BMCR 1995.01.07

1995.01.07, Lee, Propertius: The Poems

, , The poems. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. xxv, 205 pages ; 21 cm. ISBN 9780198144977 $42.00.

Lee’s translation of Propertius is not bold or sparkling or avant-garde. It is something much more difficult and desirable than that—an honest attempt at a quietly accurate and reliable version made by a highly sensitive scholar. Lee states in his Prefatory note: “the translation, though in verse, is meant to be faithful and unadorned, an attempt at a version which would enable Propertius to be read and studied in English as the Bible has been read and studied for centuries.” So earlier, on p. xxv of his introduction to The Poems of Catullus (Oxford, 1990), he had remarked: “perhaps what is most needed in a world of hype is a little honesty.”

The translation is based chiefly on Camps’ sober and conservative text. There is little in the way of lacunae, obeli, square brackets etc. to mar it, but readers are made aware that there are textual problems in an appendix (of variants from the OCT) and in the notes. The sixty-nine pages of notes (on text, meaning, references, major points of interpretation, sources and so on) economically facilitate understanding and enhance appreciation, without swamping users with minutiae and scholarly polemics. Also helpful in many cases are the titles provided for the elegies and the use of Paragraphing in the translations to mark off sections and clarify lines of thought.

The actual rendering is admirably self-effacing and very close to the Latin, but it is not strictly literal. For example, there is some slight ellipse (e.g. at 1.3.34, 36, 2.26A.18, 4.4.30); and there is some judicious exegetical addition and substitution (like “Maenad” for Edonis at 1.3.5, but with scrupulous explanation in the notes), although Lee is careful to do justice to the ‘otherness’ of Propertius and does not smooth out or gloss over too much ambiguities, obscurities and difficulties (see, for instance, 1.18.11, 1.20.1, 5, 15, 1.22.6, 3.1.9ff.). His (unrhymed) English couplets achieve always a distich for distich and almost always a line for line correspondence in sense. Lee’s flexible and varied diction, alert to nuances and differences of tone and register in the original, catches well the range in Propertius. The ordinary language of everyday speech prevails, but there is a judicious admixture of rare, archaic, grand, foreign and modern expressions (anon, snood, mail-clad steed, what time, cantillations, orrery, asperge, vail, palmaceous, taverna, bedside tables, toyboy). Some readers may find themselves brought up short at times by terms which seem to them odd or old fashioned, but then Propertius is not exactly an easy, flowing read in Latin either.

Felicities abound. The tricky vacuo meditabar vivere lecto in 2.2.1 is neatly rendered “planning to live and sleep single”. Lee perceptively brings out the two meanings in compositos … ocellos (1.3.33) with “those calm closed eyes”. He produces aptly sonorous versions of 4.3.33 noctibus hibernis castrensia pensa laboro (“On winter nights I work away at wartime stints”), 4.7.60 mulcet ubi Elysias aura beata rosas (“To where blest airs caress Elysian roses”) and many other lines. He captures points of style as well as sound, at 2.26A.16 candida Nesaee, caerula Cymothoe (“Nesaea fair, blue-eyed Cymothoe”), 4.8.30 sobria grata parum: cum bibit, omne decet (“when sober, rather dull; when drinking, quite delightful”) etc. Sustained performance up to these standards means that often the impact of whole poems (like the humour of 2.29A and 4.8, and the sombreness of 1.19) comes across particularly well.

There are occasional infelicities. Lee’s rendering of 1.3.39f. (“Villain, O how I wish you could endure such nights / As you always inflict on wretched me!”) jarred on me, and his faithful reproduction of Latin idioms (like the plural for singular at 3.1.25f.) can result in some obscurity. At times I did not agree with his notes (e.g. in connection with 1.20.2530 must the episode of Zetes and Calais attacking Hylas derive from a painting, rather than lost literature or the poet’s own imagination?). I observed several misprints too: “ecstacy” on the jacket blurb; on line 9 of page xvi “iii.37” (instead of i.37); on line 13 of page xxii “off” (for of); on page 62 no full stop at the end of 2.29A.20; on page 111 in 4.3.72 ‘A girl’s thanks for her husband’s safety’ should be italicized; on page 122 there should be a comma in place of the full stop at the end of 4.8.18; and on page 140 the prefatory note on 1.22 refers the reader to the Introduction p. 000.

In addition, R.O.A.M. Lyne’s introduction is rather disappointing. In fourteen and a half pages he covers the poet’s birth, background and links with Maecenas; irony, ambiguity and cheek in political references in the poetry; the nature and social status of Cynthia; the way in which the love elegies try to cap and supersede Catullus; the use of myth in them, and their pathos. This introduction is readable and sensible, and all very good as far as it goes, but it is curiously incomplete. I do not know what kind of an audience it is aimed at, but certainly it would not provide adequate preamble per se for North American undergraduate or even graduate students. For instance, it does not discuss the dating of the four books of poetry or even that of the poet’s death; it has little to say about the intensity, agony and morbidity in many of the elegies, or their difficulty; other than Catullus and (briefly) Callimachus, the models of this highly literary writer are ignored; and a paragraph or so on the historical background and some remarks on Augustan poetry in general (and the other elegists in particular) would also have helped to sharpen the picture for such readers.

Apart from these reservations about the introduction, I would judge this to be a suitable translation for Classical Civilization students to use (when it comes out in paperback, at a reduced price). This opinion was corroborated by the revealing response to the book of a graduate student of mine (Sarah Parker), whose main interest is in Latin literature and who had already read some Propertius in the original. For her Lee’s version of Ovid’s Amores (London, 1968) had a more immediate appeal, and she found the rendering of Propertius a bit ‘unnatural’ at times; but overall she felt that there is an appropriately ‘literary’ feel to the diction, and that the translation is trustworthy and (with the help of the notes) clear and intelligible, so that a genuine impression of Propertius’ poetry is conveyed.

In short, this is a worthy successor to Lee’s versions of Ovid’s Amores, Tibullus, Virgil’s Eclogues, Catullus and Persius, and it will add substantially to Lee’s already considerable stature as one of the leading translators of Latin verse alive today.