Translation of Catullus 51 (c.84-c.54 BC)

by , on Mar 22, 2016

ad Lesbiam

Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
qui sedens adversus identidem te
     spectat et audit
dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
    * * * * * * * *
lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures gemina, teguntur
     lumina nocte.
otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
     perdidit urbes.


Catullus 51

That one seems to me the equal of a god
he, were it not ineffable, might surpass gods,
that one, sitting beside you, over and again watches and
hears you laughing sweetly.
This snatches all senses out of
miserable me, for when at once
I look at you, Lesbia, nowt immeasurable is
too much for me.
But the tongue is dozy, a thin fire
runs up my frame, night
dims my two eyes.
Laziness, Catullus, is your ill
In leisure you delight and exult.
Otiosity has long since ruined
kings and beatified cities.

—trans. T. R. Williams


Translation of Catullus 51 is a double whammy, a translation of Catullus’s translation, or adaptation, of Sappho 31. Catullus often turned to Sappho as a model, the mantra in classical poetry being not make it new, but make it more of what it is. Catullus felt no anxiety of influence. Influence was to be flaunted. What interests me is not so much how the poet follows his model, expressing jealousy of the man now enjoying Lesbia’s company, it’s where he deviates. Sappho describes the physical effects of jealousy – the sudden rush of blood that ties her tongue and blinds her eyes. Catullus is as cavalier as a court poet, as cool as Cary Grant. His tongue is not tied but dozy. The rush of blood is thin. Oh well, he says, I could undertake anything to win you but I’m lazy. I love you but I love my leisure too. He scolds himself for indolence of a kind that has ruined kings and cities. Three times, stacked one on another, he uses the word “otiose.” His address turns from his beloved to himself. Why? It’s a question scholars worry. To me it looks a bit like the pretended indifference that is typical of the jilted and has been for a couple of millennia.

— Sherry Chandler


Sherry Chandler has published two volumes of poetry, The Wood Carver’s Wife and Weaving a New Eden, both from Wind Publications.

T. R Williams is a woodcarver who translates Catullus for pleasure.