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“Tools” of the Trade: Euphemism and Dysphemism in Modern English Translations of Catullus

Tori Lee

Duke University

In this talk, I argue that modern English translations of Catullus aim to create poetry that appeals to diverse audiences and reads as distinctly contemporary at the expense of the preservation or representation of the source text. To illustrate my argument, I focus on the deployment of two practices in particular: euphemism and dysphemism.

Catullan translators of yore favored practices designed to obscure or omit unsavory bits from the source material. Indeed, in his 1961 Oxford commentary on Catullus, C.J. Fordyce infamously excised a large portion of the corpus with minimal justification, saying that “a few poems which do not lend themselves to comment in English have been omitted” (v). Here, “a few” meant 32 out the 113. These “now infamous words,” as Fitzgerald reflected a generation later, “are the last echo of centuries of embarrassment, swelling frequently to outrage, at Catullan obscenity” (59). Indeed, since 1970, scholarship on Catullus and his profanities (Wiseman 1979, Richlin 1981, Adams 1982) has approached the poet’s obscene passages with much greater freedom. Surprisingly, however, the less puritanical cultural norms of Fitzgerald and later generations have not always led to greater “accuracy” in translations of Catullus’s explicit poems. As proof, I analyze seven post-1970 English translations of Catullus in order to reveal that the practice that Fitzgerald thought had died with Fordyce is far from absent in modern translation. Instead, two patterns emerge: translators still often practice euphemism, linguistic softening of the lexical register of a word to make it more palatable, and dysphemism, an over-profanation of neutral language.

Unlike earlier strategies of bowdlerization, I argue, these departures from Catullus’s original words do not suggest that translators remain squeamish. Our long history of intervention has not ended, but rather shifted to reflect potential new aims and audiences. Such intrusions may reveal a change in the way we think about translation—namely, how closely tied to the original text we must be. More than ever, translators outside of traditional academic roles, including those outside the field, are undertaking work on Classical texts, a widening of perspectives that is important for keeping ancient literature vibrant and accessible to broad audiences. The resulting translations are still often far from the original text, but for different reasons than in the past: not because of a fear of obscenity, but because modern translations often serve a different purpose than 19th and early 20th centuries versions—reaching non-specialist readers.

Session/Panel Title

A Century of Translating Poetry

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