Friday, October 14, 2011

Horace 1.24

Last Fall, I foolhardily undertook to translate Horace's Ode 1.24 (Quis Desiderio) into perfectly crafted, metrical stanzas. It was impossible. Not only is English imperfect for imitating the sound of Latin verse, but Latin words frequently bear a wealth of independent but interrelated meanings that can be conveyed by no one English word.
But, the poem, written to Vergil upon the death of a friend, is simply so beautiful that English speakers, who don't have time to learn Latin, should enjoy some slender shade of its beauty. Below, I quote the Latin and various translations of it.

Quis desiderio sit pudor aut modus
tam cari capitis? Praecipe lububris
cantus, Melpomene, cui liquidam pater
uocem cum cithara dedit.

Ergo Quintilium perpetuus sopor
urget? Cui Pudor et Iustitiae soror,
incorrupta Fides, nudaque Veritas
quando ullum inueniet parem?

Multis ille bonis flebilis occidit,
nulli flebilior quam tibi, Vergili.
Tu frustra pius, heu, non ita creditum
poscis Quintilium deos.

Quid si Threicio blandius Orpheo
auditam moderere arboribus fidem?
Num uanae redeat sanguis imagini,
quam uirga semel horrida,

non lenis precibus fata recludere,
nigro compulerit Mercurius gregi?
durum: sed leuius fit patientia
quicquid corrigere est nefas.

The following is a translation by William Gladstone (pictured to the left), the 19th century British liberal statesman, who served as prime minister four times between 1868 and 1894 (Ah, I weep for our world leaders now! I doubt that any of them could even read Horace, much less translate him!).

What bounds can Shame, can Moderation, set,
For one so dear, to yearning and regret?
Lead thou the dirge, for Jove, Melpomene,
Gave lyre and song to thee.

[Fairly solid first lines, though the last two are a bit errant; translating "vocem [voice]" as "song" takes so much charm from the stanza.]

Shall then unending sleep Quintilius bind?
O bashful Shame, O Truth's transparent mind,
Pure Faith and Justice, twinborn sisters dear.
Where shall ye find his peer?

[It's not bad, but I'm wondering where he gets "transparent mind" and "twinborn sisters" and some other meter-completing adjectives that creep in.]

What cause he left the good for sorrowing pain !
What cause to thee, my Virgil! who, in vain
Devout, hast sought him from the gods of heaven,
But he was lent, not given.

[This stanza is awkward and inaccurate. Eheu!]

If sweetlier than Threician Orpheus thou
Could'st touch the chord that made the forests bow.
The blood returns not to the senseless clod,
, For Mercury's stern rod,

[This I find rather pretty and well-crafted, if not entirely accurate.]

Inexorable guard of Fate's command.
Hath fast conjoined him to the spectral band.
Alack! But what the iron laws impose
By patience lighter grows.

[Not accurate and anti-climactic. The final two lines pack none of the punch that they have in Latin.]

The following is a translation by John Conington, an English Classical scholar in the mid 1800s.

Why blush to let our tears unmeasured fall
For one so dear? Begin the mournful stave,
Melpomene, to whom the Sire of all
Sweet voice with music gave.

[Not accurate at all, but it's charming.]

And sleeps he then the heavy sleep of death,
Quintilius? Piety, twin sister dear
Of Justice! naked Truth! unsullied Faith!
When will ye find his peer?

[Piety is an awful translation of "pudor" and Horace merely writes "sister" not "twin sister."]

By many a good man wept. Quintilius dies;
By none than you, my Virgil, trulier wept:
Devout in vain, you chide the faithless skies,
Asking your loan ill-kept.

[Good, a little overly flowery... faithless skies, really?]

No, though more suasive than the bard of Thrace
You swept the lyre that trees were fain to hear,
Ne'er should the blood revisit his pale face
Whom once with wand severe

Mercury has folded with the sons of night,
Untaught to prayer Fate's prison to unseal.
Ah, heavy grief! but patience makes more light
What sorrow may not heal.

[Really quite good; the last two stanzas are devilishly hard to translate well. But Conington's last line reads a bit too much into Horace's delightfully simple line, "quidquid corrigere est nefas."]

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