The Language of Horace's Odes: Translation Aims

Horace has seen several translations in recent years, the majority turning the Odes into something more present-day and authentic and less like traditional rhymed verse. Beyond a wish to reach out to a wider range of students, the translations also reflect contemporary concerns in poetry, and a more democratic tone in cultural affairs, most obviously seen in films and the theatre. Yet throughout their range, from public statements in the grand manner to songs and pleasing trifles, the excellence of Horace's Odes lies essentially in their manner of exposition, and it's this charm and lapidary brilliance that has kept them being admired and read down the centuries. I shall try to show how the modern note can be captured with an idiomatic diction in free-running English speech patterns, but that tightly shaped stanzas are still needed to echo the lapidary nature of the Latin.

The first book of Horace's Odes starts with a dedication to Maecenas, which is relatively straightforward. The first eight lines run:

Maecenas atauis edite regibus,
o et praesidium et dulce decus meum,
sunt quos curriculo puluerem Olympicum
collegisse iuuat metaque feruidis
euitata rotis palmaque nobilis
terrarum dominos euehit ad deos;
hunc, si mobilium turba Quiritium
certat tergeminis tollere honoribus;

A nearly word-for-word rendering is:

Maecenas of great-great-grandfather high king,
O and protector and sweet and my sweet glory
are who of the race Olympic dust
collect delight glowing cone
avoid wheel and palm noble
of earth owner carries up to god;
thus if the fickle commotion of citizens
vie with threefold will raise to honours

We see at once how terse and unadorned is the original Latin when simply rendered word for word into English. That is all the plain words say (if we neglect declension) , and the translator's task is clearly one of creating something that appeals to English poetry readers from only the barest hints of meaning — which in many Odes is more deviously arranged and fragmentary than here. A great deal of extra information, about Horace and Latin in general, is needed to create something like:

Maecenas, of true regal stock the heir:
a friend I glory in, a strength I trust.
While some in charioting make play of dust
Olympus showers on them as they fare
on red-hot axles, skimming post, to rise
in palm-held acclamations gods endorse,
the ones for triple honours trim their course
and from their wavering factions win the prize, {1}

Ocaso Press's 'Odes of Horace' can be downloaded here as a free pdf ebook.

Specific Needs

The translator should be able to read the Latin, of course, and to respond to the finer points, in particular noting how the terseness and sonorous nature of the language give such dignity and power to its verse. No doubt, in an age of retrenchment and closely-defended academic turf, the translator must often seem an interloper, without the professional standing that is looked for in commissioning work. But Horace is hardly a closed book. He has been studied for centuries, and a large critical literature exists in all European languages. Over one hundred complete translations of the Odes in English were in existence seventy years ago, and there have been many since. Equally accessible are student manuals that explain the Latin grammar and suggest interpretations or readings of difficult passages. Many Internet sites also provide their home-grown translations and helpful commentary.

But none of these aids, vital though they are, will permit a literary rendering if the translator lacks the skills and sensibilities to make poetry out of poetry. Whatever the style he adopts, and there are many possibilities today, the translator requires a working understanding of what's been done in the past, and a practical expertise in what is considered acceptable today. That expertise is an inborn gift honed by arduous practice, and, however offensive to radical theory, assumes a further responsibility in translation. The translator does not so much deploy his skills as immerse himself in the outlook and personality of his author, when matters become self-fulfilling in the way that skilled actors instinctively give life to their characters when fully committed to their parts.

Many modern translations are therefore associations between poet and language specialist, if not always declared so. The approach has obvious advantages, but can still produce something neither quite fish nor fowl. More than a close working partnership is called for; there needs to be a wide overlap of skills, with the poet understanding why the specialist insists on a particular interpretation rather than another, and the specialist himself possessing the informed and sensitive ear capable of judging between subtle verse alternatives — a skill increasing rare today, even in MFA courses, which generally have other priorities.

That partnership between poet and language specialist is probably less observed in Latin translation, however, as there exists a long tradition of solo performance. Earlier translators could usually count on having learned the classical languages at school, and later translators could suppose the prose-like nature of contemporary verse would serve their purposes well enough.

In fact, of course, English and Latin poetry were always different entities, and are even more so now. They are appreciated by different rules and expectations, what we call the 'tradition' for want of a better term. In place of rhyme and the loose metres that govern English traditional verse, the quantitative Latin employs exact patterns of long and short syllables in metres that are complex and often built on Greek models. There are rules governing elision, etc., but in general those exact patterns cannot be manipulated in the way possible with English verse where the stress falling on syllables of words depends to some extent on the placing of words in the line. The nature of Latin syllables making up a word, whether they be long or short, is fixed. {2}

By way of easing the poet's task, however, the word order in Latin is freer than is possible in English, a feature Latin poets often exploited by widely separating words from their qualifiers. Horace's is a highly finished and compact Latin, moreover, when that inflected nature of the language allows apt phrases to be made in a manner impossible in English, either to be constructed in that way, or to be understood were they so constructed. Translation therefore requires the original to be 'construed', i.e. particles and prepositions added, and the words rearranged into English sentence patterns.

English also has much the larger vocabulary, it is worth noting, where one Latin word commonly has several equivalents in English, each with different shades of meaning, social usage and literary association. The Romans distinguished between levels of expression more sharply than we do in literary work, and many words in common speech were not admitted to verse or oratory. Finally, in an incomplete list of difficulties, Horace's poetry is dense with matters important to his contemporaries, and these references to Roman politics, mythology and current events, however remote from our everyday concerns, are integral to a meaning that has to be faithfully conveyed and 'made to work', i.e. given emotive shaping. In short, all translation of Latin verse is a creation of some sort: it has to be.

Ocaso Press's free Horace Odes are in pdf ebook format. 


What purpose or purposes is the translation to serve? Many audiences simply require the literal meaning, when the plainer the better. I 33 {3}

Tibullus, don't grieve too much, when you remember
your cruel Glycera, and don't keep on singing
those wretched elegies, or ask why, trust broken,
you're outshone by a younger man.

Others expect some of the literary qualities of the original to be reflected in the translation, which opens the door to many difficulties: what qualities exactly, and how are these to conveyed, given that English verse today has few unifying styles, theories or rules? That may allow versions that are neither contemporary nor exactly traditional: {1}

Why all this grief, Tibullus? Must we groan
at yet more miseries in verse to know
how faithlessly has cruel Glycera thrown
    you over for some younger beau?

A few readers, chafing at the restrictions any reasonably faithful translation must labour under, will favour a complete re-creation: they want sterling English poetry, the best possible in Horace's manner, even if the sense deviates markedly from the plain meaning of the original. {4}

Tibullus, pull yourself together!
You mustn't make such heavy weather
When women throw you over.
All day you melt in songs of woe,
Merely because a younger beau
Is now Nearera's lover.

Fashions change, and one approach is not necessarily superior to another. All can be found in the several hundred years of Horace translations, and still have their advocates. Different poems may well call for different translation approaches, of course, but translators do need to know what ends they are serving if readers are not to be misled or short-changed in their expectations.

The largest audience is doubtless students, those studying the language, Latin history or associated matters. Latin specialists may also add plain renderings in their papers as a courtesy to non-specialists, though most readers will not need them. In both groups it's accuracy that's wanted. Aesthetic matters take second place, and the translations aim to be as transparent, faithful, complete and helpful as is reasonably possible.

For plain translations today, however, the reader is largely spoilt for choice, {3-7} and there is no real need to produce another. Horace, moreover, has not been read for two thousand years for his literal meaning, which is anything but subtle, but for his manner of expression. Textural problems exist, but the matter of the Odes is glitteringly on the surface, so to speak, which may explain his appeal to the practical Romans and the generations later that sought not the further reaches of thought but eloquent and memorable expression of the obvious commonplaces of life. A literary translation has therefore to convey the qualities of those commonplaces to a public that expects poetry to be rendered in a manner they still recognize as poetry, however contentious that term may be today.

My primary aim in the Ocaso Translation was to make respectable poems that convey as much as possible of Horace’s beauty, style and content. Doubtless there are dangers in employing strict verse  styles for such purposes, as they tend to prioritize aesthetic aspects over content.  The rendering may even become a betrayal of the original, where the poems are less Horace’s and more the translator’s. Horace’s words and images are carefully chosen, moreover, and their juxtaposition is critical to the meaning, and, while this is something which no translation into English can fully carry over, strict verse styles are certainly less flexible in this regard: tradition imposes constraints. If straight-jacketed by the formal properties of the verse, furthermore, the translation can also miss inflections of meaning in the original, and fail to express the varying tone Horace adopts towards his audience. And, finally, there are practical difficulties. Many younger readers do not appreciate verse, especially not the chiselled and very uncontemporary verse here, which may seem to them unnecessarily difficult, almost a foreign language.

But all approaches to translation have their problems. Even contemporary practices, leaning towards the literal, adopting a everyday tone and downplaying rhetoric, may produce only the correct and humdrum. In some passages, all prose-based styles will fail because prose is not designed for the higher flights of imagination where verse comes into its own. Entirely sensible renderings can strike a jarring note because the prose equivalents do not exist; poeticisms and mundane usage become mixed; the everyday words evoke unfortunate connotations; the tone falls short of elevated classical standards, or descends to bathos by attempting too much.

Used carefully, formal verse gives some protection from these failures because its language is never exactly everyday, but requires words and meanings to operate within the confined space of the poem, where special conventions apply. Some of those conventions also apply to Latin verse, of course, which naturally reflected the Roman world-view. Where in his first Ode, for example, Horace uses ‘miscent superis’ it seems unwise to translate this as ‘mixes with the gods’ because our understanding of divinity is quite different. We see the gods as mythological entities, or as an aspect of a transcendental God, where to the classical word they appeared more as inspiration, as a divine indwelling. Again in the same Ode, the ‘feriam sidera’ does indeed mean ‘strike the stars’, but the literal rendering is faintly absurd. Stars to us are physical objects impossibly remote, and we have the unfortunate overtone of ‘seeing stars’, i.e. being momentarily dazed. An academic translation must be faithful to the prose sense, but a literary one has greater license and responsibilities.

Stanza Shaping: One

Of formal styles, the Augustan is probably the closest of English poetry schools to Horace's manner, but the lapse of two and a half centuries, not to mention the tight rhyming, word inversions and artificial diction make the result look rather constrained and stilted, probably finding a readership, if at all, in English Literature departments rather than in literary magazines or with the general public. {8} And is rhymed verse the appropriate medium for translation anyway? S. A. Courtauld, {9} writing in what may still be the best selection of translations from the Odes, wrote: 'It is difficult to believe that metrical translations of Horace apart from the Latin originals can really be interesting to many readers.' In introducing his own (metrical) version, {4} Sir Edward Marsh added: 'On the contrary: unless the version can give the illatinate reader some notion of Horace's quality as a poet, it is a superfluity, a game which scholars play to amuse themselves and annoy one another. In that game the player's object is to render every shade of the author's meaning, and as much as possible of his expression, with the minimum of alteration for metre and rhyme; and the result is usually full of cracks and bulges, like a jigsaw puzzle in which most of the pieces have been coaxed or squeezed into the wrong place, so that the reader can never forget that what he is reading is not an original work.'

But L.P. Wilkinson doubted whether Marsh's renderings, enjoyable reading though they made, were really translation. {10} Content transpositions and rhyme schemes often imposed a structure foreign to the original, and perverted the rhythmic movement of Horace's lines. A similar point was made by Steven Willet {11} when reviewing a collection of Horace translations by Stuart Lyons. He began: 'Toward the end of his introduction to Horace in English, D. S. Carne-Ross tried to summarize the long history of Horatian translations in English. He observed that there had been an unexpected degree of poetic success in the last four centuries, but it was a success purchased at the price of making Horace sound far too much like an English poet, and argued for a new kind of poetic speech in translation: "A speech that, we must hope, translators in the days to come will learn to write, in the process giving us, sometimes (the word should be stressed), not an English Horace but difficult, foreign, Latin Horace through whose intricate stanzas we make our careful way as we do with the originals."' Contemporary translation, in its attempt to make itself new and distinctive, {12} might well push for a radical change in direction. Verse today has largely given up rhyme and prefers a living language, something that could conceivably be spoken by everyday people in everyday situations. Or in some ways it has. In fact, much of such immediately accessible poetry is amateur, in conception and technique. What attracts attention in literary magazines and the serious press is much more coterie bound. It exploits certain aspects of the language, is mediated by complex and sometime abstruse critical theory, and appeals chiefly to its practitioners. The result is the familiar scene of the contemporary arts, a fascinating mosaic of contending schools where the individual readership is small, where outlets depend on government or institutional funding, and where even the faithful occasionally break ranks to doubt the literary achievement of contending schools, or sometimes of their own. {13}

Indeed that 'difficult, foreign, Latin Horace' is something of an impossibility. The characteristic nature of Horace's verse is unavailable to translators because English is neither an inflected language that allows free word order nor a quantitative one that allows any reasonable approximation to Latin verse metres. Latinists who consult prestigious literary magazines, or colleagues in English departments, before undertaking translations of their own can expect therefore to be thoroughly baffled. The 'free verse' of contemporary poetry is not what it seems, but — to put the matter charitably — a prose aiming to be a self-referencing language that addresses concerns remote from Horace and Latin poetry generally. Indeed, what is most characteristic and attractive about Horace, that jewelled phrasing, is exactly what contemporary verse is not equipped to give. Modernist Latin translation that began with Ezra Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius — still rightly prized by English departments for its adroit phrasing and as rightly denigrated by Classics departments for its flagrant idiosyncrasies {14} — has over the course of Modernism evolved into expressing an everyday meaning in prosaic everyday words, though those words may be unusually deployed if the translator is more a contemporary poet than classicist. Expressing sententious and/or lofty sentiments in memorable phrases is certainly far from the aims of contemporary 'free verse', and attempts to make the style achieve something it was never designed to do have generally been unpersuasive. {15}

But rhyme continues to feature in Horace translations, and with good reason: it gives lines shape and authority, and is therefore one way of achieving the highly polished surface that can reflect Horace's own lapidary style. We shall return to the matter, but could posit four requirements for any rhymed stanza shaping today: it should be:

1. Appropriate: if the original is song-like or whatever, then the translation should also appear that way — in metre, diction, rhetoric, rhyme scheme, tone and verse devices.

2. Consistent: the different Latin measures should each have their own distinctive forms in English.

3. Supportive: the stanza shaping should not deform more than necessary the nature of Horace's verse, which is essentially a mosaic of carefully chosen words embedded in onward-moving quantitative measures.

4. Contemporary: no hand-me-down poeticisms but verse created afresh from the plain prose meaning wherever possible.

Horace's Style

Horace at his best — and he is never far from his best in the Odes - suggests a balanced, sensible and happy personality, sometimes quietly humorous in a mock solemn or wryly ambiguous way. So self-effacing and conventional is the expression that it's often difficult to know what their author really felt or thought: he has none of the brooding melancholy of Virgil, or the fierce passion of Catullus. Studied perfection, economy, restraint and urbanity are the adjectives commonly applied to Horace, as is the 'mosaic of words', where each word is vitally dependent on its neighbours for meaning, association, sound patterning and rhythmic properties. The result is a 'jewelled phrasing' or a pleasing, seeming inevitability of words that at times produces phrases that 'stand out by themselves like golden tesserae in a mosaic, each distinct in a glittering atmosphere.' {16} Some examples:

I 4, 4:
nec prata canis albicant pruinis.
and frost is gone from meadow lands.

II 15, 15-16:
opacam porticus excipiebat Arcton,
a portico in tens of measures, shading north.

III 3, 48:
qua tumidus rigat arua Nilus;
to where the Nile in irrigation pours its riches out,

The so-called golden and silver lines (abVerbAB and abVerbBA respectively, where a and b are adjectives and B and A are substantives) are used with tact, but still widely: over forty examples can be found in the Odes, and there are many variations. {17}

The trend today in poetry is for everyday language, but that was not the case in Horace's time. And even if we relax the rules, there are still things we cannot write because English verse is full of echoes, not all of them suitable. We cannot write 'little boys and girls' in translating Ode III 1 (uirginibus puerisque canto) because the phrase has a Sunday School ring about it or, worse, ribald verses. Likewise 'sweet talking' can be a faithful rendering of the Latin in I 22 (dulce loquentem), but the everyday sense of deceit will destroy the tone and overall sense of the piece.

As did all Latin poets of the period, Horace's poetry draws on the resources of oratory, which was closely studied by those engaged in public affairs, and employs rhetorical devices, balanced construction and often a separation of noun from its epithet. An example of that separation: I 9, 20-3:

nunc et latentis proditor intumo
gratus puellae risus ab angulo
pignusque dereptum lacertis
aut digito male pertinaci.

Now and secret produce from inmost
pleasing girl laughing from corner
pledge remove from arm
or bad finger obstinate

That order has to be thoroughly recast in English:

There, with her merriment now adding charm,
you'll find her in the shaded corner tryst.
She'll take the lover's token from her arm,
or with a finger will resist. {1}

But anaphora (repetition) can stay, and indeed should stay. An example: II 16, 1-8:

Otium diuos rogat in patenti
prensus Aegaeo, simul atra nubes
condidit lunam neque certa fulgent
sidera nautis;

otium bello furiosa Thrace,
otium Medi pharetra decori,
Grosphe, non gemmis neque purpura
uenale neque auro.

It's calm the sailor asks for, caught
in foreign seas, the moon as yet
obscured by clouds, and stars report
no path to set.

Peace Thracians seek, hard battles fought,
and Parthians will not condemn
a peace that, Grosphus, is not bought
with rank or gem. {1}

The grouping into four line stanzas follows Meineke's Law, named after the German scholar who first printed the Odes in quatrains, though the feature was not examined properly until Karl Büchner's 1939 work. The matter is a little complicated, {17} but a great many of the Odes are indeed divisible by four, and most translators print them so. But not all poems are neatly packaged in this way, and there is often enjambment between stanzas, particularly in the stichic strophes. Parts of Odes I 1 and I 18 seem not to fit too well: the middle section of I 18:

Who in his cups complains of war and poverty,
but will of father Bacchus and sweet Venus think.
And, lest with Liber's gifts we flout propriety,
the Centaur-Lapith quarrel over unmixed drink

should warn us of Sithonian rage. Euhius hates
the fatal niceties our being drunk conceives.
Nor would I, fair Bassareus, assign you fates
against your will, or pillage fruit beneath the leaves. {1}

Nor perhaps do sections of I 7, II 18, II 15 and IV 11. There is little trace of a quatrain structure at all in III 25:

Where, Bacchus, are you taking me,
who, so full of you, must hear again
that long, divine, deep melody,
as through the forest grove or rocky den

I'm sounding Caesar's praises till
they're heard by Jove, his councils, those among
the starlight in its glory. Still
a new accomplishment remains unsung.

The wondering Maenad does not sleep,
but from the mountain top in snowy Thrace,
or at the Hebrus' tumbling leap,
continues viewing Rhodope, a place

of barbarous footfalls, though I too admire
wild river banks and echoing forest stand.
Naiads's master, you inspire
the Maenads pulling ash trees up by hand.

So nothing trivial shall be mine,
Lenaeus, passing, born of self-conceit,
yet, wreathed with fresh leaves of the vine,
to follow such a dangerous god is sweet. {1}

Stanza Shaping: Two

Translators have to make their own choices here, but shaping of some sort is part of the English tradition, and the translation being presented here adopts a compromise: the quatrains are kept but enjambment is extended to allow the content to properly flow on when necessary. Horace's measures are represented by these stanza shapes (where 6 is a hexameter, 5 a pentameter, etc.)

Alcaic 5 5 5 4
Sapphic 4 4 4 2,
Greater Sapphic 4 6 4 6
Greater Asclepiadean 6 6 6 6
First Asclepiadean 5 5 5 5
Second Asclepiadean 4 5 4 5
Third Asclepiadean 5 5 5 4
Fourth Asclepiadean 5 5 3 4
First Archilochean 6 5 6 5
Second Archilochean 5 3 5 3
Third Archilochean 5 4 5 4
Hipponactean 4 5 4 5
Ionic 5 5 4

The amount of enjambment or follow-on between stanzas naturally varies. The Sapphic poems tend to be rather end-stopped, and this is reflected in the translation, as here in I 2:

Such snow and hail has Jove hurled down
upon our sacred hills, defied
with his fierce hand, that this vast town
lies terrified.

And people too, lest Pyrrha's time
should come again with monstrous sights
when Proteus had his sea herds climb
the mountain heights. {1}

The Asclepiadean measures are generally more flowing, as here in IV 1:

I beg and beg you, back again
from battles interrupted, Venus, make
me not of good Cinara's reign,
but, savage mother of such loves, forsake

this one of fifty years who's grown
more cautious of your sweet commands,
and mind the younger players who have sown
their fond entreaties you return and find {1}

But what of the Alcaic? We can only faintly echo the important third line by lengthening the vowels. E.g.

commit those arrant ravings to the flames in I, 16,


commit those wild, strange ravings to the flames

but set out cups beneath the welcome shade in I.17


but pour out cups beneath the cooling shade

And so on. But the lines do not really capture the Latin strophe because the English is an iambic pentameter (u — u — u — u — u — ) whereas the original has three long syllables (x — u — - — u — x ). It's possible to shorten the line to a tetrameter, as Conington does, but the line is often too short to capture the content. E.g. from this (I.16)

is left. Restrain the tempest, let me tell
how once, when youthful feelings swelled my breast,
that driving passion maddened me as well
and turned that fire to bitter jest.

To this in Conington, where the line also has an inappropriate 'sing song' quality:

Then calm your spirit: I can tell
How once, when youth in all my veins
Was glowing, blind with rage, I fell
On friend and foe in ribald strains.

As might be expected when Latin poetry was so close to oratory, the content of the Odes is often presented in well-defined arguments. Sometimes simply, as in I 21:

Diana's gifts the tender virgins tell,
of Cynthion's unshorn god the young men sing.
Latona too, that well
beloved of Jove in everything.

So sing you those who love the leaves and streams,
and Algidus of icy parenthoods,
the Erymanthus themes
and Gragus with its verdant woods.

And sing of Tempë too, you youths, the Isle
of Delos where Apollo rose in fire,
a quivered shoulder, while
had Mercury his famous lyre.

And so will Caesar now convey those prayers
who, having banished abject famine, wars
and plague, still onward fares
to Persia and the British shores. {1}

Or with a tripartite structure, as here in III 28: {1}

What's best on Neptune's holiday
but, Lyde, broach our treasured old reserve
of Caecuban without delay,
extracting wisdom from its own preserve? ||

See, the midday hour is past
and yet you're slow to make the cellar trip,
to bring the winejar that was last
laid down in Bibulus's consulship. ||

And so we'll sing in turn to him:
Neptune with the green-haired Nereids,
while you on curving lyre can hymn
Latona and the moon-beam's arrowed threads. |

We'll sing to one whom Paphos sees
with swan-drawn trains, to whom belong
Cnidus and the Cyclades:
and round the night off with a well-earned song. ||

Horace's control over the audience is continued into the fabric of the lines. Assonance and alliteration are applied with taste to an appropriate diction, that is slightly elevated, neither stilted nor street slang:

I 11, 5-6: quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare Tyrrhenum,
Forever Tyrrhenian Seas oppose the pumice shore:

I 24, 5-6: Ergo Quintilium perpetuus sopor urget?
So on Quintilius is endless sleep.

Otherwise, the content is rather commonplace, never deep or recondite, but still hinting at a proper sense of the situation. Horace's poetry does not employ strikingly original thoughts or metaphors, but repeatedly uses stock images, a feature some critics feel detracts from its achievements. Peter Levy {18} regards Horace as the greatest of Roman poets, but John Conington, {19} whose translation is still a classic, has this to say.

'The Odes of Horace, in particular, will, I think, strike a reader who comes back to them after reading other books, as distinguished by a simplicity, monotony, and almost poverty of sentiment, and as depending for the charm of their external form not so much on novel and ingenious images as on musical words aptly chosen and aptly combined. We are always hearing of wine-jars and Thracian convivialities, of parsley wreaths and Syrian nard; the graver topics, which it is the poet's wisdom to forget, are constantly typified by the terrors of the quivered Medes and painted Gelonians; there is the perpetual antithesis between youth and age, there is the ever-recurring image of green and withered trees, and it is only the attractiveness of the Latin, half real, half perhaps arising from association and the romance of a language not one's own, that makes us feel this "lyrical commonplace" more supportable than common-place is usually found to be. It is this, indeed, which constitutes the grand difficulty of the translator, who may well despair when he undertakes to reproduce beauties depending on expression by a process in which expression is bound to be sacrificed.'

Contemporary poetry is quite different from Horace's — much more original but less confident, eloquent or given to public statement. Often its language is provisional, experimental and exploratory, placing concept above technique, and aiming for an impression of questing sincerity. {12} That being the case, Horace translations can never be entirely contemporary in style, not if they are to convey the essential nature of the Odes in all their variety. Examples: the hymn-like Centennial Ode: {1}

May Phoebus of the shining air,
Diana of the sylvan shade,
prized and honoured, grant the prayer
we here have made

this holy time. Let gods above
respect the words the Sibyl wills,
and chosen youths, and those who love
our seven hills.

The song-like I 10: {1}

Descent of Atlas, Mercury
I sing, who shaped our mortal race
with speech and wrestling, beautifully
an answering grace.

You, messenger of Jove and gods,
are lyre's inventor but discreet,
enchanting still, against all odds,
in wise deceit.

The wry humour, as in I 33: {1}

Why all this grief, Tibullus? Must we groan
at yet more miseries in verse to know
how faithlessly has cruel Glycera thrown
you over for some younger beau?

The lovely Lycoris for Cyrus burns
but he for sour Pholoë's mad instead.
Yet no more than the gentle roe deer yearns
for wild Apulia wolves to wed

Pathos, as I 24: {1}

Why be modest in our weeping when
immoderate was his hold on us? Inspire
us, Melpomene, who the sire of men
has given golden voice and lyre.

So on Quintilius is endless sleep.
When will such honesty and faith combined
in virtuous loyalty, and that with deep
integrity, his equal find?

Seriousness, as in I 15: {1}

When that false shepherd had across the deep
conveyed his Helen in the Trojan boat,
Nereus lulled unwilling winds asleep
that all this omen note:

'Great punishment you're bringing back this hour,
for Greeks, fresh congregated, will forestall
these wedding hopes, and have old Priam's power
from this dark moment fall.

Mock seriousness, as in II 13: {1}

An evil day they chose to plant this tree:
those sacrilegious hands are much to blame
for this attempt to ruin posterity
and bring the regions round to shame.

He broke his father's neck, and, like enough,
has spilt the blood of guest inside a room
in deepest night, or conjured some such stuff
of Colchis spells and evil's doom

The Pindar-like authority of III 4: {1}

As did the agent of the thunderbolt,
whose rule of wandering birds our Jove decreed,
or once obedience to the heavenly vault
was shown by snatching Ganymede,

he came: with youth and native vigour, cast
untried and lately from the nest, this one,
the winds of spring instruct, restraint now past,
how new-plied efforts would have won

With tone come questions about Horace's real attitude to Augustus, which is much disputed, indeed as to whether we can ever really know. Many do see a change between the writing of the first three books and the fourth, however, and where Horace is non-committal, as here in III 14, it seems best to allow some mock solemnity to glimmer through the lines: {1}

Like Hercules, O men of Rome,
defying death, the laurels' cause,
comes conquering Caesar home
from Spanish shores.

May wife rejoice in one as he,
who, having gifts of gods repaid,
now shines with sister, equally
bedecked by braid

But by the fourth book, Horace seems more the fully paid-up Augustan: IV 14:

What titles and memorials can Senator
and citizen, Augustus, celebrate
your many virtues with, through them implore
the highest honours of the State?

Across all realms the sun can oversee
you're titled greatest prince, a title earned
in wars — a power the Vendelici, free
till late of Roman laws, have learned. {1}

Interpretation Difficulties

An academic translation restricts itself to what's on the page: difficulties are pointed out, various solutions discussed, but the real problems are not papered over. Such commonsense will not serve a literary rendering, however, where everything has to pull together: constructive shaping, consistency of tone, appropriate diction and shaping of emotion to keep us turning the pages. Sometimes the text does not fully make sense: II 5, 21-4:

quem si puellarum insereres choro,
mire sagacis falleret hospites
discrimen obscurum solutis
crinibus ambiguoque uoltu.

These last lines allude to the concealing of young Achilles among the female attendants of Deodamia on Scyros, and his unmasking by Odysseus, but the effect is one of erotic confusion. Why has it been introduced? The matter has been much discussed, but in this freely translated section the solution is simply that, just as Lalage comes to accept her sexual identity, so must the Cnidian Gyges:

who, if you put among a choir of girls,
the wisest stranger could not tell apart:
the mix of hidden manliness and curls
that's so confusing to the heart.

But Barine is not so straightforward:

Vlla si iuris tibi peierati
poena, Barine, nocuisset umquam,
dente si nigro fieres uel uno
turpior ungui,
crederem; sed tu simul obligasti
perfidum uotis caput, enitescis
pulchrior multo iuuenumque prodis
publica cura.

Why should we believe the femme fatale only if the gods have punished her for lying? It makes no sense, unless the slightness of the punishments suggests the fibs don't amount to much:

Had you been a wit the worse
for lies you told: a blackened tooth
or nail, Barine — curse for such untruth —
I might believe that all was paid.

That's supplying what is only faintly indicated, and seriously compressing the literal meaning of lines 5-7:

Any if of law you offending
penalty, Barine, had injured ever
tooth if black were made even one
ugly nail,

I would believe; but you at once bind
to faithless vows head, shine
beautiful many youths and project
public concern

But poems are often a compromise between what comes to the pen and what the author would dearly like to have written, in creation and translation, and here it seems better to aim for less fidelity to the Latin and continue Horace's gentle mockery:

But in that faithless head you are
to youths more beautiful, arrayed
as shining star,

Barine is attractive, therefore, precisely because she is faithless and not to be believed: a lesser mortal would fall afoul of the gods.

Fidelity to Text

How close or faithful should be the translation to the original Latin? Sir Edward Marsh was expressing a rather extreme view when he said:

'Exact fidelity, when by a lucky chance available, is a great virtue; but it comes second to ease and naturalness, and when the capricious Goddesses of Rhyme and Metre oppose the attempt, the translator must have the same freedom as the poet had to choose, from among the variety of ways in which a thought can be put, the one that suits him best; nor need he shrink from small omissions or even additions which make no substantial difference to anything except the vigour or the elegance of his rendering.' {4}

The danger of such freedom is the ease in which the renderings become the translator's poems more than their author's, which is indeed the case with many renderings in Marsh's volume. What we want, I suggest, is a translation where every stanza can be immediately identified with the original, and a translation where the meaning, connotations, tone and appeal of the original have in large measure been carried over.

That's a good deal less easy than it seems, particularly in the famous Odes we now read through the English translations that have made them famous. Earlier critics were much divided about IV 7, for example, but the Housman rendering with its famous fourth line has made many converts:

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.

Yet that line is largely an invention of the translator. The Latin is:

Diffugere niues, redeunt iam gramina
campis arboribus comae;
mutat terra uices et decrescentia ripas
flumina praetereunt;

And the word-for-word rendering:

Fled away the snows, return the grass fields
the hair of trees,
changes earth in succession, and diminishing banks
rivers pass

Nonetheless, that inspired 'altered is the fashion' with its Biblical echoes admirably captures the welcome return of spring, and is worth retaining, if a little muted

The snows are fled away, the fields new grassed,
and trees are filled with leaves' rebirth.
The streams, diminishing, flow quietly past,
and in its turn is changed the earth. {1}

Again, the concluding four lines of I 5 are nothing to speak of:

Intemptata nites.Me tabula sacer
uotiua paries indicat uuida
suspendisse potenti
uestimenta maris deo.

Untried you shine. I sacred tablet
offered on wall declare soaked
suspended powerful
clothes to sea god.

And are very flat if translated without verse devices:

And are dazzled by your radiance. As for me,
the tablet on the temple wall indicates
that I have dedicated my dripping clothes
to the god who rules the sea. {20}

Even that prose is a considerable expansion of the plain Latin, and it seems better to go a little further and write proper verse:

Your looks delight him and outdazzle day,
but still through grief the powerful sea god roves.
With votive hung, I pay
my penance in these storm-drenched clothes. {1}

The Jewelled Phrase

Horace's mosaic of lapidary excellence in phrasing cannot be reproduced in so different a language as English but some equivalent is possible in traditional verse. Strict free verse — i.e. traditional verse where some formal characteristic has been relaxed or given an extra subtlety, generally the metre or line length — also has this propensity, but not so called 'free verse' of contemporary poetry. This 'verse' is not a verse at all, or not in the commonly accepted meaning of regularity in metre, but an astutely written prose that aims at a pleasing and idiomatic precision, often through vivid images, dislocations, collages, ready-made phrases, private allusions and themes drawn from critical theory and the act of writing. Such lines are exceptionally difficult to write well, and commonly avoid anything like rhyme or alliteration that would suggest artificiality or second-hand sources.

But even echoes of the jewelled phrasing can be only partial and inexact, i.e. it's not generally possible to match excellence for excellence. Where the Latin, for example, is: IV 6, 25-8:

Doctor argutae fidicen Thaliae,
Phoebe, qui Xantho lauis amne crinis,
Dauniae defende decus Camenae,
leuis Agyieu.

it's possible to write lines jewelled in assonance and alliteration, which indeed are dense, even 'difficult' but they do not necessarily have what Wilkinson calls a haunting beauty:

One Thalia was never loath
to tutor, one in Xanthus dews
would bathe, Agyieus: as both,
defend my muse.

Nonetheless, some happier fusions of verse technique can be made, as the following suggest — a long list for an important Horatian feature:

I 1, 22: or where soft founts of sacred waters fall.

I 2, 21: Though fewer for each father's fault,

I 3, 39-40: He vaunts his folly to the sky
and meets with Jove's reproving thunderbolts.

I 4, 19-20: nor Lycidas, whose loveliness enthrals the boys,
not soon have young girls yearn

I 5, 1-2: What slim, rich-scented youth, on roses lain,
now courts you, Pyrrha, in the grotto's shade,

I 6, 20: be love a fire or passing frown.

I 11, 1: Not you nor I, Leuconoë: no one knows

I 13, 19-20: a true love's bond that never fails
till funeral obsequies close off our day.

I 16, 1-2: Lovelier than lovely mother's claims
to beauty, treat my verses as you please:

I 17, 11-12: while valley loans
to upland Ustica the songs that sink
in tinklings onto pebbled stones.

I 24, 1-2: Why be modest in our weeping when
immoderate was his hold on us?

I 28, 34-6: though hurrying on,
reflect: I need but brief oblations. Three mere fists
of wind-spent dust to cast, and I am gone.

I 32, 1-2: If I have fashioned in my shade
some trifle of a year or two,

I 33, 15-16: a girl that's harder than the Hadrian sea
that on Calabrian headlands breaks.

I 38, 5-8: The myrtle unadorned will do
quite admirably, and common vine
give shaded arbour where we too
shall drink our wine.

II 1, 32-3: What gulf or mourning stream is mute on wars?
What sea's not blemished with that Daunian flood
of wretched slaughter? Show me shores
not inundated with our blood.

II 7, 6: imbibing wine the length that long days sent:

II 13, 39-40: and Orion's let
the timid lynx and the lion go.

II 14, 4: How Postumus, Postumus, the years must fleet away.

II 15, 1-2: We'll shortly see these ostentatious, vast
estates leave little ground for men to plough

II 18, 15-6: each day is from an earlier won
and new moons, waxing, ever wane and shift.

II 19, 31-2: Among
his friendly acts he licked your turning feet
and ankles with his triple tongue.

III 1, 29-32: Nor will his vineyards fall to flattening hail,
his farm to weather's treachery, nor will
the rain affect the trees, or dry fields fail

III 2, 13: But yet to die
for one's own country is both sweet and just.

III 2, 31-2: But if revenge fall short, she rarely leaves
the criminal whose steps she hounds.

III 4, 77: of criminally licentious Tityos,

III 5, 27-8: can the wool,
once purple dyed, return to white?'

III 5, 55-6: on to green Venafrum meadows, or
Tarentum with its Spartan air.

III 13, 13-5: loquacious waters in their babbling state,

III 16, 34: secrete for me its mellow sweetness, nor

III 17, 8: the waters of the welling Lyris

III 23, 15-6: and trail
there rosemary and myrtle flowers.

II 26, 1-2: I served my sweethearts well enough till now
and not without magnificence was blest,

III 30, 1: A monument more durable that brass

III 30, 10: the Aufidas with roarings fills the air,

IV 1, 1-4: I beg and beg you, back again
from battles interrupted, Venus, make
me not of good Cinara's reign,
but, savage mother of such loves, forsake

IV 2, 1-3: He who'd be as Pindar only fêtes
himself with waxy feathers and with fame
to fall like Daedalus in glittering straits

IV 3, 20: adopted wholesale by the silent fish,

IV 4, 75-6: Through all the dangerous perils wars conceive
a strong, sagacious mind will guide.'

IV 5, 7-8: as spring
time sunshine brightens every forward glance
and makes the days more welcoming.

IV 7,15-8: moon on moon reproves the seasons' waste,
we go on deathward still, and must
with Tullus, and with Ancus lie, and haste
with good Aeneas into dust.

IV 9, 51-2: The last he's not afraid of: for his friends
and country will give up his breath.

IV 12, 11-2: To him all flocks are dear that occupy
the shaded hills of Arcady

IV 14, 26-8: as will, with bull-like power, the Aufidus
pour on the wide Apulian Daunus fields
its swift-loosed flood of waters, furious

IV 15, 29-32: then our tongues and Lydian pipes employ,
as did our fathers in the days before:
and sing of chiefs, Anchises, and of Troy,
who are the people Venus bore.

CS 73-6: May Jove and gods still kindly gaze
as we with chorused words of men
from Phoebus' and Diana's praise
turn home again.

But what of the more prosaic odes, whose frequency seems to increase through the collection, making a higher proportion of the total in book three than in the two previous books, and becoming particular prevalent in book four? They are not among the translators' favourites, and many readers have found them like 'prize poems', clever but laboured. Even Horace remarks (III 3):

Enough of this, my Muse. My playful strings
to such great arguments do not belong.
So stop attempting these more heavenly things,
and lessening them to trivial song.

Translators can only work with what they are given, and that sympathetic identification mentioned above only serves to dampen inspiration further. An honest, workmanlike rendering is probably the best that can be achieved: IV 4, 5-12

he came: with youth and native vigour, cast
untried and lately from the nest, this one,
the winds of spring instruct, restraint now past,
how new-plied efforts would have won

a sweeping terror, much as tempest shakes
the sheepfold of its flocks, in action led
to fierce, tumultuous fights with nests of snakes,
or as the lion freshly bred

And IV 14, 13-20:

In turn the elder Nero entered on the fight
and, with the favouring omens plain to all,
defeated and so put to headlong flight
the hordes of Rhaetians. That vast fall

received its rapturous approbation when
he daunted minds, exhausting combatants
who grappled with our free and fearless men —
as will the Auster winds advance

Summary and Assessment

Contrary to contemporary theory, {21} as I've tried to show, here and elsewhere, {15} too everyday a diction makes for problems with Horace translations. Nor is the observation of Wilkinson's, that verse in the manner of Conington's was too Popean, and anyway unlikely to be improved upon, entirely true. The translations here go back to Conington's approach but use longer lines to achieve decent verse, i.e. with the graces expected of several hundred years of development, and possessing a properly supportive and patterned sonic texture. It is of course a compromise, and like most compromises, not wholly satisfactory to either party. The translations are sufficiently close for any stanza to be immediately recognisable, but the semantic content is commonly clipped or compressed a little, and the more successful translations as poems are often those showing the widest departures from the literal sense.

As far as the verse is concerned, the stanza shaping is consistent, with all strophes given their own individual, strictly rhymed measures, but the shaping does not wholly contain the content in the usual manner of English verse. The rhyming is sometimes on words that would not normally be emphasized in this way — i.e. the enjambment is very pervasive, no doubt common enough in blank verse but usual frowned on in rhymed measures. It is, of course, what Horace does, and the style can present itself as a move towards that 'difficult, foreign, Latin Horace' mentioned earlier, but the innovation becomes less emotively effective as it departs from traditional shaping. We respond through our experience of English verse down the centuries, reading today through the echoes of the past, which is one reason why contemporary verse has so small an audience: its words don't resonate with the usual extended but half buried meanings.

This translation makes no attempt to replicate the original Latin metres by English metres, of course: failures by generations of gifted poets, not to mention centuries of angry disputation, should suggest it cannot done. Nor are the different Latin strophes rendered into different English measures beyond the number of feet or stresses to the lines: the metre is iambic throughout, though not without a variety to match the tone of the original.

So this rendering, which is simply another in what is never final, particularly in the popular field of Horace translation. The many sources of help and inspiration for this translation are listed in the References and Further Reading in the free Ocaso Press publication. In summary, this translation is a plea for diversity, and a hope that the laudable demand for accessibility in modern translation does not destroy what makes the classics worth reading — that they express a splendidly different attitude to life than ours, and do so in language that is very hard to match.

Finally, it should be said that very different approaches to translation are possible — indeed preferred today — and these are admirably reviewed by Helen Henze in her Odes of Horace.  {22}

Ocaso Press's free Horace Odes are in pdf ebook format. 

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Latin pages.