Horace: Ode 1.13

When I was considering which poem to translate for the Times Stephen Spender Prize (for poetry in translation), this particular Horace Ode caught my eye, as it captures the almost maddening effect of romantic jealousy.

The original Latin text of Horace’s Ode 1.13 can be accessed here (link to the Perseus Digital Library).

My translation:

Ah, Lydia! Bile floods
Harsh within my angry heart
When you praise Telephus’ neck and arms,
Rosy, supple

I feel my mind slip
And, on my paling face, tears slide
Down my cheeks discreetly; inside, fires
Blaze, slow,

Burning. I see you,
Shoulders white bruised black in drunken
Brawls; the brutal youth has scarred
Your lips.

If ever you’ll listen,
Hear this: don’t hope that kisses sweet
Can flourish in love’s dew, amid wounds
Cruel, savage.

But you’ll be thrice-blessed – more –
If held in love’s unbroken bonds
Enduring, untouched by strife, until
Your last days.

Horace’s Ode 1.13 struck me as a simple yet emotive attempt to convey the feelings of a jealous lover. The structure of the poem – initially outlining the feelings of the poet, then exploring the infidelity of his lover and finally delivering a warning to her – is simple, yet carries emotional depth and power.

A common problem in translating Latin to English is conveying the concision of the Latin language. Latin’s case structure allows it to express meaning in few words; attempting to convey this in English can create problems with producing a tight metre, as words must be added to cover the full breadth of the original meaning. I chose to avoid this problem by moving away from the metre of the Latin, producing a translation which, although separated into stanzas of equal length, resembles free verse in the structure of the lines. I tried to give each stanza more emotional power by condensing the final line into two or three words.

I have sacrificed some elements of literal translation in order to produce a translation which conveyed the subtle emotional variations in the original. Omitting “memorem dente” leaves more emphasis on the harsh ugliness of “scarred”. I chose to translate “iecur” as “heart” in order to increase the emotional power of the translation. I also decided in effect to reorder the first four lines, in order to emphasise the narrator’s physical reaction (“fervens difficili bile tumet iecur”). An area of the poem which I felt was open to the translator’s interpretation was “nec color / certa sede manet”. I decided to translate this as “my paling face”, considering this justified in view of the striking contrast with the fires (“ignibus”) blazing within the narrator. I coined the neologism “paling” as a more surprising word to convey the poet’s heartbreak.

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