Getting Horace Across

by J. Kates

When curmudgeons want to argue the intractability of poetry to translation, one of the first names they pull out of the hat is that of Quintus Horatius Flaccus. It is generally acknowledged that his poetry is about as untranslatable as you can get. Therefore, in the perversity of human endeavor, Horace is probably the most translated poet in the Western world, honored even by the attentions of at least one prime minister of the British Empire, William Ewart Gladstone. “‘We love Horace,'” William Peterfield Trent wrote,

“and hence we must try to set him forth in a way to make others love him,” is what all translators, it would seem, say to themselves, consciously or unconsciously, when they decide to publish their respective renditions. And who shall blame them? Where is the critic competent to judge their work, who has not himself listened to the Siren’s song, if but for a moment in his youth, who has not a version of some ode of Horace hid away among his papers, the memory of which will doubtless forever prevent him from flinging a stone at any fellow-offender? [1]

One of Horace’s most thoroughly worked-over poems is the fifth ode in his first book of carmina. [2] It begins with the speaker of the poem putting a question to a blonde bombshell. Pyrrha—her name actually means “redhead,” but the adjective (flavam) used within the poem to describe her hair means golden yellow—is asked rhetorically who her latest victim might be. Then the speaker shifts his attention to this over-cologned eager swain and his plight, with the metaphor of the callow youth as an inexperienced seafarer enjoying what the kid thinks will be a pleasant voyage, one all too soon caught up in storm and shipwreck. In the last stanza, the speaker reveals himself as the survivor of such a catastrophe, giving thanks in the temple for having escaped his own Pyrrhic disaster.

Quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa
perfusus liquidis urget odoribus
grato, Pyrrha, sub antro?
cui flavam religas comam

simplex munditiis? heu quotiens fidem
mutatosque deos flebit et aspera
nigris aequora ventis
emirabitur insolens

qui nunc te fruitur credulus aurea,
qui semper vacuam, semper amabilem
sperat, nescius aurae
fallacis. miseri, quibus

intemptata nites. me tabula sacer
votiva paries indicat uvida
suspendisse potenti
vestimenta maris deo.

John Milton was one of the first to put this poem into English:

What slender Youth bedew’d with liquid odours
Courts thee on Roses in some pleasant Cave,
Pyrrha for whom bindst thou
In wreaths thy golden Hair,

Plain in thy neatness; O how oft shall he
On Faith and changèd Gods complain: and Seas
Rough with black winds and storms
Unwonted shall admire:

Who now enjoyes thee credulous, all Gold,
Who alwayes vacant alwayes amiable
Hopes thee; of flattering gales
Unmindfull. Hapless they

To whom thou untry’d seem’st fair. Me in my vow’d
Picture the sacred wall declares t’ have hung
My dank and dropping weeds
To the stern God of Sea.

To give some indication of the difficulty in translating Horace, let’s start by looking at the intricate arrangement of the first stanza. [3]

When my wife first learned English, she complained that her new language felt like a prison in the rigidity of its word order. She comes from a language that is highly inflected, in which the function of words is indicated by case endings, not by their placement in a sentence. It’s possible in such a language to write “In the English language prison languishes,” where the prepositional phrase “in prison” visually imprisons its languishing subject. But if you try to read that sentence as written here in English, the word order turns its meaning inside out, so that it sounds as though prison is languishing in English. In an inflected language, adjectives can be detached from their nouns and slammed or cuddled against each other. Verbal actions can gracefully until the very end of their sentences be suspended.

Latin is such a language. The flexibility and fluidity of Latin word order was exploited by writers of both prose and verse, but perhaps by none with such versatility as Horace. Had he followed the original Latin, Milton’s English first stanza would look like this: “What on [many] slender thee Youth / Roses bedew’d with liquid Courts odours / in some pleasant, Pyrrha, Cave. / For whom thy golden bindst thou [in wreaths] Hair.” While this makes for verbal nonsense, it represents visual virtuosity in the original. With the very first line, Pyrrha (te) is placed (as an object, not a subject) in the center of affairs, surrounded most intimately by the slender boy, and the two of them together are wreathed in roses. The second line fills out the description of the boy (perfumed) and makes him active—he presses his suit on Pyrrha in the third line, where the poet has located her by name literally, physically, already inside the comfortable and Freudianly suggestive grotto. The last line of the first stanza spills the lady’s hair into the first line of the next, creating its own structural reaction to the oxymoron of her coiffure pinned up in artful simplicity. Some avid lover or some clever poet is pulling it loose.

But stop—there’s more! “Gracilis” has a double meaning. The boy is slender, but there may be an implication that he is stripped down, naked. As we read farther into the poem, simplicity and naïveté are underlined, hers artfully (simplex munditiis) and his more ingenuously. Immediately after we learn Pyrrha’s name, we learn the color of her hair (the only indication we’re given of her physical allure) which springs on us an implication of artificiality—is she a bottle blonde?

By this time we’re only four and a half lines in, and we haven’t yet talked at all about metrical tricks or patterns of sound—about the hapax legomenon in line eight or any number of things. If we try to juggle all these at once, we will certainly agree that the ode is “untranslatable,” in that all of the effects cannot be brought over at once, especially into a language that is structurally different.

Instead of the young lover’s tempest-tossed ocean crossing, think of the old puzzle: A man has to get a fox, a chicken, and a sack of corn across a river. He has a small rowboat, and it can carry only him and one other thing. If the fox and the chicken are left together, the fox will eat the chicken. If the chicken and the corn are left together, the chicken will eat the corn. How does the man do it?

Unlike in the mathematical puzzle, something always gets left behind.
Milton did not provide us with an explanation of what he left behind, what he jettisoned, and what he tried to bring across, but other translators have done so. What I’d like to do here is quickly survey the different strategies of a handful of more recent translators, looking just at the opening of I:5.

“[The translator]” should endeavour, with whatever changes of mere form, to preserve in all cases the sense and point of his author, and should sparingly allow the perilous but seductive doctrine of free translation,” Gladstone wrote in a commentary on his own 1894 translations. He adopted a convention familiar to those who have read my last essay (“Martial Music”), domesticating the form of the four and a half lines into one more attuned to his English-speaking audience: a rhymed, closed quatrain.

What scented stripling, Pyrrha, woos thee now
    In pleasant grotto, all with roses fair?
For whom those auburn tresses bindest thou
    With simple care? [4]

This is deliberate, because Gladstone values as essential what he calls “compression” in the translation of Horace. Not for him the wanton enjambment of Pyrrha’s tresses. (A respectable English gentleman himself, he takes Pyrrha’s hair-dressing, both in color and style, at face value). I particularly like the arch precision in translation of “stripling” for “gracilis…puer,” [5] but I don’t think anyone could get away with that word in the twenty-first century.

David Ferry shares Gladstone’s value of compression, and also mirrors the strategy of making the verse conform to contemporary form and diction—in a different generation, of course. [6] He does this with a necessary caution: “Every act of translation is an act of interpretation, and every choice of English word or phrase, every placement of those words or phrases in sentences — made in obedience to the laws and habits of English, not Latin, grammar, syntax and idioms — and every metrical decision — made in obedience to English, not Latin, metrical laws and habits — reinforce the differences between the interpretation and the original.” [7]

What perfumed debonair youth is it, among
The blossoming roses, urging himself upon you
In the summer grotto? For whom have you arranged
Your shining hair…? [8]

Ferry’s young man is no stripling in any sense, but debonair. That adjective implies that he knows what he’s doing. Pyrrha herself is identified neither by name [9] nor by hair color. Whatever implications night be entangled in “shining,” they are not those of artfulness or artificiality. Ferry’s translation universalizes the story, taking it out of the particular. We’ve lost one main character, and the emphasis gets thrown more on the youth—and after that on the speaker himself in the last stanza, who comes across as less rueful, less “self-mocking.” [10] Ferry’s interpretation has picked out for emphasis one important Horatian theme, an ongoing conversation between carpe-diem youth and the wisdom of experience.

Charles E. Passage, coming from a completely different direction, “privileging,” as we shudder to say in contemporary jargon, the original language, attempted to reproduce as closely as possible the Latin meter in English:

What slim lad, in his fine    perfumes and scented oils,
Couched on rose petals strewn    thick in a charming cave,
    Now makes love to you, Pyrrha?
         For whom now is your golden hair

Dressed so artfully plain? [11]

This inevitably shows some strain. “Thick” feels intrusive, introduced illogically to provide a stressed syllable, like the duplication of “perfumes and scented oils,” but somehow completely out of tone with the delicacy of everything else in the stanza. “Makes love to you” catches the urgency of “urget,” [12] and I have no trouble finding Pyrrha’s cave “charming.” But English is so much more monosyllabic than Latin that the tripping, unaccented syllables make for a somehow inappropriately rollicking Passage.

Sidney Alexander [13] waxed lyrical: “I have put a stethoscope to the heartbeat of the poetry. I have listened to the pulsations of the lines, those beats which are the life of the verbal organism….[H]aving ascertained the rhythmic pattern, I have sought not to reproduce (which is impossible in the crossover of languages) but to recreate an English equivalent which should be true to the genius of our language and yet be related (at least as blood-cousins are related) to the Latin original.” And so this is how he began his I:5:

What graceful youth, bedewed with perfume,
is embracing you, O Pyrrha, on beds of roses
    in the pleasant grotto?
    For whom have you braided

with measured elegance your golden hair? [14]

I can’t help thinking that Alexander has brought the corn over and left the fox behind. He graciously acknowledged Milton with “bedewed” and recreated the idiom of “multa in rosa” with the even more clichéd “bed of roses.” He spread Pyrrha’s golden hair all across the first line of the following stanza, and he managed to sound (in the second half of the twentieth century) at least as Victorian as Gladstone. To me, his effects sound as strained as Passage’s, and I don’t think he’s lived up to his own prescription “to recreate an English equivalent which should be true to the genius of our language.” In contrast to his intent, what he has succeeded in bringing across is the Latinity of the poem, its placement in the Roman first century BCE. It reads the way we think a classical poem ought to read, the Horace of whom Byron wrote, “it is a curse / To understand, not feel thy lyric flow.” [15]

Joseph P. Clancy expressed himself as sensitive to the metrics of the Roman poet: “Some of the lyrics I have translated in a comparatively free rhythm, but I found that I needed a set pattern in which to work. For many of the poems I have employed syllabic meters that match the number of syllables in the original lines. This gives one point of correspondence with the Latin meters, but I am not pretending that it can bring the effect of these meters into English….I have tried as often as possible to follow the original in such matters as run-on and end-stopped lines and stanzas.” [16] Which leads to:

What slim and sweetly scented boy
presses you to the roses, Pyrrha,
    in your favorite grotto?
         For whom is your blond hair styled,

deceptively simple? [17]

I have to confess a slight personal preference for Clancy. I think he has mastered “compression” at least as well as Gladstone and Ferry, and certainly tamed the meter rather than being controlled by it. I like what he does, not only rhythmically, but also with alliteration, assonance, and phrasing. He left a very great deal of Horace’s Latin text behind, for sure—but I’d characterize what he left behind as the poultry, not the poetry. He shows himself at least as thoughtful and careful as Horace, with different resources—deceptively simple, indeed.

Each one of these translators made different choices. There is a cliché derived from a remark by Robert Frost that poetry “is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation,” [18] but the quip obscures reality. Abiding on the far side of the river is not being lost. Nothing really gets lost in translation, any more than “poetry” is lost in any single reading of a poem in English. David Ferry—whose surname seems singularly if accidentally apt here—is right. Every translation is an interpretation, an idiosyncratic take on the text, leaving something behind, carrying something over. Not only will every reader read it differently, but the same reader coming at it a different time will read it differently, fox and corn and chicken. The solution to the puzzle is that the small boat goes back and forth, back and forth, carrying what it can each time, juggling its cargo. It makes more than one trip. Far from being untranslatable, Horace’s poetry is almost infinitely translatable.

[1] William Peterfield Trent, “On Translating the Odes of Horace,” in The Oxford Book of American Essays, ed. Brander Matthews. Return to Text

[2] One of the reasons I chose this ode to look closely at is that a far more detailed explication of it, covering the same ground I’ve covered here and going farther and deeper, can be found in a useful delightful vade mecum, How to Read a Latin Poem If You Can’t Read Latin Yet, by William Fitzgerald (Oxford University Press, 2013), 110-120.
Return to Text

[3] We should note that the division of “stanzas” in the text is a modern construct imposed on the rhythmic structure of the original Latin. Return to Text

[4] The Odes of Horace, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), 8. Return to Text

[5] A rare incidence where English is actually more compact than Latin.
Return to Text

[6] There are fashions in translation, as in everything else. This essay may adumbrate, but it will not outline, a history of fashion. Return to Text

[7] The Odes of Horace, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), xiv. Return to Text

[8] Ferry, 17. Return to Text

[9] Except in his titling the ode “To Pyrrha.” With any other translator (and many have used that title, which Horace didn’t) this might be an irrelevant, trivial observation, but Ferry’s wife was the thoughtful author of an important book analyzing relationships between text and title in poems.
Return to Text

[10] Fitzgerald, 111. Return to Text

[11] The Complete Works of Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) Translated in the meters of the originals, by Charles E. Passage (Frederic Ungar, 1983), 135. Return to Text

[12] James Michie (Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), “makes hot love” on p. 14, which may be a bit much.
Return to Text

[13] The Complete Odes and Satires of Horace, (Princeton University Press, 1999), 11, xxvi-vii.
Return to Text

[14] Ibid., 11. Return to Text

[15] Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, canto IV, ll.
Return to Text

[16] The Odes and Epodes of Horace (University of Chicago Press, 1960), 6.
Return to Text

[17] Ibid., 30.
Return to Text

[18] Interviews with Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 203.
Return to Text

Published on March 22, 2016