Horace and the Art of Archery: the Perils of Poetry in Translation

Poetry has always been one of the shining threads in the weave of my life. I love so many poets, from Homer to Dickinson, John Donne to Elizabeth Browning, Alexander Pope to Bob Dylan. It’s been so powerful that I have literally learned an entire language just to read certain poems in the original (Beowulf!). I even have poems memorized in all six languages I currently read. So I thought I’d share a post that will ideally encourage even anti-poetry readers to rethink approaching poetry, but will also demonstrate why it makes such a difference to read a poem in its original language.


Horace is my favorite example of the importance I place in reading a poem in the original. I first came across Horace in my freshman year of college, in English translation. He was…meh. About two years later, I read him in Latin.


And I suddenly understood why Horace has remained one of the best lyric poets in 2500 years of Western poetic history.


Let me give you an example from Horace’s famous Ode 1.5. Here are the first two lines in the 1960 English translation of Joseph Clancy:


What slim and sweetly scented boy
Presses you to the roses


So, ok, nothing too special here yet. We’ve got a trope well established in the ancient world: a “what boy/girl” romantic scene that seems pretty typical, although the sensory notes (the visual roses and the fragrant scent) add a nice touch. But let’s look at these two lines in Latin and see what we’re missing in English:


Quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa
perfusus liquidis urget odoribus


Quis= ‘who,’ or in this case, ‘what’

multa= goes with “in rosa,” meaning ‘amongst the many roses’

gracilis= ‘slender,’ describing the boy, “puer”

te= ‘you’

perfusus= ‘covered in,’ referring to the boy

liquidis= ‘liquid,’ with “odoribus,” ‘odors,’—meaning ‘perfume’

urget= to ‘press,’ or ‘urge’

So a literal translation reads like this:


What many slender you boy amongst the roses
Covered in liquid presses odors


That doesn’t make too much sense in English, so Clancy’s translation cleans that up to fit English syntax for us. (Take a look at Clancy’s translation again.) But now, take a closer look at those lines in their original format:


What many slender you boy amongst the roses
Covered in liquid presses odors


See something new, now? The roses envelope the whole scene. The slender boy envelops “you,” with “liquid odors (perfume)” wafting around himself and “you.” In the center of it all, the word “you” is being pressed by the boy. Here’s a scan of my little handwritten diagram:


"You" is the center of the target, towards which everything else presses.
“te” (‘you’) is the center of the target, towards which everything else presses.


See the target it forms? “Urget” is a strong word, but in this position you can almost feel the result of it yourself. It has gained additional strength by centering onto “you,” which is in turn surrounded by the one doing the pressing, the boy.


This is not easily translatable into English. The vast majority of translators cannot or choose not to incorporate this gorgeous little facet of the poem because it doesn’t work in English. And this is only one example of the various qualities that can get lost in translation.


Thankfully, if you’re not willing to learn another language just to read that tradition’s poetry, there are mounds of excellent poems in English. (In fact, my incomparable colleague Ernest Hilbert is releasing his second book of sonnets, All of You on the Good Earth, in March. Here’s a shameless plug and link to his first book, because he really is inimitable.)


What are some of your favorites, in English or otherwise?


36 Comments Add yours

  1. sal c says:

    just wanted to know if anyone has interest in old books, i am in brooklyn n.y.

  2. sal c says:

    and also i see what i just wrote and it dont show my email, its cuc73@aol.com ,hav old books and with dust jackets

  3. jaimemi1 says:

    English, as a language is not able to express such targets… My native language is Spanish, and the original text makes more sense….

    1. Who is your favorite Spanish-language poet?

  4. Gregg says:

    To Autumn by John Keats

    Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
    With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
    To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
    And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
    And still more, later flowers for the bees,
    Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

    1. I’m a big fan of Keats. Don’t even get me started on 2nd Gen Romantics!

  5. privatepop says:

    I think you would make a good Bible student because you need to examine every word in a verse and then compare that with other verse that use the same words to finally arrive at a proper understanding. If He will.

    1. I’ve read some of the NT in Koine, so I know what you are referring to. I think ancient Greek is the most beautiful language I’ve studied.

  6. vanbraman says:

    Thanks for a great article on the difficulties of translating poetry. You gave a great example. Since most people expect poetry to rhyme, it is especially difficult to get the exact sense of the original in a translation.

    1. Different cultural traditions have different expectations. For example rhyming is not at all necessary in Japanese poetry, but particularly in the Heian period punning is key.

  7. Jeff says:

    Very interesting. I have studied a great deal of French and German and am very familiar with translations into English that are not literal. In fact, German language is built so that it allows a speaker/writer to put the words of a sentence in any order that he/she may choose. Talk about crazy syntax! For example: “Den Mann Beisst der Hund” and “Der Hund Beisst den Mann” both mean “The dog bites the man” -even though the words are in a different order. This flexible syntax mechanism is all made possible by strict grammatical rules involving the endings of words.

    1. Yes, that is how Latin works, too. From my study of German (which is small), its cases are not quite as elaborate as Latin’s, and there’s usually slightly more adherence to specific syntax than Latin out of convention, but same principle.

      1. Jeff says:

        Yeah, there are only four cases in German: Nominative, Accusative, Dative, and Genitive. However, I think Latin has 7 cases:The Nominative, Dative, Accusative, Genitive, Ablative, Locative, and Vocative! That is ridiculous!

  8. Michael says:

    I love to write short little poems for my wife to cheer her up when she is having a tough day at work. Most are comical but all show my affection for her. Not to sound to cliché but I do like reading Robert Frost and the “Road Not Taken” has been reread over and over in this household. To paraphrase Frost, “It has made all the difference.

    1. Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening was always my favorite Frost.

  9. Jeffrey Yoders says:

    “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Marlowe and “The Nymph’s Reply” by Marlowe.

    1. Jeffrey Yoders says:

      Errr Raleph. “The Nymph’s Reply” by Ralegh.

  10. Jason Hu says:

    My favorite poet is William Blake, I remember the first poem I ever memorized was The Tyger, But, I’d say George Gordon is a close second. My favorite poem however is Li Bai’s “Chuang qian ming yue guang”. My favorite epic poem is The Odyssey. I actually think I one up you Ms. Romney because I traveled back to the 8th century BC (or BCE) to hear it in it’s original Ancient Greek. Unfortunately, I do not understand Ancient Greek so you know…

    1. The Tyger was one of the first poems I memorized, too. It’s got a driving rhythm and comfortable rhyming scheme so it practically memorizes itself.

  11. Paul says:

    The Latin construct seems only possible to me in a language that allows declensions (sp. ? – in french it’s ‘declinaisons’). As soon as word position implies relationship – you’re done for. Maybe Russian or German speakers have an easier time?

    1. Yes, it has declensions. The Romance languages lost theirs, for the most part.

  12. Paul Lampe says:

    T.S. Eliot, of course. Dylan Thomas. Wallace Stevens. While I am a huge Bob Dylan fan (owner of every album and numerous bootlegs), I hesitated to call him a poet – though he is poetic in his best lyrics.

    1. I’m pretty elastic with my definition of poetry.

  13. saharris says:

    My wife is able to enjoy the poetry of Pablo Neruda as well as the novels of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende in their native language.

    Try as it might, I don’t know if the English language will ever outshine the pen of Shakespeare.

    For my part, I’ve always wanted to read Dante and Homer in their original forms, but I think that for the ultimate, I’m most desirous to learn Japanese, and to experience the simplicity of haiku and especially the depth of jisei as they were written.

    1. As I learned to my chagrin, you have to be incredibly well-versed in Japanese to read haiku/tanka with much understanding. I say this from my own experience, which relies heavily on other scholars who point out linguistic issues I can’t see from personal study–like the fact that one word can connote so many different things. Japanese poetry often relies strongly on the symbolism of particular words, particularly kigo.

  14. William says:

    Your Odes 1.5 made me think of its model, Catullus 8.

    Catullus 8.16-18:
    quis nunc tē adībit? cui vidēberis bella?
    quem nunc amābis? cuius esse dīcēris?
    quem bāsiābis? cui labella mordēbis?

    Note the dancing declension, as we get the girl’s hypothetical new lover in the Nominative, Dative, Accusative, and Genitive cases. This boy will come to her, he’ll be seen by her, she will love him, and she will profess it in words.

    He will have her in all of these ways, followed by being the tangible direct object quem she kisses, and then the one for whom cui she engages the passion to which the narrator has lost access. The kisses of basiare are Roman slang of the sort only bohemian lovers use. The lip-biting speaks for itself — it is not the sort of thing we get anywhere else in Republican literature.

    The narrator’s obsession has devolved from hard-line resolve to intimately interested conjecture. The poet rolls back the declension as well, culminating in the nominative tu. He closes the poem by reaffirming the stance that had broken down in his reverie, but no one believes him anymore. The question is whether we believe Horace at the close of 1.5.

    1. Thanks for this. I adore Catullus. (My senior thesis was on Catullus 64.)

      I didn’t get into the rest of 1.5, obviously, but for me the first two lines are only a small taste of the amazing things to come. There are so many good things in there, including the question you end with. Love it.

      1. William says:

        Naturally I remember your work on Ariadne’s lament. I’m just pleased that you are still excited by these poets and are now sharing your gift for exegesis.

        1. Holy. Cow. Holy cow! It’s the guy who taught me everything I wrote in this post! So funny that I didn’t realize it before. How are you??

          Of course I am also charmed that you recall my thesis that well. Consider it a deep compliment to your teaching that I retain so much enthusiasm for the subject.

  15. jason says:

    Finnegan’s Wake must be insanely difficult to translate. I have anxiety thinking about it. I’d like to learn French well enough to read Rimbaud and Baudelaire… I’d like to hear them read aloud in French just to get a sense of the rhythms. I know Ashberry has done some recent translations of Rimbaud in the journal Poetry.

  16. Paul Lampe says:

    ‘Just curious’ questions: Where did you go to school (college, graduate, and otherwise) and what was your field of study? I am slightly envious that you’ve such an erudite job. I drifted away from a blind passion of all things literary years ago following my master’s thesis on the implied conservative social beliefs of the Pearl Poet, though “honi soit qui mal y pense” is forever burned into my psyche (but these days I tend to hear it in John Cale’s voice).

  17. Lavon says:

    It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d definitely donate to this outstanding blog! I guess for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my
    Google account. I look forward to brand new updates and will talk about this site with my Facebook group.
    Chat soon!

    1. Thank you, that’s much appreciated! I’d consider it plenty of a donation if you spread the word.

  18. Will says:

    I fell in love with Horace while studying Latin in college. I’d have to say my favorite is Odes 1.9:
    Vides ut alta stet nive candidum
    Soracte, nec iam sustineant onus
    silvae laborantes, geluque
    flumina constiterint acuto.

    Dissolve frigues ligna super foco
    large reponens atque benignius
    deprome quadrimum Sabina,
    o Thaliarche, merum diota.

    Permitte divis cetera, qui simul
    stravere ventos aequore fervido
    deproeliantis, nec cupressi
    nec veteres agitantur orni.

    Quid sit futurum cras fuge quaerere, et
    quem Fors dierum cumque dabit lucro
    appone, nec dulcis ameres
    sperne puer neque tu choreas,

    donec virenti canities abest
    morosa. Nunc et campus et areae
    lenesque sub noctem susurri
    composita reqetantur hora,

    nunc et latentis proditor intimo
    gratus puellae risus ab angulo
    pignusque derptum lacertis
    aut digito male pertinaci.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s