Joseph S. Salemi & Martial


Joseph S. Salemi


I BEGAN TRANSLATING Martial’s Epigrams several years ago, out of a growing impatience with the euphemistic and bowdlerized renderings of his poems that were available. I also felt (and the feeling has since hardened into a conviction) that free speech in the United States was steadily being enervated by our neurotic fear of offending anyone or any group. I hoped that, in a small way, my translations of Martial would testify that it was not an assigned task of literature to be nice to everyone.

For this reason I chose to translate those epigrams of Martial that were especially vituperative or sexually graphic (they never seemed to get into the anthologies), and to translate them in ways that evoked for modern readers the full measure of nastiness embedded in the original Latin. I chose, whenever possible, appropriate contemporary equivalents for ancient idioms and references, and I kept to a metrically loose format allowing for the free play of colloquial rendering. Responses were predictable: after reading some of my Martial translations in public, I was excoriated by the usual contingent of born-again Christians and militant feminists. Some academic careerists quietly urged me to drop the project of translating so repellent an author, lest I offend those inscrutable forces that dole out promotion and tenure. Editors showed even less spine; only six American journals out of fifty-four would publish selections from Martial–and this from a literary establishment that proclaims itself a defender of artistic freedom against Senator Helms. Typical was the comment of one trendy New York editor: “I enjoyed your translations immensely, but I could never print them.”

It was this sort of negative response, half cowardly and half censorious, that impelled me to continue my labor of translation. If Martial could evoke such fear and loathing over the distance of two millenia, he was clearly doing something right, and I was right to give him voice in English.




There wasn’t a guy in this whole damn city
Who would have touched your old lady without a stud fee
When she was easily available.

But now, with all those chaperones you’ve hired,
There’s a pack of cocksmen waiting to bang her.

You sure are clever.

(Translated from the Latin by Joseph S. Salemi)




Ponticus, you only fuck your fist.
That complaisant left hand is your sole mistress.

No big deal, you say?
Believe me pal, it’s a major crime—
More than you can imagine.

Horatius fucked just once, and sired three sons;
Mars did the same, and Ilia bore twins.
If either guy had jerked off in his hand,
Down the drain with natural increase!

Mother Nature is displeased. She chides you:
“The sticky stuff that’s dripping from your fingers
Is a human being, Ponticus.”

(Translated from the Latin by Joseph S. Salemi)




Instantius Rufus, go ahead and read
Those depraved pornographics of Musaeus,
The ones that are filthier
Than the Sybaritic sex manuals.
Read those hot and salty pages.

Just be sure your girlfriend’s with you
So that Mrs. Fist and her five lusty daughters
Aren’t your sole bridal party,
And you become a husband-plug
Without a wife-socket.

(Translated from the Latin by Joseph S. Salemi)


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