Govi, Govisti, Govit: English-to-Latin translation in the GCSE curriculum?

Let’s start with the facts.

The facts, in this case, are the proposals given in June by Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education), which included English-to-Latin translation as a part of the GCSE Latin curriculum.

Cue political fireworks? Unfortunately not.

I should clarify this. Gove’s suggested reforms did indeed meet with their fair share of criticism; however, isn’t this particular proposal something of an opportunity for political opponents? After all, some would consider this the epitome of an out-of-touch government: the inclusion of an at best esoteric and (some might add) irrelevant academic discipline in a GCSE curriculum. I disagree, and think that Gove’s suggestion is a laudable one.

In a way, it’s a shame that the political furore was absent – hence my use of “unfortunately”. Admittedly, GCSE Latin can hardly be considered a mainstream academic qualification in the grand scheme of the UK population. The debate surrounding English-to-Latin translation, however, is a valuable one. It has implications for the purpose of studying classical languages – and, beyond this, for the purpose of education as a whole.

Three years ago, my long-time interest in competitive debating saw me speaking in favour of compulsory modern language lessons in schools. My speech was, I think, fairly forgettable – certainly I have long since forgotten it, and I don’t think I said anything of particular note. However, the best speech of the day was delivered by my team-mate, who encapsulated his powerful summary speech with the memorable words, “Education is about opportunity”.

A useful starting point. If we assume that opportunity is the purpose of education, what implications does that have for the study of English-to-Latin translation?

Unfortunately for Mr Gove, “opportunity” (which, I admit, is a nebulous concept) does not seem very closely intertwined with English-to-Latin translation at GCSE level. By learning ancient languages, we can develop the facility of understanding ancient texts – and gain the opportunity to learn from the fascinating evidence and opinions expressed therein. But by learning to translate from English into Latin, we gain the opportunity to…translate from English into Latin. Indeed, the apparent futility of this academic discipline is encapsulated by the following words:

“There is really only one good reason for learning Latin, and that is that you want to read what is written in it.” (Mary Beard)

Surely a more direct way of learning from Latin texts would be continuing to translate from Latin to English? Indeed, studying the preface to a book on Latin Prose Composition (by J. Arbuthnot Nairn, published by Cambridge University Press 1928) actually seems to bolster this argument. Nairn claims that “as we train our minds by study of the vigour and clearness of Latin, so we train our character by the great moral ideals which are so strongly represented in the great Roman writers.” But would it not be more efficient to study the “great moral ideals” as presented by these writers, rather than imitating their language and writing style? To employ an example: a current GCSE Latin set text is Cicero’s description of Verres’ vindictive corruption from in Verrem. Do we understand Cicero’s moral outrage more clearly by attempting to emulate his language and style, or by actually reading and analysing what he says?

I am conscious that I am not doing a very good job of defending my instinctive feeling that translating from English into Latin is beneficial. However, fortunately for my instinctive feeling (and for Mr Gove’s proposals!), Nairn has more arguments to come. His very first chapter opens with the following statement:

“Latin prose composition is the best method of learning Latin…”

An assertion which forces us to consider: what does Latin prose composition bring the student that the current GCSE Latin prescription does not?

The practical use of language.

Case endings in Latin make the subject/object relationship abundantly clear. The use of participles and verbs with different moods elucidates the difference between main and subordinate clauses. This has an inevitable effect on how students use language in general – not least their first language (English, for the sake of argument). Nairn observes tactfully that “our language is often written without that precision which is the main feature of Latin”. And his words were published in 1928. What, I wonder, would Nairn say now, after the much-deplored advent of text-speak and the equally-deplored deficiency in teaching of basic English grammar?

Some might argue that learning English grammar directly would be a more effective way of improving use of the English language. English, I would counter, is by no means an easy language to learn. It is the clarity which Latin grammar brings to universal grammatical structures that makes it so valuable.

But I’m still not proving the crucial point of my argument. Why doesn’t the current GCSE Latin provide enough grammatical knowledge to encourage greater accuracy in use of English? As it stands, a Latin GCSE encourages students to learn grammar, and by its very nature gives them an instinctive grasp of it. But I don’t think this is enough. It is possible to get through the translation element of a Latin GCSE with an instinctive, implicit grasp of grammar. By contrast, an English-to-Latin translation element would force students to think consciously about grammar – and this process, I think, means that grammar is learned more quickly, and becomes a more effective accomplice to the students’ use of any language in everyday life.

If education is about opportunity, then surely the opportunity to use language more effectively is well worth adapting the educational system for? Do not consider this merely a pie-in-the-sky idealistic dream of a world in which language is used in an aesthetically pleasing manner. In the practical world, the ability to use language well opens doors. Like it or not, it makes university interviewees more convincing, job applicants more impressive, and speakers more persuasive. All this stems from greater awareness of accurate grammar. And this can be derived from spending a small percentage of the Latin GCSE learning how to translate from English into Latin.

At the very least, if more students were forced to think consciously about grammatical points such as subject/object case endings, perhaps we would see the extinction of grammatical fallacies such as “me and my friend are going to see a film”.


Beard, Mary. “Do Classics Have a Future?” 2011. Confronting the Classics. By Beard. N.p.: Profile Books, 2013. 1-14. Print.

Jones, Peter. “Found in Translation.” Spectator 22 June 2013: 16. Print.

Nairn, J. Arbuthnot. Latin Prose Composition. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 1928. Print.

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.

Return to an old friend: Catullus 3

Why have I entitled this post “Return to an old friend”? Essentially, I have previously attempted to translate Catullus 3 (while this blog was still in its infancy) but never quite managed to produce a translation with which I was completely satisfied. When I tried to produce a rhyme scheme, I ended up with a stiff, contrived metre with little emotional effect. I also never really managed to find the right register – not helped by my habit of including somewhat archaic English. However, more recently I created this new translation, which I felt was more satisfactory, though certainly not perfect.

Below is the text of Catullus 3 (taken from the Perseus Digital Library:

Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque
et quantum est hominum venustiorum!
passer mortuus est meae puellae,
passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quem plus illa oculis suis amabat;
nam mellitus erat, suamque norat
ipsa tam bene quam puella matrem,
nec sese a gremio illius movebat,
sed circumsiliens modo huc modo illuc
ad solam dominam usque pipiabat.
qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illuc unde negant redire quemquam.
at vobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis;
tam bellum mihi passerem abstulistis.
o factum male! o miselle passer!
tua nunc opera meae puellae
flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli.

My translation:

Weep, Venuses! Weep, Cupids too!
You men who claim to be sympathetic – weep!
My girl’s sparrow is dead – that sparrow,
Belonging to my darling girl,
Whom she loved more than her own eyes:
For he was sweet – sweet as honey – and he knew her
Just as well as a girl knows her mother;
Nor did he ever flit away from her lap – he hopped around,
Now here,
Now there,
Chirping ceaselessly, to his mistress alone.

Now he drifts away, down that path of shadows.
They say he’ll never return – that nobody returns
From the dark shadows of Hell – a curse upon them!
A curse upon those shades,
Who devour all beautiful things,

And who took away such a beautiful bird from me.
Oh, evil deed! Poor bird!
It’s because of them that my girl’s eyes
Grow red, and swell,

This translation continues my recent experiment with a comparatively loose, free metre and varied line lengths. This is perhaps harder to justify here than with my previous translation of Ovid’s Fasti 295-310. Catullus 3 is what would today be called a solemn elegy, commemorating the death of a beloved pet, and therefore perhaps calls for a more solemn, steady metre. However, I think it possible to justify my interpretation. This poem, as well as commemorating the death of the sparrow, describes the grief felt both by the poet and by the sparrow’s owner (who can be identified with Catullus’ mistress, Lesbia) strong emotions such as grief can arguably be expressed using a fluctuating, varying metre, while the frequent caesuras and breaks in the syntax in my translation are also mimetic of the pain caused by grief.

I should admit that I took liberties with the original poem at some points. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of my translation would be my treatment of the second line: “quantum est hominum venustiorum” I rendered as “You men who claim to be sympathetic”, and added an emphatic third repetition of “weep!” (forming a tricolon in the translation, whereas the original poem only includes one “lugete”). Not only does my translation turn “venustiorum” into “sympathetic” (in itself a controversial rendering, losing the intriguing double meaning of “men of Venus”/”men of charm”); it also adds an ironic twist to these words, implying that it expects them to prove their sympathetic characters by weeping. The reason I liked this interpretation was that it added an edge of bitterness to the tone of my translation from the beginning: a bitterness that recurs when the poet curses “malae tenebrae / Orci”.

Unfortunately, just as I was unable to capture the double meaning of “venustiorum”, my translation also loses the possible double meaning of “solam”, which seems to me both to refer to the sparrow’s special love for his mistress (he chirps only to her), and to foreshadow the loneliness of the girl after the sparrow’s death. I feel that using the word “alone” (as other translators have done), is probably the best way to capture both these meanings in English. Of course, I may well be reading too much into the original Latin – perhaps this double meaning is not actually present in the original!

Ovid: Fasti 295-310: a translation

National Poetry Day UK 2012 takes place on Thursday 4th October.

And the theme for this year’s National Poetry Day is “stars”. So I began searching for a piece of Classical poetry, relating to this theme, which I could translate. My eye at last settled on a section from Ovid’s Fasti (295-310 – original text taken from the Perseus Digital Library):

Quis vetat et stellas, ut quaeque oriturque caditque,
dicere? promissi pars fuit ista mei.
felices animae, quibus haec cognoscere primis
inque domus superas scandere cura fuit!
credibile est illos pariter vitiisque locisque
altius humanis exeruisse caput.
non Venus et vinum sublimia pectora fregit
officiumque fori militiaeve labor;
nec levis ambitio perfusaque gloria fuco
magnarumque fames sollicitavit opum.
admovere oculis distantia sidera nostris
aetheraque ingenio supposuere suo.
sic petitur caelum: non ut ferat Ossan Olympus,
summaque Peliacus sidera tangat apex.
nos quoque sub ducibus caelum metabimur illis
ponemusque suos ad vaga signa dies.

And my translation, as follows:

Let me tell you about the stars – as I promised –
Their rise,
And their fall.
Fortunate spirits, who first dared to aspire
To higher places:
Higher than faults, higher than base human frailties
They raised their heads.
Greater beings, untouched by wine, by love,
By soldiers’ struggles –
Common concerns! –
Nor drenched by the sweat of baser goals, nor attracted
By the lure of glory, of wealth…

To our poor eyes they brought the distant stars;
The heavens set beneath their power.
For thus the sky is touched.

No longer must great mountains stretch
To touch their peaks to the bright, distant stars:
Like trailblazers long past, I too shall chart
And to their places I shall bind the stars.

Structurally, my translation is perhaps only loosely linked to the original text. I chose to write in a free metre, varying line length to play with emphasis. Arguably, I have lost the regular metre of Ovid’s original elegiac couplets as a result. I feel, however, that such a poem in English does not necessarily call for a regular metre, since part of the theme hints at surpassing the monotonous regularity of daily life.

Admittedly, some aspects of my translation are not necessarily seen in the original. I translate the very first sentence only loosely, since I felt that a literal translation would produce a defiant, almost abrasive tone. Instead, with my translation I tried to introduce a more lyrical, gentle tone from the very beginning. Later, “the sweat of baser goals” was a metaphor I added, aiming to outline more emphatically the contrast between those who chart the stars and the rest of humanity. “Ossan Olympus / summaque Peliacus” are summarised as “great mountains”: I felt that using the original names of these mountains might seem overly archaic, while a reference to Mt. Everest or equivalent would seem contrived. That said, my translation loses the tricolon produced by the use of the mountains’ names in the original Latin.

Any comments, suggestions or criticism welcome!

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:

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.

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):

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. <;. 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.