issue 25 > nonfiction > raffel
How Best to put Horace into Englishby Burton Raffel
The "Classics," as in the Western world we think of them, are the only partially preserved works written by ancient Greeks and Romans. But the wall surrounding access to these closely studied and highly praised works is a high one, and, these days, a hard climb: simply put, this can be explained in a three words, (1) ancient Greek, and (2) Latin.
The familiar weekly journal, The Nation, founded in 1865, has always dealt with social political issues (from a usually leftwing stance) and -- in the words of its charter -- discussion and criticism of "books and works of art." It was, and is, an intelligently oriented publication, aimed at literate readers, but not in what we think of as scholarly ways. Paul Elmer More contributed many, many essays (collected in 1904 as "The Shelburne Essays"), quoting freely from French, Spanish, German, Italian, Latin, and Greek -- but always and only in the original. The clear assumption is that his readers could as readily deal with those languages as he could himself.
In our time, very few well-educated people can deal easily with any of these languages, and virtually none can deal with either classical Greek or Latin.
What is this vast majority of our people to do, confronted with comments like the following:
The small body of poetry which Horace left us is of a remarkable diversity and of the highest artistic perfection. With incomparable delicacy ... the poet lets his reader know that [his frequent] looseness is not the result of ineptitude ... but should be seen as negligentia diligens, the product of the greatest artistry and of perfect urbanity.
This lofty (and accurate) evaluation of Horace is taken from the pages of Abrecht Dihle's Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire, first published in English in 1994. (Note, for the record, that Professor Dihle does not here "translate" negligentia diligens, which literally means "intentional carelessness." His "enlarged" version, however, is a perfect illustration of the fact that we do not translate "words," but "meaning.") A modern reader, accordingly, starts out in search of "remarkable diversity," "the highest artistic perfection," "incomparable delicacy," and "perfect urbanity. What does he think, turning to the reputable Loeb edition, opening the translated pages more or less at random, and being faced with what he is told represents Horace's Ode 11, from Book One of this poet's Odes?
Ask not, Leuconoë (we cannot know), what end the gods have set for me, for
thee, nor make trial of the Babylonian tables! How much better to endure
whatever comes, whether Jupiter allots us added winters or whether this is last,
which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Show wisdom!
Busy thyself with household tasks; and since life is brief, cut short far-reaching
hopes! Even while we speak, envious Time has sped. Reap the harvest of today,
putting as little trust as may be in the morrow!
Like virtually all prose translations (and a good many verse ones), this makes sense, more or less, but quite buries the poetry. To paraphrase Yeats: "What would your Horace say,/ If you wrote that way?" Neither reputations nor book sales can be built on "poems" like this.
For those who can read it, let me set out the Latin original:
Tu ne quaesieris -- scire nefas -- quem mihi, quem tibi
finem diderint, Leuconoë, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati,
seu pluris hiemes, seu tribuit Juppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum. Sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi
spem lomgam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.
If this is "Greek" to us, we can still see that it has the appearance of poetry, is only eight lines long, and is probably not long-winded. We can gather this much information by the plain fact that there are four sentences in this short poem: this is a poet who both hits and runs.
But where are all the goodies promised us by Professor Dihle? We are almost totally helpless, given the Loeb-style translation. We can see that, instead of four sentences, Loeb gives the "poem" six sentences and five exclamation points -- and neither "delicacy" nor "artistic perfection." We shake our head and close the book. Or we can do, as I did as a college freshman, reading the Old English poem, "The Wanderer," in a ghastly translation -- verse, indeed, but so awful that I thought there might have been a mistake. I had been reading, on the page just before, praises for this poem much like those of Professor Dihle. Had I skipped a page? This could not be the beautiful, sensuous work my textbook (From Beowulf to the twentieth century) hailed. No, it was the right page. So I assumed that, in my vast stupidity, I hadn't gotten what was right there in front of me. Some years later, as a graduate student, I studied Old English -- and it became clear that the fault was not mine, but the translator's.
There are a good many translations better than the Loeb, all of which are in verse, not prose. The basic fact is that a poem -- at lest, a good one -- is not prose. It is literally impossible to sing, if you cannot keep a tune. And it is pretty much impossible to carry over poetic qualities, wearing prose garments.
Let me here examine only two translations, both good, but in my view not good enough. Here is my own 1983 version:
Leucon, no one's allowed to know his fate,
Not you, not me: don't ask, don't hunt for answers
In tea leaves or palms. Be patient with whatever comes.
This could be our last winter, it could be many
More, pounding the Tuscan Sea on these rocks:
Do what you must, be wise, cut your vines
And forget about hope. Time goes running,
As we talk. Take the present, the future's no one's affair.
This is pretty good poetry. But it is not the great poetry Horace writes. It has taken me a quarter of a century both to understand this fact and to figure out a better, truer method.
The defect, essentially, is that this rendering is too contained (and constrained). It has eight lines, as does the original Latin. Like the original, it does not rhyme. It is graceful, as is the original. But the devices Horace employs, in order to make his poem sing, are for the most part buried by this overly deferential translation. "Deferential," that is, because it assumes that mere alignment with Latin techniques is the proper way to present a Latin poem in a language like English. Inevitably, poetry in any language can sing only in the way its language allows poets to sing. English poems which lean too heavily on stable-seeming lines, without rhymes or the other devices with which English sings, tend to be more respectable than readable. Horace is never merely "respectable." There is cutting and slashing in all his poems. Spreading his poems down the page brings on no singing whatever.
Here then is my new rendering:
How long the gods want us to go on?
I don't, you don't, no one knows.
Don't look at astrological charts. Just wait. Things happen.
Another winter? No more winters? Who knows?
We see the sea breaking down the Tuscan coast:
Just watch, just wait, crush your grapes, and stop
Thinking, give up hoping, which never stops
But never arrives. Time has nothing to do with life;
It goes on going, even as we talk.
This may be less dignified than my earlier translation. But that kind of dignity does not, alas, represent Horace's voice. How he does what he does, in Latin, is not important, here, because English simply does not work that way. No translation, as I have repeatedly said, is ever the same as the original; no translation can ever be the original. But I believe my new approach makes for better poetry, in English, and is a better simulacrum of Horace, as for two thousand years people have read him, in the Latin original. I think this new rendering comes as close to the Latin poem, and the experience of reading it, as non-Latinate English-speaking readers are likely to have.
I wish to re-establish Horace's standing as a poet, in English-speaking minds. I propose to offer, in this entirely new way, every line he wrote. It will be hard, hard work. But Horace is important, and not simply because his work is "classical." His is a poetic mind granted, to my knowledge, to no one who has ever written in any language. This is not Mother Goose Rhyme, but deeply adult confrontation. And I want him to be re-born and freely available: exposure to such a poetic mind is education at the very highest level possible. It is also by turn witty, funny, glum, bawdy, religious, passionate, and wildly entertaining.
But not when you read him in an inadequate translation.