translating propertiusElegies of Sextus Propertius: Formal Styles

Here we look more closely at translating the Elegies of Sextus Propertius. Those enjoying the renderings of Pound {9} and Lowell {13} — assuming readers appreciate their literary excellence, or what follows will hold little appeal — may also want something closer to poetry. That requires a style unlike the demotic free verse of today, and a return to the close argument and elevated language by which Propertius succeeds in the Latin tongue, i.e. a rendering that:

· says what the Elegies say,

· respects the line arrangements,

· employs the rhetorical structuring by which Latin poetry is built,

· reflects the style, tone and diction of Propertius,

· portrays some of the characteristics that distinguish Propertius from other Latin poets,

· transposes the verbal felicities of Propertius into equivalent English achievements.

Style of Propertius

Propertius has a vigorous and subtle style, sensitive to speech patterns, employing a diction common to the educated upper classes of Rome but heightened and given colour by Greek words and the odd colloquialism. It is a high style, clear and graceful, sometimes orotund but never maladroit or over-formal, nor sullied by any coarseness or street diction.

His couplet started with the freedom of Catullus but over the course of the Elegies moved to the smoothness of Tibullus and Ovid. Propertius was a markedly individual author, whose main departures from standard Latin use in poetry were:

1. abrupt switches to mythological examples, some of which would have been obscure to his audience.

2. tendency to move abruptly from third person to second without the vocative.

3. inclination to start an elegy in medias res.

4. omission of the verb 'to be' wherever sense is clear.

5. preference for the pluperfect, used as the English preterite for anything in the past now completed. Also the employment of the historical present for vividness, often extending to the subjunctive.

6. free use of elision, shown in this Latin text: famast rather than fama est. And many others, noted (with detailed references) in Professor Richardson's commentary. {2}

Couplet Form

Because Latin is a compact language, where much can be expressed with few words, the rendering will need the longer English verse line, probably the hexameter or the pentameter. By experimenting we find that:

1. Pure hexameters give an undistinguished verse with no sense of the original couplets.

2. Rymed pentameters require a lot of work — the Elegies exceed four thousand lines — and produce something that lacks urgency.

3. Unrhymed pentameters provide a supple verse but again with no real sense of the original couplets.

That leaves the hexameter plus pentameter, and the hexameter plus tetrameter as possibilities. The first is the quieter, more flexible and more accommodating to the sense: an important consideration.

The second emphasises the couplet division by running together lines of different length and nature. The unhurried hexameter, which tends to break into 2:4, 3:3, 4:2 or 5:1 rhythmic units, is quickly rounded off by the succeeding tetrameter, a strongly coherent line in English. There exist of course passages where neither possibility will fully capture the sense, the two most grievous being:

Was it for ornament the Dioscuri twins

    for Phoebe and Helaira burned? (1.2.15-16)

Where the Latin mentions Leucippus and the Dioscuri twins by name:

Not so did Phoebe, daughter of Leucippus, set Castor aflame, or her sister Hilaïra, do to Pollux with her ornaments.


Unheard of. Little matter Ilium, or Troy

    twice seized by the Oetaen god. (3.1.30-31)

Where the Latin is much fuller: You would not be known in your patch of earth: Ilium would be a matter for few words, and you too, Troy, twice seized by the Oetaean deity.

Such examples prove to be rare, however (lines: 1.2.15-16, 1.13.21-22, 3.1.31, 3.4.3, 3.4.16, 3.10.46, 3.12.28, 3.12.57, 4.1A.31, 4.1A.49 and 4.6.19: 13 lines or 0.3% of the total text), and are documented in the Glossary accompanying the translation. A similar problem arises with the proper names, which Latin accomodates readily but iambic metre does not. What reads smoothly as elegiac couplets may become congested in translation:

Postumous, a second Ulysses with such

    a marvellous wife. Delayed, unharmed

for ten long years: Ismara's capture, Cicones'

    death and Polyphemus blinded. (3.12.23-26)

Possible solutions would be to pare down the proper names, or to relax the 6:4 couplet form, but it seems better to resist both temptations as dense allusion is a feature of the Elegies. Real problems arise only occasionally, moreover, in 19 lines or 0.5% of the total text (1.8B.35-36, 2.9A.15-16, 2.34.36-38, 2.34.68, 3.1.29-30, 3.12.29, 3.12.23-26, 3.13.57, 3.22.9-10, 3.22.33, 4.10.49). Latin being a terse language, the shorter 6:4 couplet seems the wiser course, and the choice in fact leads to only 167 lines having their sense clipped in some way, usually by a single adjective, i.e. a loss in descriptive fullness rather than sense. In 4050 lines, these omissions amount to 4.1% of the total. Most omissions would disappear with the longer hexameter-pentameter, but at the cost of many slack lines where the sense had to be padded out. Even with the hexameter-tetrameter couplet the odd addition becomes necessary, mostly for clarity, but occasionally to fill the space available — in 38 or 0.9% of cases. In short, the 6-4 couplet seems to be the most suitable of regular forms.

But why use a regular form at all? The current preference is for free verse, and readers may lack the training even to hear traditional forms properly. If most translations from Pound onwards have adopted some form of free verse, why try to put the clock back?

There are several reasons for doing so. Firstly, the original is in a tight form and, though regular English verse sounds nothing like the Latin, a faithful translation will bring over as many of the original features as possible. Secondly, the Elegies are written in an elevated style, and this is the domain of traditional verse, not of free verse that engages more directly through contemporary words and speech patterns. Thirdly, free verse is the more limiting style, and previous attempts have not overcome the need for everyday naturalness, either sacrificing the meaning to deft phrasing (Pound), or vice versa.

Verse Texture

Because any version is a fusion of styles, those of author and translator, it may help to know the aims of the final rendering:

1. Write a compact, quiet and well-mannered verse, using simple techniques to bring out the properties of words, notably vowel harmonies and wide-spaced alliteration.

Make sad no more my grave with weeping, Paullus: those

    deaf shores will drink your tears unmoved.

Prayers may change the gods above, but, Charon paid,

    the path is fixed unalterably. (4.11.1-4)

2. Increase the marmoreal nature of the verse by writing a strict iambic wherever possible, only varying this as outlined in 6. below.

3. Make the hexameter-quatrain a complete unit, the metre continuing seamlessly across the couplet.

Cyn thi |a's eyes |first brought | me to | this wre | tched ness |

    I had | not felt | love's pull | be fore | (1.1.1-2)

4. Where appropriate, to increase pace and variety, allow the sense to continue across couplets (which in Latin are more self-contained.)

Think how the untilled soil throws out its brilliant hues,

    and ivy spirals by itself,

how pretty strawberry trees will grace deserted hollows,

    and water, untaught, find its course. (1.2.9-12)

5. Use a strict and emphatic metre in didactic passages, or those of simple description:

Tarpeian Jupiter resounded from bare rock,

    unknown our cattle to the Tiber.

Remus's the house that soars with flights of steps: one hearth

    was all the brother had. (4.1a.7-10.)

6. Shift the stress to words that reinforce the meaning, i.e. let the lines lose their regular iambic metre and approach stress-verse, in these cases: a. emotionally charged passages:

and plant there also laurel to guard the minute spot

    the flame died, and let there be (2.13.33-4)

b: where the verse echoes a choral measure:

I am the first, priest of the clear fount, bringing to Latin

    sacraments a Greek song. (3.1.3-4)

7. Vary the: a. precision of beat: from a sharp impression:

Stranger, what you see as mighty Rome was grass

    and hills before Aeneas came. (4.1a.1-2)

to an only faintly sensed metre:

Was it because Jove took that wild shape from your features

    you became a haughty goddess? (2.33A.13-4)

b. arrangement of constituent units:

Make sad no more my grave with weeping, Paullus | those

    deaf shores will drink your tears unmoved. 5:5

Prayers may change the gods above | but, Charon paid |

    the path is fixed unalterably. 4:2:4

The god of that halled gloom may hear | but his dark door

    will give no passage to our prayers, 4:6

and when the dead wind through the Underworld | a pall

    of white shuts off the burnt-out pyre. 5:5

So howled sad trumpets when the threatening fire was thrust |

    beneath the bier and bore me off. 6:4 (4.1.1-10)

8. Make sure the lines are properly cadenced, adopting a more free verse approach only for the emotionally-charged passage:

Nestor's pyre was lit, though had his fated age

    been met by guard on Troy's walls

he would not have seen Antilochus, his son, buried,

    nor cried out: 'Death, why come so slow?' (2.13.45-9)

9. Employ a natural word order wherever possible, while still allowing some reversal to maintain the cadence of lines and accommodate the proper names that Latin allows so readily and English does not. An unnatural word order sometimes appears, most notably:

or talking Arion, Adrastus's, the horse that won

    the funeral games of Archemorus. (2.34.37-8)

But in mitigation it should be said that elegiac Latin verse itself often uses anything but natural word order. Here:

qualis et Adrasti fuerit vocalis Arion,

    tristis ad Archemori funera victor equus


Like also Adrastus was able_to_speak Arion

    sad at Archemorus funeral victor horse.

10. Retain the more striking characteristics of Propertius's verse: abrupt switches to mythological examples, elision, sudden moves from third person to second, frequent starts in medias res, omission of the verb 'to be', and employment of the historical present for vividness.

11. Allow the iambic metre to indicate the pronunciation of proper names, but also show the main stress by a line over the vowel concerned where uncertainties can arise. For example: Calliope, pronounced Calli'ope with stress on the 'i' and not the 'o', is shown as Calliope.

Elegy One, Book One

And so, probably none too soon for the general reader, we come to a test of the approach, the translation itself. Below is the opening elegy in the free ebook published by Ocaso Press, with introduction, Latin text, facing English translation, notes, glossary and references:

Love's Madness

Cynthia's eyes first brought me to this wretchedness:

    I had not felt love's pull before.

Amor, the little boy, reduced my scornful look,

    and with his feet pressed down my head.

He it was who said despise the virtuous girls,

    and wantoned with me, had no sense.

And in this folly he has kept me one full year

    in constant danger from the gods.

But, Tullus, my friend: Milanion went on to quell

    the savage hardness of Iasus.

He wandered, maddened, through Parthenian caves, in sight

    of long-haired beasts, and howled the pain

produced by that club's blow the centaur Hylaeus gave

    from glen to glen in Arcady,

to win at last his Atalanta, fleet of foot.

    Such then is love's true strength in prayer

and deed, but his poor wits run slow for me, and do

    not keep to ways they one time travelled.

But you whose sorcery draws down the temptress moon,

    propitiates the magic flames,

come, change the disposition of my mistress, turn

    her face a paler shade than mine.

Do that, and I'll believe you have the Colchis spells

to summon up the ghosts and stars.

But, friends, it is now late to call the fallen back,

    or seek to aid the wounded breast

that fiercely would outdo the worst in fire and blade

    if inner torment found its tongue.

Convey me through the furthest lands and waves to where

    that woman cannot find my track.

I leave all those who have the ear of gods and live

    in safe and constant mutual love.

On me now Venus works but bitter nights, and Amor

    toils the same through emptiness.

I therefore warn you: cling to love, escape this curse,

    and keep your love's familiar place.

If any are too slow to turn their ears, in grief

    they will recall these words of mine.

References and Resources

1. Goold, G.P. (ed. and trans.) Propertius Elegies. Loeb Classical Series. Harvard Univ. Press. 1990/1999.

2. Richardson, L. jr. Propertius: Elegies I-IV. American Philological Association Series of Classical Texts. Oklahoma Univ. Press. 1976/2006.

3. Mackail, J.W. Latin Literature. John Murray. 1895/1934.

4. Lee, Guy (trans.) Propertius: The Poems. Oxford Univ. Press. 1994.

5. Lynne, R.O.A.M. The Latin Love Poets. Clarendon Press. 1980.

6. Brooks, Clive. Reading Latin Poetry Aloud. Cambridge Univ. Press. 2007.

7. Gantillon, P.J.F. The Elegies of Propertius, with Notes and Metrical Versions of Select Elegies by Nott and Elton. George Bell and Sons. 1884.

8. Ramsay, G.G. Selections from Propertius and Tibullus. Clarendon Press. 1895.

9. Pound, Ezra. Selected Poems 1908-1959. Faber and Faber. 1975.

10. Sullivan, J.P. Ezra Pound and Sextus Propertius: A Study in Creative Translation. Univ. Texas Press. 1964.

11. Alexander, Michael. The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound. Faber and Faber. 1979.

12. Davidson, Pete. Ezra Pound and Roman Poetry: A Preliminary Survey. Rodopi Bv Editions. 1995. web&ots=v9
SoYCewDp&sig=c-Knh3U7meeD98cb4Y7p32KxE0M&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result &resnum=28&ct=result - PPP1,M1

13. Lowell, Robert. The Ghost. In Sullivan 1964, 180-2. (Lord Weary's Castle. 1946.)

14. Translations from Propertius by Franklin P. Adams. Presented by Michael Gilleland.

15. Warden, John (trans.) The Poems of Propertius. Toronto Univ. Press. 1972.

16. Shepherd, W.G. (trans.) and Betty Radice. (intro.), Propertius: The Poems. O. U.P. 1986. Univ. Oklahoma Press 2004.

17. Lee, Guy (trans.) and Lyne, R.O.A.M. (intro.) Propertius: The Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.01.07.

18. Kline, Tony. Sextus Propertius: The Elegies.

19. Katz, Vincent (trans). The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius. The Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation. Princeton Univ. Press, 2004.

20. Sextus Propertius, Elegies (ed. Vincent Katz). 1999.02.0067:book=1:poem=1:line=1

21. Katz, Vincent (trans.), The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius, (Princeton Univ. Press, 2004) Review by J.L. Butrica.

22. Heyworth, S.J. Cynthia: A Companion to the Text of Propertius. Oxford Univ. Press. 2007.

23. Howatson, M.C. (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Oxford Univ. Press. 1989/2005.

24. Hornblower, Simon and Antony Spawforth (eds.) The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd Edition). Oxford Univ. Press. 2003.

25. Morwood, James. A Latin Grammar. O.U.P. 1999.



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