Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.07.10

David Ferry (trans.), The Odes of Horace: A Bilingual Edition.   New York:  Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1997.  Pp. xv, 344.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Mark Possanza, University of Pittsburgh
Word count: 4036 words

W. H. Auden's poem "The Horatians" begins "Into what fictive realms can imagination / translate you, Flaccus, and your kin?" It is a question that Horace's translators must ponder when they imagine their author transported into that most fictive of realms, the poetic translation which attempts to reproduce the aesthetic quality of the source text and to achieve a comparable aesthetic effect in a new cultural and linguistic environment. To make the Roman lyricus uates modern, the translator-poet's imagination must make the perilous leap from the book stalls of Augustan Rome to the display tables of Barnes and Noble, from the Latin orbit of the Imperium Romanum to the global community of English-speakers who, as potential readers of the Odes, will continue to extend the boundaries of Horace's literary conquests well beyond what the Caesars ever dreamed of achieving.

It must be accounted one of the highest and most difficult of literary undertakings to rewrite the Odes in a contemporary poetic idiom for an audience that wasn't put to school with the likes of that pedagogical curmudgeon Orbilius and that wants directness and simplicity of expression from its poets while regarding artificialities of "style" and "poetic form" as signs of literary exhibitionism or dishonesty or both. What could be more at odds with the values of a poet whose metrical virtuosity and stylized diction not only impose meaningful order on human experience but also give it dignified form? In the fictive realm of Horace-in-English translators face a task almost as difficult as the Latin poet's own transformation of his Greek models into lyric poetry for a Roman audience. What renovations will Horace's monumentum aere perennius have to undergo to meet the tastes and expectations of readers who already have one foot in the next millennium? Can Horace be made to speak their language and will they respond to what he says? The answer to these questions, i.e. a poetics of translation which will communicate the aesthetic qualities of the source text as poetry in English, cannot be discovered in advance through the application of rules and formulas; it emerges gradually from the dialogue that takes place between the translator and the author, as they become acquainted, like roommates, with each other's personality, habits and moods; and the literary space in which they live must accommodate both if the translation is to be an artistic product in its own right. This textual cohabitation, in spite of the obvious incompatibilities and the inevitable misunderstandings between partners, holds the promise of a uniquely collaborative effort which will generate a progeny of new meanings in the minds of new readers.

In his translation of the Soracte ode (1.9) Basil Bunting gives the reader a Horace who looks out on a Northumbrian landscape and speaks in a Modernist voice that eschews verbal ornament and Latinate words (Uncollected Poems [Oxford 1991] 46):

Snow's on the fellside, look! How deep;
our wood's staggering under its weight.
The burns will be tonguetied while frost lasts.

Those closing monosyllables stiffen the tongue like gelu acuto. Bunting's strategy is to transpose Horace's poem into his own favorite landscape, complete with fell and burns; his Horace calls for whisky ("no water please") and points to his "bare scalp" as a warning against love's lost chances; in the last stanza he echoes the Latin ab angulo with the word "bangle", a sly touch that gives the reader who knows the Latin poem the pleasure of recognition. However, at the end of the poem Bunting surprises the reader with a brief coda, "(Says Horace, more or less)", which will seem a gross understatement to those who know the source text, while the Latinless reader will be left wondering just how much Horace is in the poem. Bunting's semantic libertinism makes no concessions either to the philological scruples of the bilingual reader or to the basic linguistic needs of the reader who knows no Latin but does know that Horace didn't drink Glenfiddich. Like Pound's translations of Propertius and Horace, Bunting's translation of 1.9 is, in the first instance, a poem written for other poets, an exemplar of how to write poetry as well as how to translate poetry. Readers who want less poetic innovation and more verbal interpretation will turn to a translator who holds to the aurea mediocritas of fidelity to Horace's Latin Muse and to the Muse of English poetry. They must, however, bear in mind that such heavy demands on the translator-poet's fides are bound to produce not a few adulteries along the way.

David Ferry, poet and translator of Gilgamesh, took on the formidable task of rendering the mortised Latin of Horace's lyric opus into iambic lines of varying length, "mainly pentameter lines although occasionally trimeter and hexameter" (p. xv), arranged in varying stanzaic patterns. He describes his translation strategy thus: "In these translations, I have tried, generally speaking, to be as faithful as I could to Horace's poems. English is of course not Latin and I am most certainly not Horace:" Ferry goes on to state that as a poet his first allegiance is to the laws and habits of English syntax and usage and to the laws and habits of English metrics. True to his word he translates with an artful freedom, creating poems which speak in a modern idiom worthy of Horace's carmina, although, as I will later point out, there are faults that require revision.

Ferry's greatest strength as a translator of Horace is his sensitivity to diction, tone and levels of style and his ability to respond to their changes from poem to poem and within poems while maintaining an overall stylistic decorum that is distinctively Horatian. The first two stanzas of 1.6 (Scriberis Vario) in iambic pentameter offer a good example of his practice.

It takes a poet such as Varius,
Capable of Homeric flight and range,
To praise your deeds of courage and the events
Of victory whether by ship or cavalry.
I don't pretend to sing about such things
As the stubborn peevish anger of Achilles
Or duplicitous Ulysses' wanderings or
The ferocious house of Atreus. Not for me.

It takes a translator of considerable skill to write verses that are not hobbled by Horace's Latin and to avoid phrasing that sounds like a cue for construing the wording of the original. Ferry's independence results in verses which have their own phrasing, rhythm and momentum and also preserve the elegance and sophistication of Horace's recusatio; in short, the translation can stand as a poem in its own right. It brings out clearly the literary issues involved in Horace's polite refusal to write about Agrippa's victories without degenerating into a loud manifesto for Horace's poetic program or into a dull display of false modesty. As the poetic voice of 1.6 quietly asserts, with a gentle irony, its own identity and its proper themes, "epic encounters between young men and women", it also exemplifies the exacting standards of its art. Ferry has a keen sense for Horatian guile as it finds expression in the subtleties of the refusal: the sly assonance of "duplicitous Ulysses'" and "ferocious Atreus", together with the disparaging epithet "peevish", undermine the grandeur of traditional epic themes. The modest self-assertion "Not for me" quietly concludes the poet's refusal and prepares the way for the introduction of his preferred themes, the sympotic and the erotic. I think Ferry made the right choice in declining to reproduce the phrase tenues grandia which is often treated as the pivot upon which the whole poem turns. There is more to 1.6 than the artful manipulation of polemical catch-phrases; the poem reveals an important moment in the process of the poet's self-definition. The reader of this translation will come away with a good sense of the technical skill and 'studied grace', curiosa felicitas, of both Horace and his translator.

When I consider the collection as a whole, I find that my own preference is for the translations composed in shorter lines. In general their syntax is tighter, the sentence structure more compact, the movement more nimble; the longer lines tend to attract unnecessary words. Good examples are 3.24 (Intactis opulentior):

If the last nail driven in
To finish off your roof
Is the adamantine nail
That grim necessity drives ...

and 2.6 (Septimi, Gadis aditure mecum):

Septimius, I know
    That you are ready to go
Along with me to the ends
    Of the earth on whatever journey
And to whatever place,
     Whether it be Cádiz
By the gates of Hercules,
     Or that wild mountainous land
Whose people have not yet learned
     To bear our Roman rule,
Or over the sea to barbarous
     Sidra where the waves,
Unsettled, heave along
     The Mauritanian shore.

This stanza is especially impressive for the neat organization of its geographical expansiveness which stretches beyond the limits of the Imperium Romanum and for the way in which it echoes Catullus 11 as does the original. Readers will note that in the lines "where the waves, unsettled, heave along ...", the words "waves ... heave" provide a clever analogue to the sound play in Horace's aestuat unda, itself an acoustic allusion to Catullus's tunditur unda.

One of the finest poems in the volume is Ferry's translation of 3.9 (Donec gratus eram tibi). It captures the erotic tension and verbal artistry of this lovers' dialogue in which the language of love and the love of language play equally important roles, as the speakers' repartee takes them through the changing stages of their relationship, from the memory of their mutual love to their separation and enjoyment of other lovers, and then finally to their reconciliation. My only regret here is that Ferry sacrificed too much in the name of precise repetition when he omitted bis in 15 ([Calais] pro quo bis patiar mori) in order to achieve exact correspondence between the words of the speakers: "Chloe is the one/I'd die for if I had to" and "Calais is the one I would die for if I had to". I also miss iracundior in 23, a word which, in the company of levior, lets the reader know who has the upper hand in this negotiation.

Readers may find that some of the translations give new life to poems that are absent from their list of favorites. Such, I found, is the translation of 2.20, Horace's "Swan Song", which has long suffered from unfavorable comparison with the lapidary solemnity of 3.30 and, in particular, from the poet's autopsy of his avian transformation described in the third stanza. For most readers the "monument more lasting than bronze" of 3.30 is more impressive and certainly more decorous than the befeathered bard preparing for take-off. In Ferry's version the poet in swan guise exults in his new found freedom of movement as he flies beyond the reach of the worldly concerns of social and literary status; the familiar images and topics of the poet's claim to immortality are transformed, like the poet himself, into the aerial freedom of winged words:

Biform, being a bard and being a bird,
I'll take my flight up through the brilliant air
On powerful wings, taking my leave of the city,
Taking my leave of envy, flying high.
This bard/bird has flown the imperial coop.

Likewise Ferry's version of the Archytas ode (1.28), a poem which by itself might easily crush the ambition to produce a poetic translation of the Odes, may excite new interest in this ghostly monologue. (Exercising the translator's prerogative of interpreting the text, Ferry treats the ode as a poem in two parts with two speakers, a traveler and the unburied sailor, although it is the latter who is usually taken to be the speaker throughout; the interpretation is discussed in a note on pp.326-327.) Ferry's handling of that majestic opening period which fills six lines and reaches its climax in the last word morituro is bravely free of the trammels of the Latin sentence structure; Ferry breaks it up into smaller sentences, and brings it to a powerful conclusion with the line: "What good does it do, now death has taken your measure?"

The high point of Ferry's Horace comes with the Roman Odes (3. 1-6). Here the translator has found a way to harmonize Horace as civic bard and moral sage with the much less imposing figure of the modern poet who has put aside vatic posturing and speaks to all in the common tongue. Horace's reflections on the destiny of Rome and Roman morality, on the virtues of the citizen and the authority of the past in shaping the life of the community and the individual all strike the modern literary sensibility as subjects alien to poetry. Yet in Ferry's versions the reader is persuaded that poetic discourse is a potent medium for the expression of such reflections as he renders with convincing authority the carmina non prius audita and the changing moods of Horace's engagement with the reader as citizen. I think his success here is due in large part to his ability to modulate his style: he can sound the notes of epic combat in 3.4 (p.171),

You know the story of how the Titans and
Their monstrous cohort were struck down by the lightning-
Bolt of the god who rules the massy earth,
The windy sea, all cities, and the realms
Of shadow underground ...

"monstrous cohort", "massy" and "realms" strike a Miltonic note. Or he can evoke the simplicity and discipline of the mos maiorum rooted in the soil of the patria (3.6., p.181),

     Those virtuous
Romans were taught how to use the Sabine hoe
     to till the soil
Of their father's farm and at their mother's call
     to carry in
The cut wood when on the hill the shadows shifted
     As the sun went down.
It was the hour of rest for man and beast;

this passage reminded me of Gray's elegy. It is a considerable achievement to have found a compelling modern voice both strong and flexible enough to resound this majestic poetic sequence which puts the poet at the center of the Imperium Romanum and more than seven hundred years of Roman history.

If there are many poems in this volume which raise the expectation that Ferry's translation will be the yardstick for future translators to measure their efforts by, there are also poems which disappoint that expectation largely because Ferry does not always trust Horace enough to carry his meaning with the reader and introduces changes which, though intended to make the poem viable in English, actually defeat that purpose. When the translator is caught in the unforgiving triangle of fidelity to two Muses, no one comes away satisfied. On those occasions when he makes significant departures from the Latin text (and I have made allowance for Ferry's own aesthetic intentions), I can discover no real aesthetic gain; indeed it seems to me that the poem is diminished in meaning. The most striking example comes in the last stanza of the Soracte ode where Ferry, as he acknowledges in the "Preface" (xv), has "deliberately gone pretty far away from the Latin poem ..." (similar comment on p.325):

There's love, there are parties, there's dancing and there's music,
There are young people out in the city squares together
As evening comes on, there are whispers of lovers, there's laughter.

This catalogue of observations leaves the reader with a deeper chill than Soracte's snow and ice: the speaker's utter detachment, while rehearsing these generalities, from the scene that he is describing robs the poem of its climactic moment and makes of it nothing more than a piece of scene painting, outdoors and indoors, garnished with platitudes about the brevity of youth. (Perhaps the translator was misled here by Nisbet and Hubbard's comment on 21ff. that "the tone is that of a detached observer," an interpretation which seems unlikely in light of the repetition of nunc and the jussive repetantur both suggesting urgency and emotion; and the details themselves of the erotic encounter, as they progress from the place and the time to the lover's play, take the reader to a darkling corner of memory or reverie that gladdens life.) All is not sobriety and detachment in Horace's poetry; the strict discipline of form and diction do not reduce the poetic subject to a postprandial conversation piece. Here is the version of Sir Edward Sherburne (quoted from Horace in English, edited by D. S. Carne-Ross and Kenneth Haynes [Penguin Books 1996] p.98 who assemble a Helicon of Horatians from pious Milton to smutty Wilmot, from troubadour Pound to lugubrious Lowell): Now nightly at the Howre select, And pointed Place, Loves Dialect, Soft whispers, should repeated be; And that kind Laughters Treacherie, By which some Virgin closely layd In dark confinement is betrayed: And now from some soft Arm, or Wrist, A silken Braid, or silver Twist, Or Ring from Finger, should be gain'd, By that too nicely not retain'd. This comes closer to the letter and the spirit of Horace's text.

Other unwanted editorial intrusions make me uneasy: in 2.1 the order of stanzas 1-4 is rearranged so that Pollio the tragic poet comes first (stanza 3), followed by Pollio the victorious general (stanza 4) followed by Pollio the historian (stanzas 1-2); this new arrangement wrongly promotes the senator as poet over the senator as historian and man of affairs; in 2.7 the last two stanzas are barely glanced at; in 3.8 the description of Maecenas as docte sermones utriusque linguae is omitted; in 3.5 Regulus's reproaches are greatly weakened by the omission of references to the soldiers' cowardice and servility; there is an awkward change of person in the last stanza of 1.12 where Jupiter is addressed in the second person and then referred to in the third person in the same sentence (likewise in the last two stanzas of 1.2 (prayer to Caesar), of 4.14 (Caesar's conquests) and also of 2.19 (hymn to Bacchus) where the hymn form makes the shift in person especially noticeable. In the "Preface" (p.xv) and in the Notes (p.326) Ferry alerts the reader to the substitution of "Ouija board" for Horace's Babylonios numeros in 1.11 (Tu ne quaesieris): the substitution strikes me as gratuitous since "horoscope" will serve Horace's Latin and the modern reader quite well; moreover, it weakens the theme of the quantitative approach to life which the poet so energetically opposes. Another substitution in that same poem causes a more serious problem: for the Latin vina liques the translation gives "Take good care of your household." The English not only erases the hint at a sympotic setting but suggests something very different from the famous injunction in the last line, carpe diem. And there are other places where I find it difficult to understand the translator's choice of words: the grandiloquent lyricis uatibus (1.1.35) deserves better than "the poets", especially since elsewhere uates is rendered "bard"; the literalism of "not inglorious filth" (non indecoro puluere 2.1.22) demonstrates that fidelity is not always a virtue; the literalism of "adulterous elegant hairdo" (comptos adulteri crinis) betrays a misunderstanding of the original which results in a rather strange turn of phrase; in 2.16 "the Fates", rendering Parca non mendax (39), ignores the important epithet non mendax which modestly asserts the poet's satisfaction at the thought that he, unlike those who are deceived by the pursuit of wealth and power into a false sense well-being, finds true contentment in his way of life; posteri (2.19.2) is inflated into "those of you who descend from me"; infelix auis (4.12.6) "inheretrix of Procne", a case of phonetic translation, infelix-inheretrix, gone wrong (the legal term suggests the reading of a will); the notorious line post equitem sedet atra Cura (3.1.40), whose meaning cannot be conveyed in a literal version, is translated "Black sorrow sits/Behind the horseman as he rides his horse", but Horace's eques spent his time at the money table, not in the saddle, and, like the investor in pursuit of ever more financial security, always had at his back "gloomy insecurity" (here if anywhere a functional substitute for the semantic content of the Latin is justified); the phrase "beautiful Lyde" (2.11.21-22) conceals the fact that the woman (deuium scortum, not translated) does more than pluck lyre strings; similarly in 3.15 the climactic word uetulam (16), which confronts the uxor pauperis Ibyci with the reality of how others see her, is omitted; in the phrase "vile smelly matter" (spiritus taeter saniesque 3.11.19), which describes Cerberus's rank and gorey maw, the strength of the adjectives "vile" and "smelly" is dissipated in the clinical dryness of "matter"; 3.21.4, "O virtuous jar" (pia testa) takes Roman gravitas too far, "trusty jar" would be better; at 4.14. 1-9 the praise of Augustus is undercut by the rhyme and repetition in "prince invincible,/ invincible" (maxime principum 6) and by the omission of quid Marte posses in 9. Because the translator is a poet who wants to be faithful to the Latin to the extent that his own poetics in English will allow, the reader may reasonably expect, in these instances, a more respectful handling of the originals and better writing.

The translator has one noticeable un-Horatian mannerism, the repetition of words and phrases when the repetition is not justified by the wording of the original or by the translation itself. As Housman remarked in his preface to Lucan (p.xxxiii), "Horace was as sensitive to iteration as any modern . . ." So Horace's translator must be equally sensitive, if not more so. Repetition can, of course be used to good effect, whether or not it is authorized by the source text, as in the translation of the Archytas ode where it has an incantatory effect, and in 2.12 (Nolis longa) where Licymnia's name becomes, through repetition, another of her charms, as in John Lyly's poem "My Daphne's hair is twisted gold". However, after reading through the whole collection, it is difficult not to feel that the translator overdoes it. Here are some examples which, in my opinion, detract from the overall quality of the poems in which they occur: 1.2 (p.7) "your radiant shoulders/clad in radiant cloud"; 1.3 (p.11), "Audacious Daedalus" is one audax too many; 1.8 (p.27), "the clothes of a woman ... the clothes of a woman"; 1.15 (p.45), "Bad luck for Troy that this adventure brings./The woman you are bringing home will bring ... And to bring down ...; 1.15. (p.47), "Head back and panting hard ... head back/And panting hard"; 1.19 (p.55) "all" repeated five times in five lines, "smoother than shining marble is shining and smooth" (the force of urit ... nitor is lost); 1.34 (p.89) "his thundering chariot and his thundering horses"; 1.38 (p.99), "everywhere for somewhere ... where ... anywhere", "less simple than simple myrtle"; 2.1 (p.103) "I see the terror/In the terrified horses' faces, and I see the terror in the faces of their riders" (compare 2.8, p.123, "You terrify mothers terrified of their sons,/And fathers terrified for their sons' money,/And young brides terrified ...;" and 1.15, p.45, "Tydeus' terrible son, more terrible than his terrible father"); 3.25 (p.239), "where" repeated eight time in four lines -- too much even for a poet filled with the god Bacchus; 4.7 (p.285), "Yet after a time, and time and time again,/The moon restores itself in the nighttime sky./But when it's time for us ..." Some will find justification for these repetitions. I think they give the reader the wrong impression of Horace's craftsmanship.

Overall Ferry's poetic translation of the Odes is a fine achievement and a boon to Latinless readers who want to experience Horace-in-English as poetry rather than as a plodding gloss on the Latin. At the same time, however, there are flaws in the translation which make me wonder whether the poems had received their final 'Horatian' revision before they were published: saepe stilum uertas. Such a revision would have removed the various blemishes mentioned above and would have made Ferry's Horace a good modern standard for the poetic translation of the Odes. As it is, I am left with the feeling that ultimately the translation, despite its many excellent qualities, lacks that intimate acquaintance with the author, that consuetudo cottidiana, which persuades the reader to trust the translator as the author's faithful interpreter.

Read Latest
Index for 1998
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:25:49, Friday, 03 April 2009