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  • Re-Figuring the Feminine Voice:Catullus Translating Sappho
  • Ellen Greene

Sappho, writing at the origin of lyric poetry, occupies a central place in the development of subjectivity in the West. In her poetry, many have seen the birth of a lyric self, a singular "I" that also speaks as a generalized lyric subject.2 Page duBois describes Sappho's crucial role in establishing individual lyric identity: "We see in the work of Sappho the very beginnings of this process, the construction of selfhood, of the fiction of subjectivity at its origins" (1995.6). In Sappho's most celebrated and most imitated poem, fragment 31, the lyric "I" seems to coincide with the moment of its own death. Fragment 31 is the only extant poem of Sappho that explicitly dramatizes desire for the beloved through a loss of voice that is associated with a kind of death. No poem of Sappho demonstrates more dramatically than fragment 31 the paradoxical relationship between the magical effects of song and the debilitating effects of erotic experience.3 It is this paradox that seems to make Sappho's poetry, particularly fragment 31, perpetually translatable.4 [End Page 1]

While numerous translations and imitations of fragment 31 have been attempted through the past 26 centuries, Catullus' poem 51 is often thought to come closest to the original. Although Sappho 31 and its translation, Catullus 51, may appear on a surface reading to "say" the same thing, Catullus' particular choice of words and word order in his translation transforms the meaning of the poem in significant ways. Although a number of important studies have compared the two poems, these studies have focussed either on the apparent incoherence between the first three stanzas and the famous otium stanza in the Catullus poem or on the ways the two poems reflect differently various aspects of oral and literate culture.5 My own analysis will consider how Catullus' "translation" of Sappho's poem is shaped not only by his cultural distance from Sappho but also by his gender, in particular, by conceptions of masculinity prevalent in Roman culture. Although I will examine the significance of the last stanza, my discussion will be part of a larger argument about how Catullus' "reading" of Sappho's poem reflects a tradition of Roman moralizing discourses. I will also focus on the ways in which Catullus turns the Sapphic triangle of desire into a heteroerotic triangle and re-constructs Sappho's poem as an expression of male (poetic) desire.

As I have already mentioned, numerous poets through the ages, both male and female, have translated and imitated Sappho's fragment 31. One reason for discussing Catullus' particular contribution to this body of translation is that Catullus 51 is generally considered to come closest to Sappho's poem. For that reason, it demonstrates rather starkly the degree to which translation necessarily occurs as a consequence of particular cultural and discursive conditions. Both poems, as Paul Allen Miller has pointed out (1994.102), can only be understood as part of the "dialogical situation which constitutes their (particular) context of enunciation."

We may approach the different dialogical situations of the two poems by first noting that the narrative contexts of these poems differ in a crucial way. While both poems, at the outset, describe an erotic triangle, in Catullus' poem, the speaker is a male, named "Catullus," who appears to [End Page 2] rival another male for the attentions and affections of a woman, named in the poem as "Lesbia." In Sappho's poem, however, the speaker and desiring subject is an unnamed woman who, at least on the surface, rivals a man for the affections of another unnamed woman. As he does in a number of his amatory poems, Catullus gives the name "Lesbia" to the speaker's object of desire. Most scholars agree that Lesbia refers to a woman named Clodia, generally thought to be either Clodia Metelli, a consul's wife, or one of her sisters. Since the name Clodia is metrically equivalent to the name "Lesbia," it could easily have been substituted for "Lesbia" if the manuscript circulated privately, as often was the case.6 But a more important reason for the use...