blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2010  Vol. 9  No. 2
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A Classic in Paraphrase

One of the fantasies common among working translators is the notion that we enjoy access to our original unmediated by any interference from theories about translation. This may derive from a fear that theory is what is trying to put us out of business, by claiming that the kind of translation we try to practice is either impossible or undesirable. But it also seems to stem from the fact that literary translation is such a pragmatic enterprise: those of us who engage in it never manage to get exactly what we want, and our art, if it is an art, is, like democracy, the art of the possible, rife with unseemly compromises. And that is even truer of poetic translation, where the poetry, we are told, is what is always getting lost. Nevertheless, the idea that we perform our tasks without any reference to theory or theories about that activity is itself a theory—one which does not really fit the case in my own practice.

There is even a detached bit of theory in my title: the word “paraphrase” is taken from John Dryden’s Preface to the Translation of Ovid’s Epistles, where he divides translation, like Gaul, into three distinct parts. The first of these is “metaphrase, or turning an author word-for-word, and line-by-line, from one language into another . . . The second is paraphrase, or translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense.” In Dryden’s scheme, after translation with latitude comes imitation, which might be described as translation with attitude, for “the translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion.” (Schulte 17)

Almost everyone who writes about translation after Dryden follows him in dividing it into three parts, a division usually corresponding to the Goldilocksian theory of porridge, in which, as you will recall, one bowl was too hot, one too cool, and one just right. For Dryden, paraphrase (the bowl in the middle) has just the right cultural temperature: it allows him to capture what he calls here the “sense” of his author. Metaphrase, he felt, hobbled the translator to no good end and leads to productions like the French prose translations of Horace’s odes. “From such translators as these,” he remarked, “we have nothing to fear.” On the other hand, imitation is a suspect for its lack of responsibility to the original—an activity that Dryden compares to the giving of a gift where one expects the payment of a debt.

Nevertheless, imitation is both the oldest and an important form of literary and cultural translation. It is the form that translation took in the ancient world, often as an unacknowledged theft from an original. The Roman poet Catullus felt no need to indicate that his ode beginning “Ille mi paresse deo videtur” was a translation into Latin of one of the Greek poet Sappho’s odes beginning “Phainetai moi keinos isos theosin.” Her poem was probably too well known in the circles for which Catullus wrote to need any such nod, but Catullus also felt no need to stick closely to what his distinguished predecessor had created and in fact may have slipped in a conclusion to his poem that was radically different from the one supplied by Sappho. That was the way the game was played back then.

Despite Dryden’s disapproval, imitation never disappeared completely, and in the early twentieth century, it came back into its own, with Ezra Pound’s stunning invention of Chinese poetry in Cathay (1915), in his provocative reassessment of a long-settled Latin poet in Homage to Sextus Propertius, and his shaking up of Anglo-Saxon certainties in his version of The Seafarer. For every language from which Pound translated, there was an expert hiding behind a bush, waiting to pop up and inform you that Pound just didn’t know what he was doing. Often enough the expert was right: Pound did not know Chinese when he published Cathay—or at any time after; Hugh Kenner finally admitted that Pound knew no Greek either, and I have come to the reluctant conclusion that Pound’s knowledge of Latin was tenuous at best. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which this doesn’t really matter at all, at least for the best of his translations, where what does come through, whether supplied by Pound or his original, lifts the hair on the back of one’s neck as it is read. Pound had his disciples. One was Christopher Logue in England, whose never-ending translation of the Iliad (in War Music and succeeding volumes) has met with critical and popular acclaim. Here in the United States, Robert Lowell followed Pound’s lead in his own translations, which he collected in 1961 under the title Imitations. Lowell, too, was attacked by critics who assailed him for the liberties he took in his versions, despite the fact that the title he chose is surely a deliberate nod to Dryden, and the assertion of his own place as part of a tradition in translation.

Dryden’s distrust of imitation finds resonance today with the recognition that the attitude of an imitation to its original may be patronizing or triumphalist, a form of literary neo-colonialism. In The Poetics of Translation, Willis Barnstone cites Edward Fitzgerald, the nineteenth century translator—or perhaps more accurately, the author—of one of the greatest imitations in the English language (his version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) on the relations between imitator and imitated: “It is an amusement to take what liberties I like with these Persians, who . . . are not poets enough to frighten one from such excursions, and who really do want a little Art to shape them.” (Barnstone 11) 

The problem with imitation, however, is that the art that shapes it is often not the art of the original. Pound’s art, not Propertius’s, shaped his Homage, and Lowell’s jagged brilliance, rather than Villon’s, informs Lowell’s Villonesque pastiche in Imitations. There is a sense, though, in which this matters not at all: when the hairs rise on the back of the neck, it may be ungenerous to ask who created this effect. The work and influence of Pound and Lowell persist in our culture because they manage to deliver the goods, no matter whether the goods in question were stolen or even counterfeit.

Though metaphrase, strict word-for-word, line-for-line translation, has had few adherents among literary translators—it is what you hope to find on Christmas Eve, when you are assembling a toy made in Taiwan according to the enclosed directions—it nevertheless persists among a few defenders and practitioners, most notably Vladimir Nabokov who insisted on it in his version of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

But despite Nabokov on one side and Pound and Lowell on the other, Drydenesque paraphrase is still the kind of translation that prevails today. Dryden’s preference for it owes much to the nature of the audience for whom he was writing: a literate, middle-class audience that wanted access to the classics and a guarantee that what it was getting was the real thing. Metaphrase, with its word-for-word and line-by-line fidelity to the text, would seem to fit the bill. But the classics were known to be not only a matter of thought but a matter of technique as well. Virgil and Horace were great poets and were great as poets. The most obvious limitation of word-for-word translation is that while it allows a translator to bring over the sense of his original, it cannot give the reader any idea of the original poet’s structure or technique. Paraphrase, not metaphrase, is capable of providing an analogy in English for the structure of the original. When Dryden discusses paraphrase, he speaks of bringing over into English the meaning of his original; he does not speak of the way that paraphrase allows him to invest his own, not inconsiderable, poetic talent in providing a suitable analogue for the poetic technique of his original and thus to translate that as well into English.

In a sense, the audience for which Dryden translated Virgil and Ovid is the same kind of audience for which Longfellow (the father of American poetic translation) Englished Dante, and that audience is similar to the one for which, more recently, Robert Fitzgerald produced his great version of Homer’s Odyssey and Richard Wilbur recreated Moliere in English. Wilbur cites Longfellow’s biographer, Newton Arvin, in describing this perennial audience and its hunger for “work of genuine literary quality written in response to the emergence ‘of a very wide body of more or less educated but not sophisticated or exacting readers.’” (Wilbur 31)

That audience wants not only access but also the assurance that what it is getting is an accurate reflection of the original. If the sensibility of the audience for translation has remained essentially the same from Dryden’s time to our own, the standards for accuracy in translation have, if anything, grown stricter, and Dryden today would be thought of as writing imitations, rather than paraphrases. Pope’s magnificent Iliad was suspect in its own time: the kindest thing that the distinguished classicist, Richard Bentley, could say of it was, “It’s very pretty, Mr. Pope, but it isn’t Homer.”  In our time it is more commonly seen as Pope’s English epic rather than Homer in paraphrase: its genius belongs more to its translator than to its original.         

As we noticed before, Dryden’s tripartite division of translation referred only to the translator’s conveying the sense of the poem from the original language into English. Questions of structure and voice would not have occurred to him: in Dryden’s time there were, after all, a very limited number of suitable forms into which a poem could be translated, and Dryden appears to have been much more interested in what he called a poet’s “thought” rather than in his voice. In our time, however, a critic who attempts to discuss the meaning of a poem without reference to its structure or to its voice is going to seem naïve.

In The Poetics of Translation, Willis Barnstone very usefully supplements Dryden with his own tripartite division of structure, voice, and register. He describes three approaches that a translator can take to the issue of structure. The most literal is mimetic, in which the translator attempts to reproduce the verse structure of the original, as Richard Lattimore attempts to reproducing the meter of the Homeric line in his versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The middle range finds a form analogous to that of the original, like Robert Fitzgerald’s blank verse in his versions of Homer or the heroic couplet of Richard Wilbur for Moliere’s alexandrines. Finally, where we have imitation, we have an invented form (which Barnstone refers to as organic) like Christopher Logue’s free structures in his versions of the Iliad. (Barnstone 25–29)

Barnstone also argues, somewhat less successfully, for a sliding scale to describe what he calls the “authorship” of the translation. At one end is the voice of the original poet and at the other end is the voice of the translator. In the middle, there is either a compromise or a duet. Paraphrase quite simply depends on the possibility that the translator and the translated can have a dialogue: that the translator will be able to understand the intent of his original and will be able to reproduce it.

But enough theory: I thought that today we could discuss the actual problems involved in translating an ode of Horace. I think of myself as somewhat of an expert on the problems of translating Horace’s Odes, since I have been doing it for quite a while with remarkably little success. I began translating Horace at the age of eighteen for a reason that, for almost two thousand years, had been seen as perfectly natural: I was forced to do it. The study of Latin through its prose had been compulsory for four years of high school, and, as a college freshman, I had reached the age when I could be safely trusted with poetry. I wish I could say that I found the Odes of Horace an unalloyed pleasure and a time-beguiling delight from first acquaintance, but I did not. In truth, they presented themselves as a regular source of unavoidable public humiliation when I would be called upon to decipher a strophe or two, and after dragging myself on bruised and bloody knees through the intricate thickets of Horace’s syntax, I would emerge with a few lines that sounded like this: “Yet you, Impervius, though not unknown to the unsanctified daughter of the Lacedaemonian, live neither meanly nor ostentatiously.” Whether I had gotten this right, I had no way of knowing. Most of the time I hadn’t, since not only Horace’s syntax but his whole realm of discourse was beyond my experience. But Horace was nothing if not persistent, and gradually I came to an understanding of and enthusiasm for the poetic and human virtues of his work.         

One of the poems that I learned to read with admiration after fumbling my way through it as a freshman is the fourth ode of Horace’s first book. It is a poem that I have tried to bring over into English on a number of occasions but never to my satisfaction or anyone else’s. Over the years, Horace’s ode has become a kind of magnet for translators, whose many versions exhibit as wide a range of different approaches to the poem as to the act of translation. What I propose to do is to talk a little bit about the poem and then discuss four modern versions of it in English. First is Horace’s poem in Latin:

Solvitur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni,
          Trahuntque siccas machinae carinas,
Ac neque iam stabulis gaudet pecus aut arator igni,
          Nec prata canis albicant pruinis.

Iam Cytherea choros ducit Venus imminente luna,
          Iunctaeque Nymphis gratiae decentes
Alterno terram quatiunt pede, dum gravis Cyclopum
          Vulcanus ardens visit officinas.

Nunc decet aut viridi nitidum caput impedire myrto
          Aut flore, terrae quem ferunt solutae;
Nunc et in umbrosis Fauno decet immolare lucis,
          Seu poscat agna sive malit haedo.

Pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas
          Regumque turris. O beate Sesti,
Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam.
          Iam te premet nox fabulaeque Manes

Et domus exilis Plutonia; quo simul mearis,
          Nec regna vini sortiere talis,
Nec tenerum Lycidan mirabere, quo calet iuventus
          Nunc omnis et mox virgines tepebunt.

Next is Charles E. Bennett’s prose version:

Keen winter is breaking up at the welcome change to spring and the Zephyr, and the tackles are hauling dry hulls toward the beach. No longer now does the flock delight in the fold, or the ploughman in his fireside, nor are the meadows longer white with hoary frost. Already Cythereian Venus leads her dancing bands beneath the o’erhanging moon, and the comely Graces linked with Nymphs tread the earth with tripping feet, while blazing Vulcan visits the mighty forges of the Cyclopes. Now is the fitting time to garland our glistening locks with myrtle green or with the blossoms that the unfettered earth brings forth. Now also it is met in shady groves to bring sacrifice to Faunus, whether he demands a lamb or prefer a kid. Pale Death with foot impartial knocks at the poor man’s cottage and at Princes’ palaces. Despite thy fortune, Sestius, life’s brief span forbids thy entering on far-reaching hopes. Soon shall the night of Death enshroud thee, and the phantom shades and Pluto’s cheerless hall. As soon as thou com’st  hither, no longer shall thou by dice obtain the lordship of the feast, nor gaze with wonder on the tender Lycidas, of whom all youths are now enamoured and for whom the maidens soon shall glow with love. (17)

Horace’s ode is composed of five strophes (or stanzas) of four lines each, alternating between a longer hexameter line and a shorter line of eleven syllables. Horace’s meters are very different from ours; the greatest difference is that they are based on syllabic length, rather than on stress patterns. A syllable in a Latin poem is considered either long or short, and the lines of verse are made up of feet arranged in patterns of long and short syllables. There is little flexibility in substituting one foot for another; word accents, however, are much more variable in Latin verse and actually provide a counterpoint to the relatively inflexible quantitative meter.

The meter of this poem quickly establishes, through its orderly parallels and antitheses, a tone that is far more formal than casual. Each of the first three strophes presents us with a discretely composed situation which divides, more or less evenly, into complementary halves. The first line of the first strophe announces the welcome change of season, winter to spring, and the second line describes one of the consequences of that change: the revival of maritime activity as boats are hauled out of drydock to water’s edge. The second half of the strophe provides a complementary view of the arrival of spring as a farmer and his herd leave their winter quarters.

Horace’s second strophe balances the human concerns of the first with a depiction of the springtime activities of the immortals: in the first two and a half lines Venus is seen leading the nymphs and graces in a sublunary dance, while in the remaining line and a half, her husband Vulcan (blacksmith to the Olympian gods) inspects the forges of the Cyclopes, whose charge it was to produce thunderbolts for Jupiter’s use in spring and summer, when demand would naturally be at its peak. The marriage of Venus and Vulcan was widely known to be on the rocks, so we may suspect some mild irony here: Vulcan is described as “ardens,” a word which means not only overheated, but burning with desire or jealousy. We might also suspect, in a poem that that otherwise avoids end rhymes, that Horace is perhaps hinting at some connection to be made between “carinas,” the keels of line 2, and “officinas,” the factories or forges of line 8.

The third strophe also presents a pair of balanced and complementary scenes, with instructions on how we are to welcome the return of spring by our behavior to one another and to the immortal gods. First, we are to spruce ourselves up, either with evergreen garlands or with flowers, a choice which might reveal a preference either for a long and safe life in a transitory world or for a brilliant flaming out. This choice is balanced by another in the second half of the stanza, where we are told to offer either a (she) lamb or a (he) kid to Faunus, god of forests and herdsmen.

The harmonious order and balance of the first three strophes is suddenly challenged by the sudden and unexpected appearance of Death in the fourth. The shock is conveyed by the alliteration of the repeated plosives surrounding death’s appearance: “pallida mors pulsat pede pauperum tabernas.” The alliteration is clearly meant to be noticed, a deliberate, not-entirely-subtle stressing of the sound-texture of the poem. Some readers, like Walter Savage Landor, will be taken by surprise: Pallida Mors, he insists, has nothing to do with the first three stanzas. Other readers, those perhaps who are members of PETA, will have noticed that the theme of death is introduced with the theme of animal sacrifice in the lines immediately preceding. But perhaps it is in poetry as in life: the appearance of death comes always as something of a shock to us. The image of death rapping on someone’s door with his foot is taken from Roman comedy, a borrowing that might have made the line even more shocking to Horace’s original audience.

The fourth strophe breaks with the three preceding it in yet another way: a change in the relationship between sentence and strophe. Rather than an even or nearly-even division, with balanced and end-stopped lines, we have a new unevenness: Death is given a line and a half to make his appearance, and this is followed at once by an address to a certain Sestius, someone drawn into the poem as suddenly and even more unexpectedly as Death himself. Without precedent in this poem, the last line of the fourth strophe begins a new sentence and, equally unprecedented, is unable to contain itself and spills over into the fifth strophe. That sentence does not end until the poem does, after a breathless warning to Sestius of the nearness and finality of Death, with its hostility to the pleasures of love and wine to be found here above.
The last strophe ends on a note that has puzzled modern commentators and left translators to deal with as they may: when Horace tells us that the young men are now burning for Lycidas and the young maidens soon will grow warm toward him, is he pointing to a contrast between the intensities of homosexual or heterosexual passion? Or is he doing something else?
There is a host of minor issues gnawing at the translator’s ankle: who, for example, is Sestius, and why is he in the poem? Was he a real person, or is he simply a metrical place-holder?  Is it possible to convey to a modern audience the reality of Horace’s world, where personifications were deities, local or otherwise, rather than mere abstractions? Is it possible to be serious about Vulcan, given his current association with the tire industry, or Pluto, more commonly identified with Disney World rather than the underworld?

But given the fact that so much of the poem’s meaning seems to be encoded in its structure, a translator approaching the poem today might very well begin with the problem of finding a structure, whether mimetic, analogous, or organic, that can bring the meaning of Horace’s structure over into English. Given a poem as different as this one is from those that we and our contemporaries write today, the translator’s first decision is whether to try to devise a way of conveying that difference, bringing it over somehow into contemporary English, or to try to efface those differences and present him as our contemporary, as one of us. The first two translations we will look at provide opposing answers to these questions. The first is “Odes, I/4” by Burton Raffel, from The Essential Horace:

Winter weathers away, goes dull as spring
Blows in, warm; dried-out boats
Creak to the water; sheep run from the barn,
Farmers leave their kitchen fires,
And the white, frosted meadows go brown
And green. Venus is whirling under the moon,
With all her worshippers—and graces and nymphs
Cross the earth on gentle feet—and burning
Vulcan comes to the Cyclops’ forges.

It is time, it is time: take flowers from the new
Earth and hang them in your hair, hang myrtle
Across your forehead, and bring Faunus what he wants,
A lamb, a kid, and under arching trees
Offer him blood.

Death raps his bony knuckles, bleached,
Indifferent, on any man’s door, a palace or a hut.
Life runs short; even your money, Sestius,
Even all your money “won’t buy him off.
You’ll drop in his darkness, and stay forever
In shadows and mists, down in Pluto’s gray hall.
No spinning the dice for toastmaster,” then.
No staring heartsick at lovely Lycidas,
Loved by all the boys now,
Loved by all the girls soon.

Raffel seems to have concluded that Horace could be brought over into English as, say, an American poet of the 1970s, for whom the original Horace’s sense of the formality and artificiality of art would have been anathema; Raffel’s Horace would never invite the uninitiated audience to maintain a respectful distance from the precincts of the consecrated bard. The values carefully encoded in the structure of Horace’s ode are the first elements to be lost in translation. In place of the five symmetrical strophes of the original, as carefully endstopped as enjambed, we are given three paragraphs of casually unmetered verse. The first two enjambments are so pointlessly awkward that one concludes they cannot be accidental. No, these must have been intended to provide us with a Horace who is just folks, without any pretense to a distancing elegance. The infelicitous enjambments are accompanied by diction equally imprecise: what does it mean to say that “winter weathers away” or “goes dull,” presumably in the same way that the “frosted meadows go brown / And green.”?

The loss of Horace’s discrete and balanced stanzas leaves us with no sense of proportion: how do the images of the natural world and the deities and personifications relate to one another? Keeping the careful distinctions of the original would perhaps enable us to understand what they meant for him; Raffel’s undemanding versification and carelessly paratactic organization are likely to convince the modern reader that there was for Horace no distinction between areas of experience that he very carefully considered and those whose significance was indicated both by the separations and by the proportionate treatment of his materials.

Throughout his version of the poem, Raffel seems unconcerned with trying to get at what Horace is saying and often substitutes an inaccuracy of his own when he could just as easily have supplied us with something much closer to the original. Venus, for instance, does not whirl “under the moon” nor do her companions “Cross the earth on gentle feet”: this is a dance, not a marathon. And does anyone “[spin] the dice”? Finally we lose whatever distinction Horace wished to convey between homosexual and heterosexual passion; in Raffel’s clumsy last lines, the only distinction is a temporal one, between “now” and “soon.”

Raffel’s version is not entirely unsuccessful: “Death raps his bony knuckles, bleached” is a line with a strong metrical spine running through it, and it presents an image which goes far toward solving the problem of bringing “pallida mors” over into contemporary English. It also rhymes with those curiously spinning dice that appear later on. Yet the poem on the whole does not succeed, failing out of the translator’s desire for a Horace who is one of us, who can be understood without interference from the enormous temporal and cultural gap between the original and ourselves. Setting out to paraphrase Horace, Raffel loses so much in structure, rhetoric, and diction that his version comes to be a very weak imitation of its original.

Our second version of I/4 embraces Horace’s distance and difference and makes the most of it by presenting him to us in a kind of metrical toga. The translation is by Charles E. Passage in The Complete Works of Horace:

Harshness of winter relents at the welcome return of spring and Westwind,
          The ships are hauled by windlass down from dry dock,
Oxen no longer are glad for their stables nor plowman for his fireside,
          And pastures do not whiten under hoarfrost.
Now by the low-hanging moon start the dances of Cytherean Venus,
          As nymphs of hers link hands with the lovely Graces
Treading the earth in their alternate rhythms, and Vulcan, red at—fire-glow,
          Inspects the Cyclops blacksmiths at their forges.
Now is the season when hair is perfumed and entwined with glossy myrtle
          Or flowers which the unlocked earth releases.
Now in the shadowy groves as a sacrifice to Faunus—
          A she-lamb or he-goat as he chooses.
Ashen pale Death comes a-knocking at mansions of kings and paupers’ hovels
          With equal clamor. Lucky Sestius, our
Briefness of life-span forbids us to open a long-range hope’s investment.
          To darkness and the fabled ghosts you soon shall
Pass, to the cramped little quarters of Pluto; and once you are ensconced there,
          The dice will not elect you banquet-master,
Nor will you marvel to gaze on young Lycidas, over whom all young men
          Wax ardent now, and girls will soon do likewise.

Passage describes his version of Horace’s odes as “translations into the meters of the original,” a description which is not entirely accurate. What Passage has done has been to substitute accented and unaccented syllables for Horace’s long and short syllables. Before we examine his translation, some of the problems inseparable from this approach to mimetic form need to be addressed.

The principal problem is that substituting a metrical system based on accent for one based on length of syllable radically simplifies Horace’s metrical practice, and so one important effect of his verse is lost to us. As David West describes it, “in Latin we hear a triple counterpoint. Against the fixed pattern of the quantitative there plays the stresses on the individual words. Against these two elements there runs the third, the sense of the utterance as we understand it.” (Horace, West, xii) With this kind of mimetic form, the counterpoint between quantitative (syllabic length) and qualitative (syllabic accent) is lost. One could argue that in English it would be lost anyway, since length and stress usually coincide. In English, however, accentual-syllabic verse provides a counterpoint between, say, the ideal form of iambic pentameter and the expressive substitutions and reversals that it may have in practice.

In Passage’s system, there is little metrical variety possible, since there is little in the original. Consequently, his stressed syllables will fall in exactly the same places in each of the lines. There are ways of getting around this problem, but it depends if the translator sees this as a problem that he or she needs to get around. I see no evidence that Passage did.

One final objection to this approach is that, despite the metrical coincidences, there are enormous phonic differences between the Latin lines and the English: the lightness and grace of Horace’s “ac neque iam stabulis gaudet pecus aut arator igni” is not mirrored by the gravity of Passage’s “oxen no longer are glad for their stables nor plowman for his fireside.” If we wished to reproduce Horace’s essential lightness and grace, a shorter line would be necessary in English. Mimetic form can only pretend to replicate its original; often the results will be more like unconscious parody.

Nevertheless, despite the inherent difficulties involved in the mimetic form, Passage seems partly successful for the first three stanzas; the alternating long and short lines keep the ear from registering the monotony of the metrical arrangement, and the translation follows Horace closely, although the attentive reader will notice padding right from the beginning, where we have “Harshness of winter,” rather than the more accurate “Harsh winter”: the meter needs to be fed. And fed it is, sometimes unobtrusively, sometimes not, never more so than in the fourth strophe, where “Ashen pale Death comes a-knocking.” Just where the translator is aiming at high seriousness, the meter wants to kick up its heels and dance. In Bennett’s translation, Horace cautions Sestius as follows: “Life’s brief span forbids thy entering on far-reaching hopes.” This is simpler and more accurate than Passage’s “our / Briefness of life span forbids us to open a long-range hope’s investment.” The burden of keeping a meter by padding it out with unneeded syllables produces a disaster of curious diction and even more curious syntax in the last two lines of Passage’s version, where the reader may come to believe that someone is waxing ardent while someone else is waxing Lycidas.

If free verse and the mimetic approach as practiced by Passage seem to present the translator of Horace with more problems than solutions, one may well wonder what will work. I have often thought that pure syllabics à la Marianne Moore might work very well, but I have never known anyone to try that. There remains the accentual-syllabic tradition, which seems to me to offer a translator the greatest range of possibilities for success. The two versions of Horace I/4 that I think are the most successful of the four both take advantage of the possibilities of rhyme and meter but, as with our first two versions, present two very different accounts of their original. Robert Lowell’s version, “Spring,” originally published in Near the Ocean, is first:

Sharp winter melts and changes into spring—
now the west wind, now cables haul the boats
on their dry hulls, and now the cattle tire
of their close stalls, the farmer of his fire.
Venus leads dancers under the large moon,
the naked nymphs and graces walk the earth,
one foot and then another. Birds return,
they flash and mingle in mid-air. Now, now,
the time to tear the blossom from the bough,
to gather wild flowers from the thawing field;
now, now, to sacrifice the kid or lamb
to Faunus in the green and bursting woods,
for bloodless death with careless foot strikes down
the peasant’s hut and the stone tower of kings.
Move quickly, the brief sum of life forbids
our opening any long account with hope;
night hems us in, and ghosts, and death’s close clay . . .
Sestius, soon, soon, you will not rush to beat
the dice and win the lordship of the feast,
or tremble for the night’s fatiguing joys,
sleepless for this child, then for that one—boys
soon lost to man, soon lost to girls in heat.

For the most part Lowell follows what Dryden would have called the “thought” of his original pretty closely, going off on his own just once, when he replaces Vulcan’s visit to the forges of the Cyclops in Horace’s second strophe with “Birds return, / they flash and mingle in mid-air.” That is quite a departure, even if momentary. And it seems to me that it cannot be chalked up to ignorance: Lowell knew his Latin and his Horace; he is capable of playing on one of the meanings of Horace’s “aequo” in line 13 with the double-edged word “careless,” and in the same line Lowell’s “strikes down” explores another possibility present in Horace’s “pulsat pede.” Lowell’s rendering of the first four lines follows Horace closely and energetically, even echoing his suspension of the verb between “arator” and “pecus” with “now the cattle tire / of their close stalls, the farmer of his fire.”

It seems to me, though, that Horace’s voice begins to disappear after this. The lines given to the description of Venus seem more stiff than fluent, and the introjection of the birds appears to be a deliberate challenge to Horace: take that, whether you want it or not. In the breathless enjambment that follows, “Now, now / the time to tear the blossoms from the bough,” we have a Horatian detail rendered in the voice of early Lowell. I am thinking here of the remarkably similar lines in “After the Surprising Conversions”:  “Cut your own throat! cut your own throat! Now! Now! / September 22, Sir, the bough / Cracks with its unpicked apples.” (Lowell 61)

From here until the end, Lowell’s version seems to me to be Horace reworked in the translator’s voice, with the modern poet’s unbalanced momentum—his speed, his urgency, replacing Horace’s careful balance. Taking a hint from Horace’s repetition of “iam . . . iam” and “nunc . . . nunc,” Lowell manages to crowd a great deal of anxiety into the brief space between “now . . . now” and “soon . . . soon.” That momentum drives us to Lowell’s breathless, brilliant and irresistible conclusion—not quite Horace, but not quite like anything else either. If Lowell makes Horace sound more like Lowell than himself, he surely must repay some of his debt by offering Horace a perfectly wonderful, perfectly Horatian line that is nowhere to be found in the original: “Or tremble for the night’s fatiguing joys.” But this, I think, is clearly an example of an imitation rather than a paraphrase, a poem whose success owes more to the brilliance of its author than to its source. It may also be a reminder that in translation as in other activities, virtue may have nothing to do with the outcome.

The last version to be considered is the one that seems to me to come closest to Horace’s ode. A prime example of translation with latitude is “Horace, I, 4” by the Irish poet Louis MacNeice:

Winter to Spring: the west wind melts the frozen rancour,
          The windlass drags to sea the thirsty hull;
Byre is no longer welcome to beast or fire to ploughman,
          The field removes the frost-cap from its skull.

Venus of Cythera leads the dances under the hanging
          Moon and the linked line of Nymphs and Graces
Beat the ground with measured feet while the busy Fire god
          Stokes his red-hot mills in volcanic places.

Now is the time to twine the spruce and shining head with myrtle,
          Now with flowers escaped the earthly fetter,
And sacrifice to the woodland god in shady copses
          A lamb or kid, whichever he likes better.

Equally heavy is the heel of white-faced Death on the pauper’s
          Shack and the tower of kings, and o my dear
The little sum of life forbids the raveling of lengthy
          Hopes. Night and the fabled dead are near

And the narrow house of nothing, past whose lintel
          You will meet no wine like this, no boy to admire
Like Lycidas who today makes all the young men a furnace
          And whom tomorrow girls will find a fire.

MacNeice proves the value of Dryden’s faith in the compromise of paraphrase; neither an impossible attempt at exact replication, nor a free variation, his version creates, out of the metrical tradition and materials of the translator’s language, an original structure analogous to that of Horace’s poem. The result is a translation which honors the substance and voice of its source and which, by whatever standards we apply to it, stands as an impressive poem in its own right. Of the four translations we have considered, his is the one that seems the most “classical” to me.

Few poets these days would describe their work as “classical” or “neo-classical,” perhaps fearing that it would be taken as an admission of having reached, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “the absolute zero of frigidity.” Some recent artists have taken to describing their work as classical, but most of the examples that I have seen are lifeless imitations of the academic style of nineteenth century painting. The vapidity of so much of this work suggests that classicism is not something that can be conjured up as either a retreat or a refuge from the pressures of the present.

The term classical seems to attach itself to ballet more comfortably than to any of the other arts and to the choreography of George Balanchine more than to others. In Edwin Denby’s influential essay, “Some Thoughts about Classicism and George Balanchine,” he considers the work of the choreographer in relation to his dancers and to his audience. In Denby’s view, being a classical dancer demands a constant attention to details that an audience would not be aware of. The accumulation of these details becomes a style, and the style, lovingly passed on from one generation to another, becomes a tradition. A classic dancer experiences style as a bond of friendship with great artists from her own past and from the art’s history. Watching Maria Tallchief dance in Concerto Barocco, Denby sees her predecessors “invisibly smile at her, they encourage her, they blow her little Italian kisses.” The classical surely does have a close connection with that sense of a community, yet, for Balanchine, style and tradition were no more important than “the inner force that is called self expression.” In Denby’s view, for Balanchine, “there was no contradiction between creative force and the impersonal objective limits of classical style.” (Denby 236–238)

The classical, whether in ballet or poetry, celebrates those limits of style but often foregrounds them as its subject. This brings us back, finally, to Horace’s Ode, which, in its vision of Death rudely interrupting the pleasures of life, allegorizes the indifferent and inexorable limits that make up the boundaries of human existence. In this respect, perhaps, Philip Larkin’s “Next, Please” can be seen as a kind of translation of Horace’s poem: very free (and finding insufficiency where Horace found abundance) but allegorizing, as he did, the end.

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it’s
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.  end



Barnstone, Willis. The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice. New Haven:
    Yale UP, 1993.

Denby, Edwin. Dance Writings. Ed. Robert Cornfield and William MacKay. New
    York: Knopf, 1986.

Horace. The Complete Works of Horace. Trans. Carles E. Passage. New York:
    F. Ungar Publishing Co., 1983.

Horace. The Essential Horace: Odes, Epodes, Satires and Epistles. Trans. Burton
    Raffle. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983.

Horace. Horace, Odes and Epodes. Ed. Charles E. Bennett. Cambridge: Harvard
    UP, 1914.

Horace. Horace, Odes I: Carpe Diem. Trans. David West. Oxford: Clarendon
    Press, 1995.

Lowell, Robert. Collected Poems. Ed. Frank Bidart and Edward Gedanter. New
    York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

MacNeice, Louis. The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice. New York: Oxford
    UP, 1967.

Schulte, Rainer and John Biguenet, eds. Theories of translation: An Anthology
    of Essays from Dryden to Derrida
. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Wilbur, Richard. The Catbird’s Song: Prose Pieces, 1963–1965. New York: Harcourt
    Brace, 1997.

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