Thursday, December 24, 2009

Intermissa, Venus, diu rursus bella moves?

I finally found time over Christmas to translate one of the most genial poems ever written, in the Odes of Horace, iv.1:

Venus, you're inciting me to fight wars
that I've long since broken off?
Please, please, I beg you,
I'm not the same man I was
when good Cinara reigned.

Savage mother of cupidinous
joys, stop trying to butter me up.
After five decades I'm quite impervious now
to your seductive commands. Go look
elsewhere, go answer the eager prayers
of the young people who call out to you.

And if you're really looking for a good time,
why not steer your purple-winged swans
to the house of Paulus Maximus? He's
just the right one for you.

He's a decent, well-bred lad
and lets everyone hit on him:
he's really knows what he's doing,
and he'll wave your banners far and wide.

Whenever his rivals show up with
expensive presents, he just laughs all the more.
He'll make a marble statue of you and place it
under a wooden roof made of citrus trees
near the Alban Lake.

At your command you'll be delighted
there with ample frankincense for your nose,
and Berecyntian lyres and flutes, and songs
played with shepherd's pipes.

Twice daily boys and young virgins
will celebrate your divinity there,
with their fair-skinned feet
they'll shake the earth in triple measure
like the Salian priests.

But in my case, neither boys nor women,
nor hopes that mutual love might return,
nor drinking contests, nor killing time
while wreathed in flowers --
none of this does anything for me.

But then why, Ligurinus,
do tears run down my face,
why among these eloquent words
does my tongue fall awkwardly

At nights, when I'm sleeping,
sometimes I hold you fast,
at other times I follow after
as you fly across the grassy Field of Mars,
follow you through the waters,
where you wind your way, unfeeling.

Horace jokes around about being too old for sex, referring Venus instead to her younger neophytes, or to Paulus Maximus (perhaps a Greek friend with a very big dick?!). But the wit and the eloquence skid to a crashing halt at the beginning of the ninth stanza, when the poet without warning shows us the real reason for his reluctance to worship Venus -- a failed relationship with a boyfriend, whom he now addresses, named Ligurinus, who still invades his dreams.

We don't know who Ligurinus was, or whether Horace really followed him into the Tiber or just had a strange dream about it, but it hardly matters. What started as a comically conventional renunciation of sexual activity by a poet who thinks he's getting too old for it transforms into a howl precipitated by love's sorrow.

I've translated the poem fairly literally. The Latin original is
here. What's fun about translating Latin poetry is that it comes from an age when, as gradually again in our own, Christian proprieties about sex don't obtain. What's frustrating is that Latin has a distinctive language architecture that simply does not work well in any Germanic language.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very good translation, bravo. I am just discovering the world of Horace, and I am very much into bridges (building, or acknowledging lack thereof) between languages: Romance, Germanic, and even Slavic.