November 11 Horace: Odes I, translations by…

I thought that I would continue in the “Alternatives” chapter of the textbook (Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed. XJ Kennedy) and go from the topic of revision to the topic of translation.

In some ways the two activities mirror each other. In revision, the poet is trying to clarify the vision of the poem in his own head in order to make it clear to those living outside of his head, a translation from the inner self to the outer world. In this case, revision is used as a window into the poet’s mind. In translation, the translator is moving the poem from one world to the next, for instance from a French speaking world to an English speaking world, or a Chinese speaking world to a Russian one. Translation is a window into not just the poet’s mind, but the world that the poet lived in (whether it is a French, English, Chinese or Russian one). But going directly from the one language to the next is not adequate, because languages do use the same rules. Where an English word might mean seven different things, the Chinese analogue might mean only one thing. And words connote differently across different languages.  The word “douce” means “sweet”, but it always connotes the word “soft” to a french speaker (in other words anything sweet is thought of as soft, just as the word “dull” in English always connoted to mean “stupid” though the word itself has nothing to do with intelligence). Perhaps in one language the word “apple” in a poem is meant to connote the idea of forbidden fruit, but what does this mean to a culture that does not know the story of Adam and Eve? The apple for them is only a piece of fruit (or worse, connotes something completely different), therefore their version of a forbidden fruit must take the place of the word “apple”.

But when the translator is translating, she is not simply trying to turn a foreign word into a word native to her tongue, she is trying to get inside the poet’s head, or rather, trying to bring forth the poet’s original meaning (and also it’s original tone). Sometimes the original meaning won’t come through in a straight one-to-one translation. It might not even be clear what the poem is saying exactly. An example of this was given in the text book when a Chinese poem was given in Chinese characters and, then an exact translation was given. It read more like a word puzzle; “man, leisure, cassia, flower, fall” was the first the line. Is the man leisurely sitting by the cassia flower in the season of Fall, or is he leisurely watching the cassia flower fall from a branch on high? There is no way for a non-Chinese speaker to know. This where the translator must interpret. He will try to tell the audience what the poet meant, not simply what he said. This is where it is important to understand how the speakers of this language speak and what they usually mean when sentences fall into this pattern.

In Odes, there is a similar problem as Latin words do not need to be arranged in any certain order within the sentence. The verb can come before the noun and the adjective can come before all of that. The words themselves show whether they are singular, or past tense (et cetera); they are self contained and do not need sentence order in order to give their meaning. This can be a challenge to the translator. He must decide which words came first and which came last, because English does require a certain sentence order.

On top of this, the different translators decided on different tones. One was fairly straight forward, another was pedantic and the third was comical. The book provides a straight forward translation (which is not terribly clear on its own, this is why interpretation is useful), but it does not show whether Horace meant “The Odes I” to be instructive or comical – it could have been either. He is very particular in detail as to which type of plant is best to decorate the human body, but to pay such close attention to something so trivial seems excessive at best and silly at worst. Perhaps this was something that the Romans took very seriously or perhaps this was their type of humor (I don’t quite get it, but comedy doesn’t always translate through the ages).

I prefer to think that the humorous translation is the correct one. It’s certainly the clearest interpretation of the poem, but you are free to decide which one more closely mirrored the original intent (and if you read Latin, then you’ll know which poem was more accurate – more power to you!).

I am going to type in the original poem in its original language. Give you a chance to translate it if you are able. It is the best way to illustrate how language changes from speaker to speaker (in this case Latin to English). Then the book’s “prose translation”. After that, I will give the translations by different poets who gave their own interpretations on the piece.

Odes I

by Horace

Persicos odi, puer, apparatus,
Displicent nexae philyra coronae;
Mitte sectari, rosa quo locorum
Sera moretur.
Simplici myrto nihil allabores
Sedulus curo: neque te ministrum
Dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
Vite bibentem.

Prose Translation:

(1) Persian pomp, boy, I detest,
(2) garlands woven of linden bark displease me;
(3-4) give up searching for the place where the late-blooming rose is.
(5-6) Put no laborious trimings on simple myrtle:
(6-7) for myrtle is unbecoming neither to you, a servant, nor to me under the shade of this
(8) vine, drinking.

Translation 1.


by William Cowper

Boy, I hate their empty shows,
Persian garlands I detest,
Bring me not the late-blown rose
Lingering after all the rest:
Plainer myrtle pleases me
Thus outstretched beneath my vine,
Myrtle more becoming thee,
Waiting with thy master’s wine.

Translation 2

Fie on Easter Luxury!

by Hartley Coleridge

Nay, nay, my boy – ’tis not for me,
This studious pomp of Eastern luxury;
Give me no various garlands – fine
With linden twine,
Nor seek, where latest lingering blows,
The solitary rose.

Earnest I beg – add not with toilsome pain,
One far-sought blossom to the myrtle plain,
For sure, the fragrant myrtle bough
Looks seemliest on thy brow;
Nor me mis-seems, while, underneath the vine,
Close interweaved, I quaff the rosy wine.

Translation 3

The Preference Declared

by Eugene Field

Boy, I detest the Persian pomp;
I hate those linden-bark devices;
And as for roses, holy Moses!
They can’t be got at living prices!
Myrtle is good enough for us, –
For you, as bearer of my flagon;
For me, supine beneath this vine,
Doing my best to get a jag on!

About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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