Horace: The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets

Horace: The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets

Reviewed:  Horace: The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets.  J.D. McClatchy (ed.). Princeton University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-691-04919-X

As you’d expect, the book (1) is a quality production: 312 well-printed pages, a sensible introduction, and all four books of odes, plus centennial hymn, translated by 35 well-known poets.

Brief biographical details of the translators are appended, and there is a useful index of translators listing who rendered which odes. For those with their favourite authors, that index is:

Robert Bly  1.16 1.26 2.3 2.9
Eavan Boland  2.11 3.13 3.17 3.22

Robert Creeley 1.8 1.19 3.26

Dick Davis  Centennial Hymn
Mark Doty  1.29 3.14 3.28
Alive Fulton  1.28

Debora Greger 1.14 1.36
Linda Gregerson 2.19 3.23

Rachel Hadas  1.24 2.4 3.5 3.27 4.2
Donald  Hall  1.22 2.5 3.15 4.11
Robert Hass  1.38 3.2 3.19
Anthony Hecht 1.21 1.27 3.21
Daryl Hine  1.3 2.1
John Hollander 1.9 1.35 2.14 3.1 3.30 4.9
Richard Howard 1.7 3.6 4.1

John Kinsella  2.6 4.5 4.14
Carolyn Kizer  1.13 2.12 4.13

James Lasdun  1.4 1.30
J.D. McClatchy 2.7 3.4 4.3 4.15
Heather McHugh 1.5 1.11 1.23 1.25 1.33 2.8

W.S. Merwin  1.20 1.31
Paul Muldoon  1.15 3.18 4.6
Carl Phillips  1.32 3.3 4.4
Robert Pinsky  1.1 2.20
Marie Ponsot  1.18 2.2 3.12

Charles Simic  1.6 2.15 3.11
Mark Strand  1.10 2.16
Charles Tomlinson 1.12 3.25 3.29
Ellen Bryant Voigt 1.17 1.34 1.37

David Wagoner 2.18 4.8
Rosanna Warren   1.2 2.13 3.7 3.20 4.7
Richard Wilbur 2.10
C.K. Williams  3.9 3.10
Charles Wright 3.8 4.12
Stephen Yenser 2.17 3.16 3.24

The book came out a few years ago, and I obtained a s/h copy to see how translators had coped with the lapidary exactness of the verse, and Horace’s tone, that charmingly urbane and sometimes ironic note that can be difficult to catch. Not too well is probably the short answer, but let me take the issues in turn.

How the translations were allocated isn’t explained. A few poets approached cried off, apparently, but most took to the task enthusiastically, had a ‘literally thrilling time’ the editor asserts. A century ago all such translations would have been in rhyme, which can make for intractable problems with odd lines, or produce rather free renderings. Today contributors have generally opted not to rhyme, and indeed most have employed free verse. Only translations of 1.1, 1.3, 1.11, 1.15, 1.25, 1.32, 1.33, 2.12, 3.18, 3.25, 3.27 and the Centennial Hymn in parts have been rhymed. These are often the more pleasing pieces, however, though it’s not the rhyme itself that makes for quality, I suspect, but the rearrangement and compression that goes into achieving rhyme that has pulled the lines into shape. (Or generally so: Carolyn Kizer’s rhyming couplet translation of the difficult Ode 2.12 thoroughly misses the sense.)

No one has tried to reproduced the original metres – again sensibly: it cannot be done. A respectable number have echoed the stanza shape in lines of different length, however, which often pays dividends. One is Rosanna Warren’s translation of Ode 1.2:

It’s enough now, all this vicious snow and hail
Father Jupiter has sent to earth, enough
his striking sacred peaks with a smoldering hand
  To terrify the town

To terrify the people: what if the dismal age
of Pyrrha should return, when she quailed at strange
new signs, when Proteus drove his ocean herd
   to visit mountain tops,

And the race of fish clustered in the highest elms
where doves used to build their nests in the dry old days,
and deer swam, terrified, in floods ravening
   over lost land?

This is free verse and unrhymed, though it seems to me better here to go the extra mile and add rhyme as well:

Such snow and hail has Jove hurled down
on sacred temples, sanctified
by his right 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.

Then fish were hoisted high in elms
where naturally the pigeons roost,
and on those swirling liquid realms
were roe deer loosed.

Some translations, conversely, have none of Horace’s neatness. Paul Muldoon’s of Ode 1.15 is very free, and the rhyme contrived:

While the young herdsman, Paris, a herdsman as faithless as he was fair,
was hauling Helen back on his boat
of Trojan pine, the sea-god Nereus would stop the sea-airs
that can’t abide being stopped and float

this vision of the future:

Again a simple iambic version conveys the content better:

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

his words.

Heather McHugh’s version manages to avoid translating carpe diem altogether. Where a rough translation would go: For even as we speak, time fleets on, and cause has credulous descendents. Seize the day. her rendering of the last two lines of Ode 1.11 is:

Think less
of more tomorrows, more of this

One second, endlessly unique: it’s
jealous, even as we speak, and it’s
about to split again . . .

There’s the usual odd idiocy which the editor should have queried:

Robert Pinsky spoils a pleasing rendition of the first ode in Book One by ending with:

Count me among the poets, and I feel like a god-
Bumping the stars with my exalted head.

‘Bumping’ indeed.  Heather McHugh has added ‘wet suit’ to her ending of Ode 1.5 (I hang my votive in his temple, pray / he does notice then my storm-drenched clothes):

I’ve thrown off the habit, and hung up
my wet suit there. (You see? It’s dripping.)

Robert Creely adds a note of lackadaisical coarseness to his rendering of Ode 3.26:

Please flick just once
with your imperious whip
young Chloe’s disdaining bum

That beautiful Ode 4.7 becomes both over-literal in Rosanna Warren’s rendering of the first four lines:

All gone, the snow: grass throngs back to the fields,
the trees grow out new hair;
Earth follows her changes, and subsiding streams
jostle within her banks.

And the sustained sadness of Ode 1.28 is ruined by a curious and wildly inappropriate flippancy in Alice Fulton’s rendering:

This won’t take long: just grant me my three tosses of
 the dust before you dash.

But that’s about it. In general adequate, but no real gems. In terms of verse – though all are rather free and don’t sound like Horace – the best seem the following, where I quote a short extract of the translation:

Ode 1.32, by Carl Phillips:

This I pray:

if ever in shadowed
ease I made of song

something lasting for
this year and more-

give me a Roman song

Ode 1.33 by Heather McHugh:

I had good reason but I found
No good escape. That’s how
old slaves to future slaves are bound,
In pleasure’s plight. And now
what blows I take! -a gale emphatic
as any that rakes the Adriatic.

Ode 2.10 by Richard Wilbur:

In every hardship show yourself to be
Both brave and bold; yet when you run before
Too strong a favoring breeze, wisely take in
Your swelling sails.

Ode 3.20 by Eaven Boland:

I will bring to it
    the wild, first
blood of a boar
   just beginning
to swerve and thrust.

In capturing the tone, none really stand out, even in free verse which should be more amenable to the purpose. Perhaps the better are:

Ode 1.1, by Robert Pinsky:

Maecenus, my protector, descendant of kings,
Friend, fountain of honor-in this world different things
Give different people joy. Some feel it most
In racing: wheels flashing through the Olympic dust,

Ode  1.12 by Charles Tomlinson:

What man or hero-or what god shall I
Tune my lute, aim my lyre at, Clio,
And leave the sportive echoes in the sky?

Ode  4.8 by David Wagoner:

If I could afford to, I’d shower all my friends
with gifts, with bronzes and bowls and tripods
like the prizes of the brawny Greeks, and you, Censorinus,
would have the best of them,

All these (and many others) are believable voices, of course, but lack something of the chiseled precision, the irony and urbane good humour that Horace is famed for. There’s nothing here like Edward Marsh’s translation of Ode 1.33: (2)

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.

Though that again is rather free. There are many approaches to translation, of course, (3) but Marsh made no bones about his: (2)

Mr. S.A. Courtauld writes in the introduction to his choice of translations from the Odes a sentence that gives away the whole case for translation into verse. ‘It is difficult’, he says, ‘to believe that metrical translations of Horace apart from the Latin originals can really be interesting to many readers.’ On the contrary, unless the version can give to 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 necessary for metre and rhyme; and the result is usually full of cracks and bulges, like 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. Of such translations it might be said ‘faith unfaithful keeps them falsely true’; for the one thing certain is that a poem cannot be represented by a piece of verse that does not stand on its own legs in its own language.

Exact fidelity, when by a lucky chance attainable, 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.

I am much more anxious about my metres than about my departures from naturalness.

Is Marsh’s approach successful? Sometimes. Here are snippets representing a few of his happier renderings:

That’s Sabine for you, when you come this way,
   In sober country tankards-nothing grand,
   But sealed with my own hand
In a Greek pitcher, on that famous day (1.20)

   Come wanton winds and blow
My fears and sorrows to the Cretan Sea!
Friends with the Muses, what care I to know
What monarch holds the chilly north in fee, (1.26)

   He who would steer his course aright
Must neither crowd all sail to make the deep,
Nor fearful of foul weather hug too tight
   The shore that rocky waters keep. (2.10)

Sweet queen of parley, leave thy heavenly sphere,
   Calliope and with a leisured lay
   Of voice alone, or dulcet interplay
Of pipe or lute or viol, grace mine ear. (3.4)

How long, old Madam, will you carry on
This monstrous racket, which your patient lord
So obviously can’t afford? (3.15)

How better could I celebrate
Old Neptune’s feast? Come, Lydia, stir your stumps,
And fetch the Alban from its crate (3.28)

With what heaped dignities or long renown,
By pen or chisel to ages down,
Shall Fathers or Quirites celebrate
   Thy matchless service to the State, (4.14)

Clearly a more pleasing touch than our leading poets today can achieve, but the majority of Marsh’s translations seem to me rather dated, derivative and/or loose. Horace is difficult.

So, to return to the work under review, McClatchy’s compilation was some help in checking my own translations but not in what it was purchased for, to suggest new ways of approaching Horace.


1. McClatchy, J.D. (ed.) Horace: The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets.  Princeton Univ. Press, 2002.
2. Marsh, E. (trans.) The Odes of Horace. Macmillan, 1941.
3. Alice Oswald’s ‘Memorial’ and the Reinvention of Translation by Mira Rosenthal . Kenyon Review. http://www.kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/2013-fall/selections/memorial-by-alice-oswald-738439/


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