Learning From Horace

Horace: Carmina 1/11
A set of illustrations for: Nine Maxims On Translation
E Bruce Brooks / University of Massachusetts / 5 Dec 2002

We here consider how experience adds to skill. Below is a series of translations of the same Horace poem, with comments on their up and down moments. They are also a lesson in the value of respecting the form of the original, which in this case is unrhymed, but metrically precise.

[Finally, as a counterpoint to these practical matters, there is a point of typical Horatian style which it may not be practical to bring over into English, and which will have to be sacrificed accordingly].

Horace's 103 Carmina (Songs') are the works by which he is chiefly known to the modern world. We here take up a dozen versions of one of the early songs, #11 of Book One. This is the Leuconoë poem, which made "carpe diem" a fixed phrase in all languages; part of the world lexicon. Horace does not rhyme, but he does cast his poems in precise metrical forms; his claim to fame in his own time (as he himself once put it) was to have brought over these Greek poetic forms and made them work in Latin. Many modern translators, almost needless to say, have eliminated the metrical form, and a good many have replaced it with a rhyme scheme of their very own. This gives the poem a definite movement in English, but one that rarely corresponds to the languid yet precise motion of the Latin original.

[Horace made maddeningly effective use of the possibility, available in Latin but much less readily so in English, of separating the elements of a phrase. Whether one attempts to follow him in this, and how far, and so, how successfully, are thus standard points in the criticism of Horace translations. Most of the translations assembled here give up the fight in the case of the 5th line of the poem, where an adjective (oppositis "opposed") and its noun (pumicibus "worn rocks"), are separated by the verb debilitat ("wears out"). We thus do not make a point of this in commenting on the translations, and treat this series merely as examples of how one can learn from other people's work. But for the convenience of those who care about these things, the elements in the translations corresponding to the two separated words are shown in red for easier technical comparison].

We consider first some rhyming versions (which include the chronologically oldest examples), then a set of more stripped-down prose versions, representing a later and more austere taste, and finally a group which attempt to preserve something of the original metrical form.

All these have their merits. Some personal notes on missed chances and happy discoveries are included, to show how one can learn from one's precedessors, even if one disagrees with much of what they do.

Learning Examples

So it goes. You win a few and you lose a few. We hope you found the journey suggestive.

[Nobody in this sample did very much with Horace's separation of oppositis and pumicibus, to say nothing of Babylonios and numeros. Perhaps they were well advised not to attempt it. Word order in Latin is more flexible, and the grammatical markers on individual words permit the separated phrase to be more easily reassembled by the reader. The effect in English is more drastic, and the device thus obtrudes too much in the English version. It is however possible to create a new and exceptional style in English, where the device of grammatical separation is more at home, and its effect more functional. This is what E E Cummings has done].

Be that as it may, it should be self-evident that the more you hang around writing, and the more you hang around translations of writing, the better you get at translating writing.


All materials posted on this site are Copyright © by the respective authors.

Back to Lecture Page

5 Dec 2002 / Contact The Project / Exit to Lectures Page