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On Translating Roman Verse


It is a commonplace with amateurs of the philosophy of history, from Upton Sinclair to my corner grocer, that Roman and American imperialism have much in common. We are supposed to have the same mass culture, the same coarseness of fiber, the same stoatish sex habits and we are supposed to be headed at an ever accelerating pace for the same doom. Not only amateurs believe this but Arnold Toynbee has become a world-wide celebrity like Albert Schweitzer, Brigitte Bardot and Sterling Moss by interpreting contemporary capitalist civilization in terms of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, even though it is the fashion in bona fide scholarly circles to deny that the term “decline and fall” can be properly applied to the history of the Roman Empire. If we are so like them, it is curious indeed that our artistic expression has been, so far, so utterly unlike.

Since Bryant, Motley, Parkman and the Federalist Papers, American literary expression has grown ever less Roman. Inspired by the questionable parallel between the two cultures, it would be easy to imagine the list of favorite authors — Richard Nixon’s might be Cicero; Eisenhower’s, Julius Caesar; Senator Fulbright’s, Livy; Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s, Virgil; Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s, Horace. For better or worse some of these people not only have never heard of these Roman authors but seem to make do very well with comic books, the sports page and the stock market quotations. As is well known one of the most famous of the list once boasted that he had never read a book since he left West Point.

It is not just the top dogs of that conspiracy of mediocrity known as the power Úlite who show no interest in Roman literature; the Latin poets have no more influence on the leading versifiers of our literary establishment than the mordant observations of Tacitus have on the policies or speeches of Lyndon Johnson. There is every evidence in fact that Latin literature in some peculiar way is especially antagonistic to American. One of these matters of fact is that we seem to be utterly unable to translate it. No American translation of any Latin poet has ever been anything but pedestrian and sesquipedalian. They all give the impression of being onerous jobs done in maximum discomfort, bad hours, low pay and terrible conditions. “Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius,” you say? In the first place it doesn’t even claim to be a translation, and in the second place it is not in American but in Pound’s own professionally odd lingo, the last-born utterance of pre-Raphaelitese.

Years ago Horace Gregory translated Catullus and some years later Allen Tate did the Pervigilium Veneris. These might pass muster as mediocre examples of the verse of Gregory and Tate but they would be acceptable as translations only to those ignorant of the originals. Even poets deeply saturated with Latin verse like Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald have never been able to re-embody it in their native language. As far as I remember, Pound, Tate and Gregory are the only poets of substance who have ever had a go at the Latins. Louis Zukofsky for the last few years has been “translating” Catullus but not into American or even English, but into Zukofsky, a language which notoriously raises more questions than it solves, like the web of Penelope.

I think the reason for this studious avoidance of Latin poetry by American poets lies in the radically different, in fact totally antagonistic, objectives of twentieth-century American verse and Latin poetry of the Augustan and Silver Ages. We are still in the midst of an anti-rhetorical movement in poetry now two generations old. Commingled with this main current is an effluent which is at least equal in power (like the Missouri and the Mississippi), a movement of intellectual complication and wit which we call, for lack of a better word, metaphysical. Then there is a counter current against the latter tendency, sometimes weaker, sometimes more powerful, the antiliterary objectivist style of presentational immediacy which stretches from the Imagists to Gary Snyder and Denise Levertov. All these characteristics define a universe of discourse unknown to Latin poetry. In addition to this the American language is moving away from its Indo-European origins and is so far from the inflected subtleties of Latin that it is closer much to the syntactical logic of Chinese. Again the acoustic qualities of the two languages are most unlike. Virgil may have been “the molder of the mightiest measure ever wielded by the mind of man” but that measure cannot be reproduced at all in English, much less American, and attempts to do so just sound like comic parodies of Longfellow. I for one wish this was not so. Horace is one of my favorite poets; a loyal companion and a sovran antidote to the irascible subjectivity that is called the modern temper. I would love to translate him but, as I sit here writing this, and turning over in my mind the snows of Soracte, the chirring bracelets, the lissome slave girls, the crystal spring water, I realize only too well that I haven’t the vaguest idea of how even to begin.

Such qualms, if he’s had them, have never deterred Rolfe Humphries. If he keeps on and lives long enough he should eventually get through to Claudian. He’s done Virgil, Ovid, Martial, Juvenal. The kindest word to apply to these translations is dogged. He’s kep’ at it. And once in a while he achieves a certain felicity, but it is so brief that you wonder if it hasn’t been an accident. As the Fuller Brush men say, “Just keep at it and the Law of Averages will take care of you.”

Constance Carrier’s Propertius is no better. In addition she quite misses the neurotic melancholy, the masochistic anguish of Propertius. He is one of the few classic writers, possibly the only one, afflicted with the modern temper, but fouled up as he is, he still is eminently masculine and I doubt much if he could ever be translated by a woman. A talented enough woman could conceivably project herself into a man’s role but not likely into the role of a perverted man. We have seen fairly recently this doubled and redoubled mirror image projection fail in an attempt to translate the modern Greek pederast, Cavafy. Constance Carrier does no better with the masochist Propertius.

James Michie’s The Odes of Horace includes the Latin text to which it provides a moderately amusing pony in meters that sometimes resemble remotely the original. Of course you wouldn’t know all this unless you read the Latin in the first place. As English verse his translation is not always doggerel but it isn’t often a great deal better. Michie, by the way, is English, not American, and it is unquestionably easier to bring over at least a little of Horace into English than it is into American. Horace has always been a sort of shadow Poet Laureate of Great Britain. One of his best Victorian translators called him “an eminently clubable man.” I just can’t imagine Horace in American, least of all that aspect of him. What kind of poet would a “clubable” American be?

One trouble with most of these translations is that they are in rhyme and since rhyme necessitates an unreal distortion of word order and padding or omission from even the most glib versifying translators and since much of the beauty of the Latin verse depends on the ring and clash of its peculiar acoustic properties and syntax, a rhymed translation is almost certainly foredoomed to failure. The best American translators in the twentieth century, whatever language they translated from, used unrhymed free verse. I am no passionate propagandist for free verse. This is simply an evident fact and it is extraordinary that people persist in ignoring it.

The Roman Comedies is a reprint of selections from the Roman drama in the Random House Lifetime Library now twenty years old. They weren’t very satisfactory renditions then and time has staled them. It’s too bad. Lacking the Attic new comedy, these plays are the archetypes of formal comedy from Japan, China and India to Hollywood or the Berliner Ensemble. You’d never know it. I doubt if the peculiar rhythms of Plautus, a little like a clodhopper Paul Fort, could be rendered in any other language but his own, not even the Latin of two generations later. However, somebody, some day, should be able to transmit something of his muscular tension and his vibrant guts. There’s nothing of it here. There’s nothing of Terence, either. He had the disposition of an exquisitely cultivated and subtly sarcastic hairdresser. God knows, there’s still enough people like that running around, but I guess they don’t read Latin, though quite a few write English.

Hubert Creekmore is a most conscientious translator, but he never catches the iron ring of Juvenal. He does get across the bitter flavor of his ironic bawdry and he picks up most of the jokes and manages to be quite funny. Like the rest of these translators some of his wittiest passages owe their effect to their wry commentary on the Latin, and so go past those who don’t have the original tongue. I’m afraid we’ll just have to face it for a while yet — the best translator of Juvenal is still Sam Johnson.

This is what’s missing in all this stuff, the clang of Roman iron on Roman bronze. From Dryden to Johnson the English Augustans may not have had the genuine Roman temper but they could manage a reasonable facsimile thereof. I am inclined to think that if we had diagnostic instruments of sufficient sensitivity we would discover that Roman and American civilizations are as unlike as any two great imperialisms in history.

French civilization is like, but in a minuscule way and ineffectively. France is always striving to become a petty Rome, to the distraction of the rest of Europe. For this reason a showy job of well-bred vulgarisation like Pierre Grimal’s The Civilization of Rome catches something that the most learned Latinate American might miss — the spirit of Roman formalism, legalism and gloire. These of course are French vices and they are only minor Roman virtues, but at least they’re Roman. So Grimal’s book gives the feeling of Roman culture or at least a portion of it. The reader comprehends even if he does not understand. Roman civilization was based upon law, on a clearly defined hierarchy of values and as clearly defined a hierarchy of power. It was pessimistic because it was rigidly traditional. At the end the original endowments of Roman civilization were still there; they had only withered. In the entire structure of the culture there had been no significant growth. Whatever novelties had occurred had been purely formal. The first large-scale genuine novelty, Christianity, that intruded into the structure exploded it. The interrelationships of the basic values of the culture were likewise formal as were the spiritual relationships of actual men. What this means in literature is that the literature was rhetorical — that is what rhetoric is.

It is hardly necessary to point out to my fellow citizens at this late date that American civilization is polyvalent, experimental, optimistic, fluent, and sensuous like the Greek and the basic relationships of its society are at least dynamic and strive to become organic. It’s easy enough to translate this into a literary esthetic. So translated, it is obvious on inspection that we are dealing with something which can never be put in a one-to-one relationship with the items of the Roman worldview. The relevance of this conclusion to the difficulties of translating Roman verse into American is patent.



This review of various translations from Latin poetry and drama originally appeared in The Nation (1969) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1970. Reprinted here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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