Latin to English


Sometime last year I started a project, somewhat informally, that involved me brushing up on my Latin by attempting to translate poems written in that language. It began  as a challenge that, at times, I considered beyond me (I had been away from Latin since my undergrad days), but developed into something from which I gained great enjoyment. I first translated some prose passages from Aulus Gellius to start, but quickly moved on to the poets. After dabbling a little in Medieval poetry, I ended up going back to Horace, who is of course one of the greatest of the Latin masters. I’ve since decided to focus on choosing from each book of Horace’s Odes to produce a small selection of his poems, each of which I find to be particularly beautiful.

The challenge of properly articulating in English those thoughts and expressions Horace preserved in his poetry is daunting. The Latin is so beautiful, so concise and crisp that reproducing it metrically would come across as artificial, at least in my own attempt. I’ve opted to employ verse libre in my rendering of his work which, I hope, will allow me to preserve the images and meaning accurately, while ensuring the English reads naturally and unfettered by forced english metrical structures. For the purists, this approach may seem lax or sloppy, but I’m more interested in how I, as a translator, react to the source text and, by extension, to Horace himself. The experiential filters of language, time and culture should prove quite interesting and, hopefully, productive to say the least.

Here’s a working translation of Sextus Propertius’ second elegy from his first book if you care for such things (the original Latin can be found here):

(trans. Stephen Rowe)

My dear, why do you come with such ornate hair,
stirring that delicate bosom in Coan silk,
imbue Orontian tresses with myrrh,
                                                                          sell yourself
with exotic teases and waste your own splendour
with acquired elegance, not letting your own treasures shine?
Believe me, this is no prescription:
                                                                        stripped down,
love does not love artful beauty.

Look what hues the untouched earth sprouts, how ivies
bloom of their own accord,
                                                        the ripe strawberry tree
even rises in secluded hollows.
Water knows untaught where to flow.
The sun-slapped coast glistens with bare stones
while birds sing with artless charm.

Leucippus’ daughter Phoebe set Castor burning
some other way; her sister Helaira enticed Pollux likewise;
thus the daughter of Evenus sewed dissension
between Idas and eager Apollo; Hippodamia
did not draw away her Phrygian husband on the wheels
of some foreign chariot,
                                                  radiantly deceptive.

No jewels like the colours in Apelles’ paintings
were required for their beauties. Seeking lovers
was not their aim:
                                     modesty was beauty enough.

I’m not afraid now that you value me less than they:
any girl who pleases one man
                                                             is well enough refined;
since Apollo composes his own melody
just for you,
                          Calliope gives her lyre willingly,
and your pleasant words still hold one-of-a-kind grace;
all things Venus and Minerva commend.
For these you’ll remain ever dear to me
while you turn your back on dull luxury.


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