for broadcast on Radio 4, only now are these poems becoming better appreciated by a wider readership.
Here are a few versions (not translations) of a few of Martial’s less fleshy poems, with the Latin originals. I imagine him not in the Roman Forum or on the Capitoline, but on the mean streets of contemporary Swansea.
Bookbuying (Book 1, no. 2)
You want my book with you wherever you go. A mate,
like, on a long trip? This is the format you need,
paperback, pocket-sized. Leave the bonkbusters
and the 600 pagers on Waterstones’ shelves.
You can hold me in one hand. ‘Where do I buy you?’
Don’t waste your time getting lost in the backstreets.
Take a cruise down Fabian Way, past the new Campus
and the Temple of Vulcan, take the next junction
for Jersey Marine and the house of the Amazons.
There you’ll find me, piles of me, in their Fulfilment Centre.
Qui tecum cupis esse meos ubicumque libellos
et comites longae quaeris habere uiae,
hos eme, quos artat breuibus membrana tabellis:
scrinia da magnis, me manus una capit.
ne tamen ignores ubi sim uenalis et erres
urbe uagus tota, me duce certus eris:
libertum docti Lucensis quaere Secundum
limina post Pacis Palladiumque forum.
Lately Mr David the surgeon’s become Dai the Death.
Consultant, undertaker, is there a difference?
Same old business – robbing us all of our breath.
Chirurgus fuerat, nunc est uispillo Diaulus:
coepit quo poterat clinicus esse modo.
Underwater (Book 2, no. 87)
‘Look, them bimbos have the hots for me.’
Really, Sexty boy?
You bin so long under water,
your skin’s all crinkly like a map,
Dicis amore tui bellas ardere puellas
qui faciem sub aqua, Sexte, natantis habes.
Death of the author (Book 3, no. 9)
Eifion’s attacking me in his little satires, they say.
But no one’s reading them. Not one.
Hasn’t he heard about the ‘death of the author’?
Versiculos in me narratur scribere Cinna.
non scribit, cuius carmina nemo legit.
An accident (Book 3, no. 52)
You bought a semi in the Uplands, Tonker. Half a million,
they say. And now there’s been a small accident,
the sort that’s not uncommon up on the hill.
The payout? A million. I ask you, Tonker my lad,
might it look as if it was you that lit the match?
Empta domus fuerat tibi, Tongiliane, ducentis:
abstulit hanc nimium casus in urbe frequens.
collatum est deciens. rogo, non potes ipse uideri
incendisse tuam, Tongiliane, domum?
Love and sex (Book 4, no. 38)
Dwynwen, just say ‘No!’ to me.
(Thrills without thumbscrews make me tire of love.)
Only don’t say ‘No!’ for too long.
Galla, nega: satiatur amor nisi gaudia torquent:
sed noli nimium, Galla, negare diu.
Tata blues (Book 5, no. 81)
On your uppers, Skipper my chum? You’ll stay that way:
these days only the rich can bank on welfare.
Semper pauper eris, si pauper es, Aemiliane:
dantur opes nillis nunc nisi diuitibus.
Cymraeg gloyw (Book 11, no. 19)
You ask why you’re not the one for me, Menna.
Because your Welsh is too perfect. Whereas
my cock can’t get its tongue round the soft mutations.
Quaeris cur nolim te ducere, Galla? diserta es:
saepe soloecismum mentula nostra facit.