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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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.