Catullus’ Otium: A Transgressive Translation?


  • Stefanie Kletke



The majority of the discussion surrounding Catullus 51 has centered on the function or fit of the poem’s last stanza. For, while the first three stanzas of the poem describe what the sound and sight of Lesbia physically does to Catullus, the poem’s concluding discussion of otium seems to abruptly change the topic, tone, narrative voice, and addressee from what preceded. However, what tends to be ignored in the discussion is the context of the entire poem, both in relation to the rest of the Catullan corpus and to the Sappho poem it is a translation of. Indeed, Catullus’ multilayered poem refers to the Lesbia narrative of Catullus’ corpus, it concludes and directly responds to Catullus 50, and, most importantly, it is a close translation of Sappho 31, a poem from a genre that had largely remained untouched before Catullus’ time, and of a poet who inspired the name of Catullus’ literary mistress. Furthermore, the prefacing nature of poem 50 and the deliberate insertion of Catullus into poem 51 together allude to the uneasy attitude that the Romans held in regards to translation, specifically the translation of a genre that had little in common with Roman culture. Therefore, when the poem is compared to and read alongside other Catullan poems, the last stanza does not seem to be as jarring as it has been purported to be, and is, in fact, informed by the poem that directly precedes it; when Catullus 51 is read as a translation, namely one that is conscious of its status as a translation, the otium stanza is seen as an integral part of a very Catullan poem, and of a very Roman translation.