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.


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