After wrestling through several Latin translations of Horace and trying to come to grips with him as a poet, I decided the best way to get “into Horace’s head” would be to translate him myself. Though Mrs. Krepich, my high school Latin teacher, might have hoped otherwise, my Latin, poor to begin with, has atrophied. I am saved somewhat by my slightly better Greek, but I barely limp through the original for the most part. So I roped a local Latin professor into my venture and we’ve been meeting once a week, translating and debating the meaning of Horace. Later, with our discussion in mind, I will make a translation in hopes of “righting” whatever wrongs I feel has been done by modern translators.
I’m not really righting any wrongs, of course–just putting my own spin on things. But it’s been an interesting learning process. We were foolish enough to take on one of Horace’s most famous and translated Odes: i.5. Milton’s attempt is the most famous:
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.
Milton’s poem is famously “word for word” (as much as possible from the Latin) and captures Horace’s meaning clearly and accurately. Anthony Hecht did a more irreverent “imitation”:
What well-heeled knuckle-head, straight from the unisex
Hairstylist and bathed in “Russian Leather,”
Dallies with you these late summer days, Pyrrha,
In your expensive sublet? For whom do you
Slip into something simple by, say, Gucci?
The more fool he who has mapped out for himself
The saline latitudes of incontinent grief.
Dazzled though he be, poor dope, by the golden looks
Your locks fetched up out of a bottle of Clairol,
He will know that the wind changes, the smooth sailing
Is done for, when the breakers wallop him broadside,
When he’s rudderless, dismasted, thoroughly swamped
In that mindless rip-tide that got the best of me
Once, when I ventured on your deeps, Piranha.
“Russian Leather” aside, Hecht translates Horace with the 20th century reader in mind, but perhaps loses Horace’s steady-minded, quietly passionate tone in this poem.
Some critics have called Ode i.5 a perfect poem. It has an almost “tossed off” feel, yet upon further study reveals itself to be intricately wrought. It is quite similar to the way Bishop’s craft has made her a “poet’s poet.” This sense of the poem is captured by a Latin phrase from the poem itself: “simplex munditiis.” Milton translates it “Plain in thy neatness”; Hecht translates it much more loosely and colloquially as the “something simple” that Pyrrha slips into. David Ferry makes my favorite translation–“elegant and simple”–a phrase that also describes this poem. In this case, the highest art conceals its artifice. Pyrrha has possibly spent hours getting her hair “just so,” if only so that she can brush off a compliment with “Oh, it was nothing. I just rolled out of bed from a nap and it looked like this.” It reinforces the double illusion that 1. she looks this amazing all the time, and 2. she does not spend hours on her hair. It is the artifice of elegance: that whatever beauty exists in the object has arisen almost naturally, without contemplation, it’s very being tapped into beauty itself.
It’s often the same way with a poem. On the one hand, poetry, particularly formal poetry, draws attention to itself as poetry by its choice to act (or not act) in a way we understand to be poem-like. On the other hand, we derive a special pleasure out of coming full circle and hearing a poem that appears utterly unintentional in its formality, whose execution of the form makes us forget the constructedness of the form itself, as if it’s possible for a sonnet to occur in natural speech at almost any moment. It elevates poetry from “techne” to something divine (and thus the poet inspired–literally God-breathed!).
Then again, perhaps I’m overstating the goals of an art which conceals its artifice (nor do I necessarily believe that it’s the ideal or highest). I say all this only to emphasize that the process of translation–of this ode, at least–is hopeless from the beginning. Horace is just too good a craftsman for a translation to do him any ultimate justice. Yet I believe translators hope for a sort of “good will” that can exist between between themselves and the poet. In this sense, we need not fret about the “treasonous” act of translation, and another poet’s interpretation has the validity of a friendly presumption because of this good will. This good will gives license to the translator’s creative will and frees the translator from attempting to supplant the original (for indeed, this is what a perfectly accurate translation would do, were it possible to achieve). I think it also gives readers some criteria with which to judge a translation by, nebulous though it might be to try and discern the how a translator’s “good will” plays out in the text of the translation.
This brings me to my translation of Ode i.5. When I began this translation, Horace was very much on my mind; that is, I was trying to get into his head. The opening lines, especially, seem important because they say so much about what a translator interprets the original. Later, after certain decisions have been made, the poem becomes more “yours” as a writer. You’ve made certain stylistic choices in the beginning that sets in motion the rest of the poem’s machinery. The first step itself narrows the scope and closes off an infinite range of other poems. Here is my translation as it stands now:
What eager fellow is it now,
Pyrrha, who–in a cloud of cologne–brings
you roses and courts you in
a secret hideaway? (Do you
do your hair still with the same
simple elegance?) How often will
his sweat drip over your faithlessness
and the possibility that Aphrodite might change
her mind again? And how will he
unknowing marvel at the callous
sea and the blackening clouds?
You see he actually still enjoys
your love’s golden glow, flatters
himself that you’ll stay true and tender. He
doesn’t know that whispering breezes
change, that it’s a fool who steers
by untried stars. But me?
You’ll see I’ve hung my dripping
cloak in honor of the mighty god
that saved me from disaster
_____and the open sea.
The first choice for me was how to render “gracilis” the adjective that describes the young man (“puer”) who is currently pleasing Pyrrha. The word choice here is incredibly important because it is the first means by which Horace indicates own feelings toward the new couple. “Gracilis” generally means thin or slight; it could also mean simple, as in unadorned (but in the total opposite way that Pyrrha’s hair is “simplex”). Heather McHugh memorably translates it as “What slip of a boy,” while Ferry says “What perfumed debonair youth.” McHugh captures Horace’s derision toward the young man, while Ferry captures Horace’s jealousy. This is the primary tension in the poem: Horace is at once mocking of the youth’s inexperience while also chewing through the furniture with jealousy and lust (albeit in a totally reserved, very Roman manner). One could even say that Horace is jealous of the youth’s inexperience, jealous of the fact that the youth has the innocence that allows him to delight in the pure joy Pyrrha’s love (before things get rough, that is).
My phrase “eager fellow” leans more on the mockery side, yet, I hope, doesn’t fall into outright derision. “Eager” suggests inexperience, of course, the kind that doesn’t realize it’s a head nosing around for a guillotine. To me, the word “fellow” has always suggested the sort of foppishness that is the exact opposite of Pyrrha’s elegance, the kind that poofs it up in a “cloud of cologne.” Whatever choice is made here in rendering “gracilis,” one thing is clear: the better looking Horace portrays the young man, the more Pyrrha’s enjoyment of her time with him and thus, the greater Horace’s jealousy. On the other hand, the more biting Horace’s description of the youth, the more bitter Pyrrha’s rejection becomes for Horace: you dumped me for that dandy?
The real trick is being able to make it work both ways, which Horace does with the original. “Gracilis” could slide on the scale of meaning toward the pathetic “skinny” or the handsome “slender.” Horace wins the day by understatement. Perhaps “slim” could be close in its ambiguity, yet it lacks the suggestion of inexperience.
There are other forms of understatement in the first stanza. The verb “urget” could suggest a wide range of actions, from the innocent “court” (as in persistently calling, plying with roses) to the probably too-strong “press upon” (as in, physically presses himself upon her). James Mitchie’s translation goes all the way and says “makes hot love to you now,” leaving little room for Horace’s imagination. But isn’t it Horace’s imagination that is running wild? Isn’t this what, partially, animates the poem? Indeed, the affair is happening in some secretive grotto, and in this case, out of sight is not out of mind for Horace. I suspect the wide range of action is purposefully suggested by “urget.”
But even subtler is the arrangement of the Latin itself: “multa gracilis te puer in rosa.” Snuggled in between the adjective “slim” (gracilis) and noun “boy/young man” (puer) is the pronouned Pyrrha (te). And that verbal couple is itself among “multa…in rosa”: many a rose. While the whole situation is never stated, it’s pretty clear that Mitchie’s translation “making hot love to you” has a firm basis in the Latin. But Horace’s expression of this is almost unconscious: expressing the very thing he cannot bring himself to say.
I rendered this “courts you in / a secret hideaway” because I the other translators I’ve read rendered the phrase strongly (Ferry: “urges himself upon you / In the summer grotto”; McHugh: “pressing on you now, o Pyrrha, in / your lapping crannies, in your rosy rooms”), and I wanted to see what happened if I did not render it so strongly. I hoped that “secret hideaway” would imply the kind of intimacy that Horace fears between the new couple, that, indeed, one thing will inevitably lead to another in such a “secret” place, innocent courting or not. I also wanted the phrase “secret hideaway” to allude to Johnny Cash’s “Tear Stained Letter,” which, in my mind, parallels Horace’s poem in some ways:
I’m gonna write a tear stained letter,
I’m gonna mail it straight to you.
I’m gonna bring back to your mind,
What you said about always bein’ true.
Bout our secret hidin’ places;
Bein’ daily satisfied.
The allusion is probably a stretch, but it’s there in my mind, at least until I edit it out at some later point.
This brings me to the most difficult and revealing line in the poem, I believe: “Cui flavam religas comam // simplex munditiis?” To me the phrase “simplex munditiis” is not only a perfect expression of the whole poem’s art, but an emotional depth charge that reveals the feeling which animates the drama of the poem’s language. Despite the poem’s claim that Horace has “survived” the shipwreck of Pyrrha’s love, despite the staid language and reserved descriptions, the poet writhes underneath the poise of this poem. Pyrrha is the archetypal “saucy wench,” the “fickle woman” who fills men with passion and lust as well as self-loathing at their inability to control themselves. As an image, the singular, simple description of Pyrrha’s hair creates an emotional history that founds the whole poem. It’s the perfect example of how the choice and rendering of even a single detail can realize a whole world.
In my translation, I chose to render that line as a real question to Pyrrha (hence the parentheses, making it a sort of direct aside); the rest of the questions in the poem are merely rhetorical. I openly copped Ferry’s word choice (“For whom have you arranged / Your shining hair so elegantly and simply?”), but hoped that a more personal expression of the line would raise the latent longing in that line. I have to admit, though, that here Ferry is hard to beat. Emphasizing that line raises the profile of the detail. Yet its power as a detail is in its latency, its grudging (non-)admission.
There are other important moments that one wrestles with when translating this poem. One such place is the very end of the poem, in which a translator must decide how much to explain the final image: it was a tradition of Roman sailors who survived shipwrecks to hang their sea cloaks in the temple of Neptune with a votive tablet in order to honor him for saving their lives. You’ll see in my translation I pretty much laid that information out completely, though in truth there are places here and elsewhere in my translation where I’ve significantly departed from the Latin (partially out of creative impulse, partially out of lack of skill). As I said, the poem starts out as Horace’s and becomes more the translator’s as it continues.
I would like to comment on other translations I’ve done of Horace in the future. For those who know Latin better than I do, I’d enjoy hearing your feedback on my poems or on any versions of the poem that you enjoy. For those who don’t know Latin, I’d like to hear your feedback on the poem itself, which of the ones I’ve reproduced here seem best to you.