Sappho and Catullus: The Relationship Between Sappho and Catullus Analysis

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Sappho and Catullus: The Relationship Between Sappho Fragment 31 and Catullus 51

Reading the texts of both Sappho fragment 31 and Catullus 51, it is easy to discern that both texts pertain to the same particular event. Obviously, as Sappho predates Catullus by over 500 years, it is clear that Sappho’s writings were the basis of Catullus’ version of the text. However what is not clear upon first reading both texts is Catullus intent in writing his version of the famous Sappho fragment. What remains most probable is that Catullus sought to translate Sappho’s writing into his language in order to have a broader audience for Sappho’s readers, as aside from his Catullus’ translation of Sappho’s fragment 31, it was not until much later that these texts were to be translated into various other languages and interpretations. It could just have been that Catullus was way ahead of his time in attempting to interpret or reintroduce Sappho’s text to have actually been considered as a translation of the said text or as a work to be entirely his own. However, the fact that Catullus went in a different direction than that of Sappho’s in the fourth and final stanza of the poem is a mark of his own. As he derives from Sappho’s original work towards the ending, he then injects the piece with something of his own interpretation – no longer then, is he translating at this point onwards, but providing an alternative to what has been started by Sappho.

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Differences between the two texts can also be seen in the way the versions are translated by others. As Sappho wrote in Greek and Catullus wrote in Latin, the differences can only truly be appreciated by one with a firm grasp of both languages. However, each version has been subjected to their respective translations and as such are made possible to analyze and study by those with even just an firm grasp of the English language. This allows us to carefully analyze the two texts and the relationship between them despite the use of different languages in their original forms.

 In Sappho’s writings, the Greek word “Φαίνεταί” is used to denote the word “seem” in English, whereas Catullus’ Latin version uses the word “videtur”. The relationship between the words with regards to their respective languages lies within the context but seeing as their usage here is for the same particular scenario which was first described by Sappho and was later portrayed by Catullus in his version of the text, then it is safe to say that the usage of both words are of the same intent. However, as with most language differences often are, a translation into a more common language – in this case, English – often runs into problems such as not having a particular word to translate the original word. What happens here is mostly interpretation of the text into the closest word possible. Where Sappho probably meant “seem” then, or “seemingly”, Catullu was interpreted into mentioning the subject not only to be seemingly a god, but to be of some entity that is actually at par with a god, or even higher or loftier. We can actually say that the shift of relation is between an unsure  description of the subject to that of a rather definite contrasting or contradictory one. This is based on what the translators did with Catullu’s text which have the common factor of the subject being described as one who is of the same level with a god or even more, of course only to the eye of the beholder which in this case is the narrator of the text.

With regards to the instances pertaining to the description of the man who appears to be a god, Sappho uses the Greek word “θέοισιν” while Catullus used the words “Deo” and “Diuos”.  Again, the difference lies in how the subject was described, shifting from what Sappho describes as one who seems to be a god or appears much like a god, to Catullus’ depiction of the subject as one who is at par or even above the gods. The translators (except for Whigham) all have the second line of Catullus’ text to describe the person at a level above god or superior to god.

Continuing the analysis of both texts, it was observed that there is a slight difference regarding the translations of the third stanza, particularly with the Greek word “γλῶσσα” used by Sappho which translated into the Latin “lingua” in Catullus’ version of the text. Both words literally translate into the English word tongue. However, many of the translations speak of the word “flame” in this stanza. For the translations of Sappho’s text, the relationship between the word “tongue” and “flame” is constant as the dancing of flames can also be described as a “flickering of tongues”, referring to the movement of a tamed fire which dances around in the wind. Sappho uses the word with regards to a sensation of flame stopping one from within. Catullu however uses the word with relation to being hampered or stopped by expressing how the tongue is rendered speechless or of no use such as in it being wounded or the like.

Reading the texts side by side as well as the various translations or interpretations of them from other translators, who, just as Catullu was able to draw out his own interpretation or version of Sappho’s original text, are also able to write their own interpretations of the texts written by either Sappho or Catullu, we see how languages relate to each other in terms of their meaning and yet are somewhat altered through the transition from one language to the other. In this case, as the original Greek text as written by Sapphos is translated and in some ways interpreted in a different manner by Catullu in Latin, and eventually both texts are translated into the English language by other translators with different perspectives on the text, the transition between languages tend to get more and more complicated with every transition. Add to this the fact that translation can always be subjective to the interpreter. Thus, there is a high chance of inconsistency between translations and interpretations.

Regarding the other words consistent in both Sappho’s and Catullu’s texts, what was observed was the uniformity of the word “ear” or “ears” in the various translations of both texts. Where Sappho’s use of the Greek word “αὔτικα” to describe the overwhelming feeling of what seems to be death taking over, the translators of her text show the same use of the word “ear”, which is to describe how the hearing sensation is slowly drowned out into uselessness. The case is the same with the Catullu’s use of the Latin word “aures”, where most of the translations read the same; ears ringing to the point where the auditory senses are rendered useless.

Despite the accuracy in Catullu’s use of the Sapphic meter in his version of Sappho’s fragment 31, the translations in English on both texts are somewhat difficult to pull off in the aforementioned metric. As such attention seemed to be focused on the interpretation of the message or meaning of the poems itself, although still at an effort to match the Sapphic meter.

Basing on assumption, the relationship between Catullus fourth stanza and the part where Sappho’s work breaks off seems to be an assumption of how the text continues and as such is incorporated into the fourth or last stanza in Catullus work. The presumption of where the story is going is probably what prompted Catullus’ version of the fourth stanza. How Sappho’s work trails off with the narrator feeling a calming death and how he must endure it, Catullus begins his fourth stanza twith how ease or calm is the enemy of the narrator.

In closing, the multiple translations provided an illuminating insight as to how languages are interpreted or translated into other language. Had there only been one interpretation and a lack of actual understanding of the original text, the reader then would believe the sole translation to be an actual representation of what the original author had intended in writing the original text. In this case, had there been no other translations of Sappho’s original text and Catullus’ version of it, it would be easy to assume that the two works are the same – differing only in language. The understanding of the languages and the interpretations of the two works had made it easier to understand not only the story and how they are both portrayed by their respectful authors, but also the relationship between languages and the process in which they undergo translations through subjective interpretations.


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Sappho and Catullus: The Relationship Between Sappho and Catullus Analysis. (2016, Sep 27). Retrieved from

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