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Elegies of Sextus Propertius: Previous Translations

Nineteenth Century Renderings

The Elegies of Propertius with Notes, literally translated by the Rev. P.J.F. Gantillon, with metrical versions by Nott and Elton, appeared in 1884, {7} and was a pleasing work that is still listed in academic bibliographies. The diction of the prose translation was much of its time:

he taught me, desperate power! to despise
chaste maidens and to live recklessly. (1.1.5-6)

But the phrasal rhythms preserved the standard diction from bathos and generally steered the elegy to a successful conclusion:

Witnesses, rise and weep for me, while the grateful earth is paying tribute to my worth when alive. To some virtues heaven has been opened: may I earn, from my merits, the privilege of being one whose bones are conveyed into Elysium in triumph. (4.11.99-102)

A little stodgy, but an accurate rendering, and perhaps preferable to overworked verse renderings of the period, for example this by E.D.A. Morshead, which accompanied George Ramsay's student edition of Selections from Tibullus and Propertius in 1895: {8}

Lo, I have said! Rise, ye who weep; I stand
In high desert, worthy the Spirit Land.
Worth hath stormed heaven ere now; this, this I claim —
To rise, in death, upon the waves of Fame. (4.11.99-102)

previous translations of propertius elegies book cover

Here the rhyme needs have caused too many departures from the sense, and the grandiloquence is out of keeping with the quiet pathos of the piece, one of the finest of Latin elegies. The metrical versions by Nott and Elton accompanying Gantillon's prose translated only a few of the elegies, and were in the late Augustan manner: rhyming couplets or quatrains with a good deal of phrase inversion and antithesis. The renderings could be mechanical, as is Propertius at times, but few were without well-turned lines:

He taught me, then, to loathe the virtuous fair,
And shameless waste my wild and driftless hours. (1.1.5-6. Elton)

At length the tyrant taught me to detest
Chaste nymphs, and banished reason from my mind:
Nor one whole year has the dire frenzy ceas'd;
Still Fate forbids my mistress to be kind! (1.1.5-8. Nott)

And some achieved a good deal more:

Though now on reedy Styx the oar he ply,
Ev'n now, the murky sail of Hell survey;
Let her he loves recall him with a sigh,
He shall retrace the unpermitted way. (2.27.12-15. Elton).

Twentieth Century Renderings

Ezra Pound's important but idiosyncratic 1919 rendering is given a detailed examination on a separate webpage: pound-homage-to-sextus-propertius-translation.html.

Robert Lowell 1974

Robert Lowell allowed himself only one translation of Propertius, {13} that of Elegy 4.7, which he paraphrased with typical vigour and brilliance:

A ghost is someone: death has left a hole
For the lead-coloured soul to beat the fire:
   Cynthia leaves her dirty pyre
   And seems to coil herself and roll
   Under my canopy,
Love's stale and public playground, where I lie
And fill the run-down empire of my bed.
I See the street, her potter's field, is red
And lively with the ashes of the dead. (4.7.1-6)

In tone, stanza arrangement and literal sense, the rendering was far more Lowell than Propertius, but much could be forgiven for lines like:

A black nail dangles from a finger tip
And Lethe oozes from her nether lip. (4.7.7-8)

And

Would it have strained your purse
To scatter ten cheap roses on my hearse? (4.7.33)

Unfortunately, the verse was rather too magnificent, not allowing emotional shading, and the rigid ode structure was unable to capture the concluding two lines. In fact, though Lowell used traditional rather than free verse, his approach was that of Pound's, employing the stand-alone image instead of narrative. But in place of Pound's evocative vignettes, Lowell used a thickened expression, building up scenes with a vividness and power that are not found in the Latin.

Franklin Adams 1960

Franklin P. Adams' translations {14} were a throwback to an earlier age: to a racy light verse:

Cynthia first and the wonderful eyes of her
Taught me the meaning of Love and Romance;
Now I have sung to the stars and the skies of her —
Love has diluted the pride of my glance.
Ah! 'tis a year, yet the madness diminishes
Never a fraction, a tittle, or jot,
Though I anticipate well what the finish is,
Though I bewail my unfortunate lot. (1.1.1-8)

Good fun, and charming, but wildly unlike the Latin. Passages — indeed whole renderings — were immensely readable, but there was no hint of the real Propertius and his troubles:

Could cure me of my lover's itch —
As I admitted truthfully
Wrecked on a sad and troublous sea.
For when by Venus I was caught,
She bound my hands behind me taut.
But lo! my ships have found the bay:
Mine anchor's cast; I shout "Hooray!"

John Warden 1972

Like Pound, John Warden {15} replaced the elegiac couplet with lines expanding to fit the content, from trimeter:

So death is not the end of it; ghosts
exist, pale wraiths flitting
from the inclusive pyre. (4.7.1-29

to heptameter:

There was nobody to cry my name as my eyes grew dim (4.7.23)

But whereas Pound used a stress verse with many phrasing devices to give each line or line segment a coherent identity, Dr. Warden employed a more contemporary language in iambic throughout. The result was pleasing, a very readable version indeed, and one that could accommodate the prose meaning entirely, but it also produced a certain sameness in the lines, with limited emotional or dramatic impact. Content did not fuse with form in the way necessary for poetry, and at times the elegies became a miscellany of lyrics and narrative stretches. There was certainly gain, here a beauty and delicacy not in the original:

May your grave
be choked with thorns
May your shade
be choked with thirst
May your spirit
find no rest. (5.4.1-3)

But also loss: some lines became surprisingly pedestrian and none-too-accurate renderings of what was beautiful in the Latin:

She was the first to enslave me, and she did it with her eyes
    till then I'd never felt love's poisoned arrows. (1.1.1-2)

Inversions could be used unnecessarily, without making proper sense:

Don't waste Apollo's time by keeping him under arms;
but let your verse go slim and pumiced fine. (3.1.7-8)

And whereas some passages came close to light verse:

I much admire the Spartan wrestling schools,
but most of all I like the women's rules:
for girls and men can wrestle in the nude
(the Spartans think such exercise is good) (3.14.1-4)

Others failed just where good verse skills were most required:

Garlands wither and die
and the fallen petals float in the wine bowls.
Today we ride on the crest of love
but the end may come tomorrow. (2.15.49-54)

W.G. Shepherd 1986

W.G. Shepherd's Propertius: The Poems, {16} first issued in the Penguin Classics Series in 1986, and reissued by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2004, employed a dignified prose set out as free verse. The sense was transcribed closely, if at the cost of some stiffness, and the rendering broadly respected the line divisions:

CYNTHIA was the first To capture with her eyes my pitiable self.
Till then I was free from desire's contagion.
Love Then forced me to lower my gaze of steady hauteur
And trampled my head with his feet. (1.1.1-4).

There was no Latin text, but the book did have an introduction (by Betty Radice), a select bibliography, a translator's foreword, notes on the poems, glossary of proper names and alphabetical index of Latin first lines — an academic production, in short, though none the worst for that. The prosier sections of the elegies were rendered with admirable good sense:

The robber Cacus lived there, in a dreaded cavern,
And gave out separate sounds from a triple mouth. (4.9.9-10)

In places the prose approached blank verse, and could be refreshingly succinct and literal:

As on the lonely beach the Cnossian lay
Fainting while Theseus's keel receded. (1.3.1-2)

In more eloquent sections, however, the limitations of what is essentially prose become apparent:

In vain will you summon my dumb shade, Cynthia
For how can my crumbled bones achieve speech? (2.13.57-8).

Fainting while Theseus's keel receded. (1.3.1-2)

In more eloquent sections, however, the limitations of what is essentially prose become apparent:

In vain will you summon my dumb shade, Cynthia
For how can my crumbled bones achieve speech? (2.13.57-8).

Contemporary Renderings

G.P. Goold 1990

Professor George Goold brought a lifetime's study of Propertius to his 1990 Loeb Edition of Propertius Elegies, {1} which incorporated many suggestions of Dr. Stephen Heyworth, who was to later edit the Oxford Classical Text of Propertius. Goold made radical transpositions of the text, but the accompanying translation was not modern in style, being a remodelled Edwardian prose, stout-hearted and sensible in diction but sometimes heavy and over-periodic. It coped well with straight narrative:

The crime of Tarpeia and her shameful grave will be my tale, and how the dwelling of ancient Jove was captured. (4.4.1-2)

but was wholly at a loss with the celebrated passages:

Only, Cynthia, while there is light, do not disdain the rewards of life! If you give me all your kisses, you will yet give all too few. And just as petals drop from a withered garland, petals you see strewn in profusion and floating in the cup, so for us, who now love with spirits raised high, perhaps tomorrow's day shall round our destinies. (2.15.49-55)

Guy Lee 1992

Guy Lee was the author of much well-received translation when he prepared Propertius: the Poems {4} {17} for publication in the Oxford World's Classics series. There was no Latin text, but the renderings were accompanied by a helpful introduction (by R.O.A.M. Lyne), an extensive glossary, a bibliography and a list of departures from Barber's Oxford Classical Text. Dr. Lee employed unrhymed couplets, usually pentameters but expanding to the content:

Cynthia first, with her eyes, caught wretched me
Smitten before by no desires. (1.1.1-2)

Although you're leaving Rome against my wishes, Cynthia,
I'm glad you'll be in rural isolation (2.19.1-2)

May earth, Procuress, overgrow your grave with thorns
And (what you will not wish) your ghost feel thirst. (4.5.1-2)

The rendering was often line for line, and the verse had the neatness of compressed meaning:

Whose threshold, wet with prisoner's suppliant tears,
Glided chariots celebrated. (1.16.2-4)

The diction, moreover, was generally that of ordinary speech, but ranged from contemporary slang to the rare and archaic. Many couplets were competently turned:

Whenever therefore death shall close my eyelids
Let this be the order of my funeral (2.13.17-18)

But as for me, in every place and all the time,
In sickness and in health, I'm with you still. (2.21.19-20)

In the celebrated passages, however, Dr. Lee was apt to paraphrase for effects that did not come off:

For just as petals drop from fading garlands
To float haphazard in wine-bowls,
So for us lovers who now walk so tall
Tomorrow may bring the fated close. (2.15.49-54)

But the real difficulty was the verse itself: an uncadenced mixture of traditional and free verse styles that exasperates the trained ear. Perhaps in trying for an idiomatic and flexible line, Lee often broke the metre, adding the odd word (here the unnecessary 'that', which wrong-foots the whole line):

It's not that I'm scared to get to know the Adriatic
Or sail the salt Aegean, Tullus (1.6.1-2)

Or he used the stress verse of Pound without its exactness of cadence:

But, Cynthia, you will call back my dumb spirit in vain;
My bits of bone will have nothing to say. (2.13.57-8)

Or in shaping the emotional utterance, the phrasing lost rather than built on its rhythmic base:

Let us sate our eyes with love while Fate allows.
The long night comes and the day of no return. (2.15.23-4)

A.S. Kline 2001

Tony Kline's translation appears on his popular Internet site, {18} one of many free translations that have proved so useful to students. The translation can be copied readily, and unfamiliar names are hyperlinked to an extensive glossary. The rendering closely follows the text, allowing itself no 'improvements' or embellishments.

Cynthia was the first, to my cost, to trap me with her eyes: I was
untouched by love before. (1.1.1-2)

That plain tone sometimes passes into the colloquial:

you can hardly find rest for a single month, poor thing, and now there'll be another
disgraceful book about you. (2.3.3-4)

And occasionally into the crude and loutish:

slither about in a thin silk dress (1.2.2)
the cock-up at Cannae (3.3.10)

For the greater part, however, the rendering employs a sensible prose that conveys the sense admirably, even if it generally lacks the affective organization needed for poetry. As usual, the style serves well for narrative:

the horseman was skilled with the bridle, equally with the plough: and his helmet was wolf-skin, decorated with a shaggy crest: (4.10.19-20)

But fails in the more emotionally charged passages, resorting to unconvincing exhortation:

You while the light lasts, then, don't leave off life's joys! Though you give all your kisses, they'll prove all too few. As the leaves fall from dried garlands: as you see them scatter in cups and float there: so we, now, the lovers, who hope for great things, perhaps fate, tomorrow, will end our day. (2.15.49-54)

Odd phrases have the genuine touch of poetry, but the lines by their nature fall back into a language more suited to everyday use than elegiac expression:

The stars are witnesses, girl, and the frost at dawn, and the doors that opened secretly for unhappy me that nothing in my life was ever as dear to me as you: and you will be, forever, too, though you're so unkind to me. (2.9.41-2)

Vincent Kranz 2007

Vincent Kranz employed a contemporary diction and something neither quite verse nor prose to make an unlovely but clear translation: {19} {20}

Cynthia as the first. She caught me with her eyes, a fool
who had never before been touched by desires.
I really hung my head in shame
when Love pressed down on it with his feet.
He taught me to hate chaste girls!
He was cruel when he told me to live without plan.
It's already been a whole year that the frenzy hasn't stopped.
Even now, the gods are against me. (1.1.1-8)

The rendering was generally faithful to the original, and the line divisions were respected, but the diction had a coarseness foreign to Propertius, and the dialogue was clumsy even by everyday or popular novel use. Equally something a colleague should have queried was the jarring mix of tones (here plebeian, academic and literary):

"If only you could experience the nights you always
force me to endure, you asshole!
At first I evaded sleep with the purple thread,
and again, exhausted, with song of the Orphic lyre.
Left all alone, I was singing lightly to myself
the frequent long delays when your lover is about.
Then drowsiness pulled me, slipping in its soft wings.
She at last cured my crying." (1.3.39-46)

Kranz's translation received the usual academic commendations, {19} but also an unflinching review by J.L. Butrica, {20} who pointed out the difficulties in making Propertius a streetwise kid.

S.J. Heyworth 2007

Dr Stephen Heyworth's work was largely an attempt to explain and justify the text of Propertius published in the Oxford Classical Texts {22} series. His book examined the textual problems of Propertius, taking the corrupt passages in turn and evaluating the suggestions scholarship has made towards resolving the difficulties. Stylistic excellence was not the aim of the added translation, but more a plain rendering of the prose sense as far as the remaining difficulties allowed.

Cynthia was the first; she caught me with her eyes and made me miserable-I had never been infected with desire before. (1.1.1-2)

Hey lucky me! Hey, night fair to me! Hey you, little bed made happy by my darling. (2.15.1-2)
Just as the petals have abandoned garlands as they wither and you see them floating scattered in bowls, so for us who now as lovers breathe deep, perhaps tomorrow will enclose our fate. (2.15.51-55)

No one reads such things for literary pleasure, but the examples do show that even prose needs careful word choice and sentence patterning if it is to convey what Propertius is prized for.

Patrick Worsnip 2018.

In the latest rendering of the Odes — by Patrick Worsnip and with an extended introduction by Peter Heslin — today's tendency to replace elevated language with the everyday has produced something that is witty and reasonably accurate but (as to be expected) somewhat limited in the aesthetic dimension. Little trace of the elegance of Propertius remains, of the elegiac nature of his lines, or their poetry: {23}

Cynthia was first, her eyes
made me a prisoner of war.
I had until then been untouched by Amor
who now pulled down the vanity of my glance(1.1. 1-4)

It wasn't their dress sense that caused Leucippus' daughters
to give Castor and Pollus the hots,
or set lustful Apollo and Idas
at odds over Marpessa.  (1.2.  18-22)

Conclusions

It should be clear, at least until our understanding of Propertius changes, or further manuscripts are found (which seems unlikely), that translations of a literal or academic nature are now fully catered for. Anyone wanting the prose sense of Propertius's Elegies need only borrow the Loeb edition {1} from their local library or visit Tony Kline's website {18}, perhaps consulting books by Lynne {5}, Richardson {2} and/or Heyworth {22} to understand the original better. For a literary translation there is now the free Ocaso Press publication.

The Latin text can be loaded down from Internet sites {24-5} and those unable to read the language can run the text through QuickLatin {10} or online sites {11-2} to obtain a word-for-word translation and explanatory grammar.

Sound recordings of Propertius and other Latin poets are also available {7}, and to read the Latin for themselves — which helps enormously to bring their authors to life — students can practise with Clive Brooks's volume, {6} which comes with two CDs of audio files (though not including Propertius).

References and Resources

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