Translating Horace

2000-10-04

Today I finally placed out on Monadnock the last of my translations of the odes of Horace that I consider to have been influenced by Epicurus. I've been fascinated by the Epicurus/Horace connection for a long time and the poetry of Horace is simply gorgeous, so it gives me a great sense of accomplishment to have these finished. Plus I think I did a pretty good job of translating them.

A friend asked me how I make these translations, so here's the secret. What I do is first create a prose version that is as close as I can make it to the original -- I'll often have alternate translations in there for certain words and such, it's quite rough, but in some lines it might have the beginnings of poetic form if that strikes me as I'm working through the text. I make this prose version with the following all spread out on my desk: the Latin original, a translation (published by Penguin if you must know), my Latin dictionary, and most recently a borrowed copy of the Latin text with notes. I then let the prose version sit for at least a day and sometimes a week or a month. When I feel that the Muse is about to visit, I break out the prose version and begin to "poetize" it. I don't really try to be faithful to Horace's metrical scheme (though if he chose Sapphic meter then I'll keep it Sapphic to honor the Tenth Muse) -- instead I try to find something that will work in English. Often I'll try to keep the same number of stanzas and the same number of lines per stanza, but even that I sometimes violate. I guess I settle on a meter by starting to chop up my prose version into lines and seeing how many feet per line will work. It's rather arbitrary, I fear. Of course adjustments are necessary to make the meter work, and I'll expand certain ideas a bit and sometimes leave out certain words/concepts that were in the prose version (e.g., see the last stanza of "This Aegean Storm", where I have "the gods" but Horace has "Pollux and his twin"), but I try to do this as infrequently as possible. I suppose that purists would scoff at some of my translations, but I am striving for poetic life, not necessarily scholarly rigor (although I do try to stay as close as I can to the original).


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