Turning Horace into a sonnet

A little while ago, a visitor to this blog requested a Horace Ode. Here is Ode 1.11, which I have just translated: I decided to translate it into the form of a sonnet (the rhyme scheme below is that of a Shakespearean sonnet). This Ode is, I think it is safe to say, fairly well-known; in particular the expression “carpe diem” which is most often, as below, translated “seize the day”.

The original Latin of Ode 1.11 (from the Perseus Digital Library) can be accessed here: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%253Atext%253A1999.02.0024%253Abook%253D1%253Apoem%253D11

My translation:

May you not have asked to see
(For knowing this is evil true)
What end the gods have planned for me;
What fate, Leuconoe, they grant you.
Far best to bear whate’er takes place,
Not try the maths of Babylon.
More winters yet you could embrace;
Or Jupiter might give only one
Which drives the waves on the pumiced shore.
Be wise, strain wines: with this short time
Forget the prayers that hope for more.
Jealous life is no longer in its prime.
But for now, you must seize the day;
Trust not the time that flies away.

The most obvious question that can be asked of this translation is: why did I choose a sonnet? Producing a sonnet is an exciting technical challenge: in this case, I wanted to see if the message contained in a poem of only eight lines could be expanded into the fourteen-line structure of a sonnet. I very often try to impose a rhyme-scheme or similar structure onto translated Classical poetry: although technically more complex, this sonnet is not such an unusual concept for me to use.

Clearly I made some concessions in creating a reasonable translation within this structure. I added “true” in the second line, with no real justification other than creating a rhyme with “you”. Translating “finem” separately as “end” and “fate” perhaps makes this word work a little too hard. Another potentially slightly tenuous translation is “pluris” rendered as “more” (it seemed metrically neater, although admittedly less accurate, than “many”). As well as omitting “Tyrrhenum”, I do not feel I quite managed to convey the power of the image of winter “quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare”. Later, the original Latin created an emphatic juxtaposition with the enjambment of “spatio brevi / spem longam”: I did my best to replicate this by placing “short time” at the end of its line, but the full effect of the original enjambment proved difficult to reproduce. Finally, I think the metre of my translation (it starts in a fairly regular iambic tetrameter) falls apart a little towards the end.

However, I do not want this to turn into a catalogue of everything that is wrong with my translation! I feel pleased that I managed to turn this Ode into a reasonable attempt at a sonnet. My translation contains two recognisable quatrains in the first eight lines. Although it does not quite fit the traditional Shakespearean change in theme at the third quatrain, the words “Be wise, strain wines” later seem to signal a change in overall tone of the poem, which allows it to fit loosely into this format.

More Catullus: 70

Another foray into translating Catullus. The original Latin of Catullus 70 (from the Perseus Digital Library) is here:

nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti
in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

And my translation:

My lady says that she’d prefer
To wed no other man than me,
Were Jupiter himself to woo.

She says; but what a lady says
To ardent lovers, should be writ
In the wind and flowing wave.

In terms of content, a link between this poem and Catullus 72 (translated earlier on this blog) can clearly be seen. Both portray the poet’s changing attitude towards his love (referred to in 72 as “Lesbia”), although this is less explicit in 70: they begin with Lesbia’s assurances of her faith to the poet, and then demonstrate how the poet has begun to mistrust her. Both employ the image of Jupiter as a rival to the poet for her affection. This similarity extends also to structural features: both poems seem to fall naturally into two halves, highlighting fundamental changes in the poet’s opinion of his love.

In terms of technical achievement, I am rather pleased with my translation: it reads very smoothly in iambic tetrameter (with the final line varying only slightly from this metre). However, it seems to me that certain aspects of the original Latin have been lost. I could find no way of replicating the emphatic “nulli” at the beginning of the first line, without compromising the evenness of my English translation.

I think I am justified in extending the translation, transforming a four-line poem into two verses of three lines each. I do not feel that the original poem is fast-paced; instead, I think that it is a reflective, thoughtful poem, which can best be conveyed with a slow pace. The original Latin contains emphatic enjambments: “malle / quam mihi” and “amanti / in vento”. Adding more lines will inevitably change the number of enjambments present, but I endeavoured to maintain their nature: “prefer / to wed” and “writ / in the wind” have a similar effect to the enjambments in the original Latin.

The style of my translation can be described as archaic, almost Shakespearean. Words that stand out as examples are “wed”, “woo”, “writ” and possibly “ardent”. I felt that this creates a more wistful, nostalgic tone. Because, in our imagination, such words are often linked to courtly love and romance, I am suggesting that the poet is longing for a time when he trusted what his love said to him.

More archaeological musings: a visit to Silchester

Last week, I visited Silchester (Hampshire, England). This is the site of the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum, which is currently being excavated by a project run by the University of Reading.

Sadly, my visit to this (outdoor) site was cut short by rain. I was, however, able to view the archaeological site – I was given a short tour of the site by a very friendly and informative graduate named Helena (if she’s reading this, many thanks!!). I also walked around the Roman walls. Since no more recent settlement has been built on this site, the Roman town remains extremely well-preserved, and thus provides an extremely useful location for archaeological study. The archaeologists are even able to see traces of an Iron Age settlement underneath the Roman town.

Helena mentioned that the Roman town was abandoned, but did not explain why or whether this was linked to the general withdrawal of the Romans from Britain. I performed a little research (my sources are cited below, as usual), and discovered that Calleva Atrebatum may have survived until the sixth century (the Roman legions withdrew in 410 A.D.). After the departure of the Romans, the administration of the town probably deteriorated over time, with a disease perhaps finally destroying this relic of Roman civilisation in Britain. The reasons for the abandonment of Calleva Atrebatum are still not completely understood.

Here is a small collection of photographs from my trip to Silchester.

The archaeological dig site

The Roman walls of the town

And then it rained…

The North Gate. Its function was to control traffic as well as defend the town.

The archaeological dig site again





When archaeology meets literature…

Two days ago, I visited the British Museum.

I had a look around, saw various exhibits, sheltered from the rain outside…

There was one exhibit in particular which I wanted to see: the tombstone of Julius Classicianus.

Classicianus (Full name: Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus) belonged to an aristocratic family in Gaul, and was appointed procurator in Roman Britain. This much information is provided for us by the British Museum’s information plaque. A procurator was a financial official, who assisted the governor of the province by administering its financial affairs – in particular, the collection of taxes. Another photograph of this tombstone:

And the inscription (not all of which is clearly visible on the tombstone), again, taken from the British Museum information placard:

Of course, none of this yet explains why I was particularly interested in seeing Classicianus’ tombstone. The reason is that he is mentioned in Book XIV of Tacitus’ Annals – a text which I have been studying. Classicianus features in chapter 38, in the following section of text, taken, as usual, from the Perseus Digital Library:

gentesque praeferoces tardius ad pacem inclinabant, quia Iulius Classicianus, successor Cato missus et Suetonio discors, bonum publicum privatis simultatibus impediebat disperseratque novum legatum opperiendum esse, sine hostili ira et superbia victoris clementer deditis consulturum. simul in urbem mandabat, nullum proeliorum finem expectarent, nisi succederetur Suetonio, cuius adversa pravitati ipsius, prospera ad fortunam referebat.

Translation (by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Used by the Perseus Digital Library, and also by The Modern Library’s edition):

Nations, too, so high-spirited inclined the more slowly to peace, because Julius Classicanus [sic], who had been sent as successor to Catus and was at variance with Suetonius, let private animosities interfere with the public interest, and had spread an idea that they ought to wait for a new governor who, having neither the anger of an enemy nor the pride of a conqueror, would deal mercifully with those who had surrendered. At the same time he stated in a despatch to Rome that no cessation of fighting must be expected, unless Suetonius were superseded, attributing that general’s disasters to perverseness and his successes to good luck.

The background to this extract: the general Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Paulinus) has put down the rebellion of several native British tribes, led by Boudicca. Now, he is consolidating his victory: the army has been concentrated, and reinforcements sent from mainland Europe.

I think it is probably fair to say that the extract above does not give Classicianus a very favourable review. It is the words “privatis simultatibus” that reveal the most: the negative connotations of the word “simultatibus” (translated above as “animosities”, but I prefer “quarrels” or “grudges”) imply that Classicianus’ character is resentful, to the extent that it impedes the public interest (“bonum publicum”) The chiastic structure in “bonum publicum privatis simultatibus” (noun-adjective-adjective-noun) emphasises the antithesis of “publicum privatis”, which essentially juxtaposes Classicianus’ duty (i.e. to uphold the interest of the public) with his actions (imposing his private quarrels on the province). These words suggest that Tacitus distrusts Classicianus’ opinion of Suetonius.

But why does Tacitus give Classicianus such a poor write-up? To find out, I think we have to look at the next chapter – chapter 39 – of Tacitus’ Annals XIV. In this next chapter, the emperor sends the freedman Polyclitus to Britain: this freedman reports back to the emperor rather more favourably about Suetonius, so the latter is allowed to stay on as governor. When, however, Suetonius makes an error – losing a few ships and their crews on the shore – he is recalled from the province and loses his position as governor.

Tacitus was the son-in-law of Agricola, who was recalled from Britain, probably in unfair circumstances, by the emperor Domitian. Perhaps Tacitus believes that Suetonius’ circumstances were similar: therefore, he portrays Classicianus in a negative light, in order to imply that the latter’s report on Suetonius was distorted. Indeed, other sources (e.g. cited below) suggest that Classicianus’ criticisms were in fact correct, and that Suetonius’ heavy-handed crackdown against the British tribes was severely damaging the economy of the province. In fact, the Encyclopaedia Britannica states that Classicianus “possessed a truer vision of provincial partnership with Rome [than Suetonius]”. Taking this evidence into account, it seems plausible to conclude that Tacitus’ depiction of Classicianus was unfair.


“Classicianus, the procurator.” Museum of London. Museum of London, n.d. Web. 11 July 2012. <http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Collections-Research/Research/Your-Research/Londinium/analysis/publiclife/administration/6+Class.htm&gt;. This source suggests that Classicianus

Tacitus. The Annals & the Histories. Trans. Alfred  John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Ed. Moses Hadas. N.p.: Modern Library, 2003. Print.

“Julius Classicianus”.  Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 11 Jul. 2012

New books!

Some new books which I ordered recently have just arrived. All Classics-related, obviously (otherwise I wouldn’t be blogging them!). Written below are my reasons for buying them and first impressions – please bear in mind that I haven’t started reading any of them yet!

Firstly, the Loeb Classical Library bilingual edition of Xenophon’s Anabasis, in hardback.

The Loeb Classical Library (part of Harvard University Press) is an excellent source of texts in the original ancient Greek and Latin. And it’s worth getting them in hardback, since you’ll want them to last for a long time.

Next up: The Twelve Caesars, by Matthew Dennison

Again, a very nice hardback. It was reviewed very favourably by The Spectator. This review focused on the horrifyingly depraved actions and habits of the Roman emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian; however, the synopsis of The Twelve Caesars suggests it does more than that. “As well as vividly recreating the lives, loves and vices of this motley crew…he paints a portrait of an era of political and social revolution…” Naturally, I will reserve judgement on the book until I have actually read it – but this sounds as though it will make excellent light reading over the summer!

Thirdly: Superstition in Roman Society, by Samuel Dill

Admittedly I took a punt on this purchase – I couldn’t find any reviews. But I think this book will be useful: I have been doing some research recently on Roman superstition (looking at both literature and artefacts such as curse tablets), and this short book should supplement that.

And finally: You Talkin’ To Me?, by Sam Leith

The cover of this book informs us that it deals with “Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama” and a brief glance suggests that it does exactly what it says on the tin. As well as informing the reader about the theoretical aspects of rhetoric, the book deals with several “Champions of Rhetoric” from across the ages: these include Abraham Lincoln, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and even “Satan – The Original Silver-tongued Devil”. This much can, of course, be gleaned simply by looking at the chapter headings in the contents page; but this book will certainly receive some of my time over the summer.

If anyone has read any of these books, do share your views with a comment on this post.

Next up in the blog: a visit to the British Museum. Stay tuned, readers…

Catullus 72

Well, I did warn you that most of my blog posts would be literature-based!

But before I start…

Very possibly the cutest book I have ever seen. (Apologies for the low image quality)

Recently, I have been translating more Classical poetry, with a focus on the poetry of Catullus. One poem which I particularly enjoyed was Catullus 72, but before I produce my effort to translate it, I will outline my philosophy regarding the translation of Classical poetry. I have always approached this area with perhaps a little more freedom and creativity than a purist would approve of. My usual objective is to try to elucidate the poet’s emotions, and focus on conveying them, using as far as possible equivalent vocabulary and structures to those used by the poet. Essentially I think that, if anything will be “lost in translation”, it should be the vocabulary and structures – not the emotion they contain.

 Original Latin (Perseus Digital Library): http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0003%3Apoem%3D72

My translation:

Once, Lesbia, you used to say
‘Twas only I that knew you.
Instead of me, you would not choose
Jupiter to possess you.
Back then, not as the mob prizes
Their girls did I adore you:
Instead, as fathers sons-in-law
And sons, I found I loved you.
But now I know you. Though I burn
More powerfully for you,
Yet, to me, much cheaper now
And far less worthy are you.
How can this be, you ask? Such injury
To one who loves you
Drives him to love you more, but be
No longer a friend to you.

Catullus 72 is characterised by fascinating dichotomies: present emotion is set against past feeling, and carnal love juxtaposed with affectionate friendship and familial love. I think that my translation is for the most part successful at drawing this out. Rendering the imperfect “dicebas” as “you used to say” underlines this word as a reference to the distant past; meanwhile, my placement of “Once” at the beginning of the poem replicates the effect that “dicebas” has in the equivalent position in the original. Later, “Back then” again serves to reproduce the position and effect of a past-tense verb. An important creative decision I took in the first half of the poem was to add “I found”, which is not in the original. This adds what is almost a note of surprise to the revelation of Catullus’ feelings for Lesbia. I also decided to turn Catullus’ use of his own name (in line 1) into simply “I”, which I felt was needed in an English translation to convey adequately its personal nature.

While the first half of Catullus’ poem seems to flow smoothly, the second half – which shifts abruptly to the present tense – is fragmented by caesuras in the 5th and 7th lines, conveying Catullus’ confusion and pain. Adding “But” to the very beginning of the second half was my way of conveying the force which “nunc” carries, itself placed at the beginning of its line: this is vital for emphasising the division between the two halves.

What to me stands out the most about my translation is the hypnotic repetition of “you” at the end of every second line. I intended this to capture what I felt was the spirit of the poem: the subject matter is remorselessly focused on Catullus’ fluctuating feelings for Lesbia. Indeed, this is particularly striking during the first half of the poem, with the word “you” appearing in conjunction with words connoting powerful emotions. Examples are “knew you” (with “knew” perhaps meant in a Biblical, carnal sense, as referenced by Godwin – see my bibliography below), “possess you”, “adore you”, and the simpler and heartfelt “loved you”. Perhaps surprisingly, the recurrence of “you” required little freedom of translation: it appears so frequently in the original Latin that excessive creativity proved unnecessary.

Overall, it now occurs to me that this is not such a good example of my approach to the translation of ancient poetry! Unusually for me, I made little change to the words used by the poet, but managed to convey the emotions he felt in what I hope was an effective manner. I also took the opportunity to add a minor innovation of my own, by making every second line end with “you”.


n.b. the ideas above specifically concerning my translation of Catullus 72 are, of course, my own. I referred, however, to the book edited by John Godwin and the journal article by John T. Davis for some extra depth of analysis of the original. I have also cited the Perseus Digital Library, whence I obtained the original Latin text.

Catullus. Catullus: The Shorter Poems. Ed. John Godwin. N.p.: Aris & Phillips, 1999. Print.

Crane, Gregory R., ed. “C. Valerius Catullus, Carmina 72.” Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University, n.d. Web. 6 July 2012. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/&gt;. Gregory R. Crane is the general editor-in-chief of the entire Perseus website. This specific text was edited by E. T. Merrill.

Davis, John T. “Poetic Counterpoint: Catullus, 72.” American Journal of Philology 92.2 (1971): 196-201. Print.

An encounter with Theognis

Recently, I was looking through some old bookcases in my house and found this book:

This delightful little book contains a selection of Greek literature (surprisingly enough) from Homer through the three tragedians to Plotinus “the last great pagan philosopher” and many more besides.

So I was just flicking through this book when I encountered Theognis.

Honesty compels me to confess that I had never previously heard of Theognis. The only biographical information provided by this book is “Elegiac poet, of Megara. Mid sixth century B.C.” Intrigued, I quickly chose what must be described as a last resort for most aspiring scholars – a Wikipedia search. But I’m not going to provide a potted biography of Theognis here, because I can never compete with the myriad Internet-based encyclopaedias and reference sites which can do exactly that. So, back to the poetry:

At the bottom of p92 is a short poem rather enigmatically entitled “Gloom” by this edition, in a 1962 translation by Willis Barnstone:

Best of all things – is never to be born,
never to know the light of sharp sun.
But being born, then best
to pass quickly as one can through the gates of H ell ,
and there lie under the massive shield of earth

Fairly depressing, then. I liked it immediately.

It took me a little longer to locate the original Greek text. This I did with the help of the Perseus Digital Library: the above is lines 425-428 of Theognis’ work:

πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον
μηδ᾽ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου:
φύντα δ᾽ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι
καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.

And without further ado, my translation:

‘Tis best, for earthbound mortals, best of all not to be born,
And not to see the light which from the harsh bright Sun is torn.
But being alive, ‘tis best to make haste through the gates of H ell ,
For under a piled-up heap of earth forever must one dwell.

Clearly I took some liberties with the original text. The repetition of “best” in the first line essentially serves to fit in with the metre of my translation, while a small leap of the imagination was required to produce “torn” – a word which, as well as making the rhyme-scheme work, fitted in rather neatly (I felt) with the sense of pain and danger associated with the Sun in the original (“ὀξέος”), and which Barnstone conveys using “sharp”.

The use of a rhyme-scheme in itself will probably require some justification. I think that the words I have chosen to make up the rhymes express their own sharp contrasts. “Born” is usually a positive, hopeful image, which is put in a negative, unpleasant light by the rhyme with the word “torn”. Meanwhile, the location of “ H ell ” casts a shadow of suffering and misery over “dwell”. The rhymes in my English translation almost make this poem sound like an aphorism or a maxim – which fits in with the style of the rest of Theognis’ poetry.