Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 25.


J. D. McClatchy (ed.), Horace: The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets. Facing Pages. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002. Pp. 312. ISBN 0-691-04919-X. US$16.95.

Colin Sydenham (tr.), Horace: The Odes. New Verse Translation with Facing Latin Text and Notes. London: Duckworth, 2005. Pp. vii + 287. ISBN 0-7156-3431-3. UK£16.99.

Suzanne Sharland,
Classics Programme, University of KwaZulu-Natal,
Durban, South Africa

Do we need new translations of Horace’s Odes? This is a question that a reviewer of two relatively recent volumes of such translations must necessarily ask. While one’s immediate knee-jerk reaction may well be ‘no’, deeper reflection may suggest that as tastes, fashion, and the English language itself are constantly changing, so new translations of canonical Classics (in both senses) will probably always be needed in order to make such texts accessible to a new generation of readers.[[1]] But what we certainly don’t need is a new set of crib-notes. For the answer to my initial question to be affirmative, any new translations of Horace’s Odes on the market should ideally be innovative interpretations of the poems that contribute something not only to the understanding of Horace’s Odes but also to the enjoyment of his lyric poems. Simply put, to justify their existence the translations need to be good.

The volumes which I am reviewing come from both sides of the Atlantic: one is an American volume edited by J.D. McClatchy which offers new translations of Horace’s Odes by a variety of contemporary poets; the other is a British edition by Colin Sydenham, who does all the translations himself. In both volumes, the reader is provided with copies of the original Latin text of Horace’s lyric poems on the left-hand page and parallel English translations on the right, a helpful arrangement in an age when not everyone who might be interested in reading the Odes has studied Latin at school or university. Even where the casual non-specialist reader has some Latin under his or her belt, Horace’s curiosa felicitas and his brilliant economy of words can, ironically, make his language quite difficult. On the other hand, for readers with no Latin at all, the presence of the original text is important, at least so that they are reminded that what they are reading is a translation, and was not written in English. With no original text present, it is easy for readers of a translation to forget this.

While at first glance they may appear strikingly similar, the two works are, in fact, very different, in their modus operandi, their aims, and their target audiences. McClatchy’s book is the fruit of a remarkable project which involved persuading a number of fairly senior, established, and published American poets to translate Horace’s Odes themselves. Apparently, a few of the poets approached by McClatchy declined the undertaking, citing ‘fuzzy memories’ of the Latin classrooms of their youth (p. 6), but the majority, incredibly, rose to the challenge. Each of the poets was given a handful of poems scattered across the lyric corpus to work with. The result is an interesting, readable volume which includes a variety of different ‘voices’ rendering Horace into contemporary English. McClatchy warns the reader that while there is accordingly not the consistency that one would get with only one translator of Horace’s Odes, the advantage of this approach is that a number of ‘different imaginative energies’ have all contributed to the joint project (p. 5). Indeed, it is the differences in the individual styles and interpretations of the thirty-six translator-poets involved in the project that make this work exciting: variety, after all, is the spice of life, and it was also a feature of Horace’s genius as a poet.

In his introduction (pp. 1-13), McClatchy appropriately adopts a quiet, resigned, bittersweet tone that strikes one as deliberately ‘Horatian’. The target audience of McClatchy’s volume appears to be one relatively advanced in age, comprising for the most part people who once studied Latin and Horace, then moved onto other things, and are now ready to have their curiosity about Horace rekindled (p. 2). Indeed, McClatchy notes that Horace’s lyric poetry appeals particularly to the mature palate (p. 2). Suggesting that the Odes are often wasted on the young, he bemoans the fact that ‘the classroom ruins Horace’ (p. 1). Yet closer inspection reveals that this has mainly been due to the imperious, uncompromising style of instruction adopted by many Latin teachers in the past. McClatchy provides an apt example from literature of the sarcastic, terrible Latin master of yore forcing ‘Horace’ down the throats of his reluctant charges (p. 1). As amusing as it is, this stereotyped portrayal is somewhat dated -- no teacher would get away with such behaviour today, in the age of student evaluations and the like, nor in most cases would they want to do so. Most present-day Latin teachers are mild-mannered creatures who are willing to bend over backwards to advance their subject. McClatchy’s putative audience, however, does seem to be readers old enough to have experienced the old fashioned style of teaching first-hand.

McClatchy nevertheless rejoices that some readers are fortunate enough to ‘return to Horace later in life and find what they could not earlier see -– a whole world elegantly suspended in poems that brim with a wisdom alternately sly and sad’ (p. 2). To understand the Odes, he argues, there has to be ‘a certain need, a certain knowingness that comes with age’ (p. 2). The first three books of Odes were a product of Horace’s late thirties and early forties, with the fourth book a decade later than the other three. McClatchy attributes their style and tone to Horace’s advancing age rather than to any generic considerations: ‘That a poet who began as a cynical satirist should next turn to the creation of exquisite lyrics may just signal a poetic gift coming at last to its true maturity’ (p. 9). The Epistles, however, are even later than the majority of the Odes yet they have more in common with the Satires (both the Satires and the Epistles are called sermones, ‘conversations’). In the Odes, Horace does go on a lot about aging, but then it is not necessarily personal: he is following the example of Greek lyric predecessors such as Mimnermus. Genre and persona, in terms of modern theory, have more influence on the tone of a work than the chronological age of the author. But then McClatchy is thinking and writing as a poet, not as a theorist, and in the introduction to a work such as this, we can certainly allow him a little poetic licence.

Colin Sydenham, on the other hand, is well informed about things like persona theory, as befits the Secretary of the British Horatian Society (which even includes a subset of versifying Flaccidi and Flaccidae, p. viii) In the introduction to his translation of Horace’s Odes, Sydenham cautions his readers against taking at face value everything that Horace tells us in his poems: ‘It is tempting to suppose that their people and events represent genuine people and events in Horace’s life. It is wise to remember, however, that this is at best unknowable, and perhaps an illusion. Horace is a master of image manipulation, and what he shows us is what he wants us to see. Where events are real he presents them in literary dress . . . ’ (p. 3). The reason for the didactic tone is that Sydenham’s book is aimed, on his own confession, primarily at the non-specialist (‘inexpert’) reader of Horace: ‘This book is principally designed for the inexpert, the reader who has encountered Horace’s reputation, and wishes to know what he says in the Odes, but who has no Latin, or not sufficient to tackle them in the original’ (p. 4). Since he is aiming at the non- specialist reader, Sydenham has sensibly included the following with his text and translation of the Odes: short introductory pieces at the start of each book placing what follows in its context, brief but informative notes at the back of the book dealing with mythological and other issues that may confuse a lay audience, and three appendices providing additional information on a number of selected topics. In his introduction to the first book of Odes, Sydenham even advises the reader which poems are easiest for the newcomer to Horace to tackle first (p. 11). As such, Sydenham’s book, despite all his protests to the contrary, is probably the better one of the two under review here for use in a classroom context, where, for instance, Horace’s Odes (heaven forbid!) are being studied in translation. Such a situation is admittedly not ideal, especially with a poet like Horace, but unfortunately it is fast becoming a reality for Classics, with the increasing popularity of Classical Civilisation classes. Likewise, where a Latin class for example reads only one or two books of the Odes in the original, a teacher may encourage the learners to catch up on the rest of the Odes in translation. For these students, Sydenham’s book would be useful.

Whereas, due to the nature of his particular project, the translations in McClatchy’s volume vary greatly in their style and in the degree to which they are literal or free renditions of the Latin, the virtue of Sydenham’s solo authorship of his translations is that they are more uniform in this regard, and are therefore probably a lot easier for students to use, especially where they need to compare individual Odes. Sydenham also imitates Horace’s discipline as a poet in his use of set English poetic metres to translate the poems. The innate differences between the Latin language with its inflections, flexible word order, and quantity-based verse, and the English, which relies on word order for meaning and has a preference for stress-based poetry, means that the metres Sydenham employs cannot be identical with the ones in which Horace wrote; however, he notes that he has striven as far as possible for consistency (p. 7). Indeed, he has gone far further in conformity to the disciplined ideal of metre than most modern translators; remarkably, Sydenham has his own English equivalent for each of the different metres that Horace uses (p. xi). Yet, in spite of Sydenham’s use of rhyme (often viewed as quite ‘uncool’ by modern poets and contemporary students), the results are generally not stilted.

Sydenham includes in his introduction a section where he sets out his philosophy of translation, outlining what he sees as the translator’s duties to the author, the reader and to him or herself (pp. 3-6). This is a revealing section that should be prescribed reading for students majoring in Translation Studies. Sydenham also notes (p. 6) that it is important not to try to brush over the great differences between ourselves and the ancient world that are often revealed in texts like Horace’s Odes, particularly where ancient attitudes are sometimes embarrassing to modern sensibilities. Sydenham supplies a list of topics (from gods to patriotism to slaves to animals) on which the ancients tended to hold views which go against contemporary ‘political correctness’, and he feels strongly that the reader should be allowed to see these attitudes as they are: ‘The reader is entitled to survey such differences through clear glass; the occasional temptation is to tint with rose’ (p. 6). Sydenham himself is rather apologetic for those odes in which Horace attacks aging women (p. 6), but of course these are not meant to be taken seriously.

Both editions have included the Carmen Saeculare with the books of Odes, in both cases in its chronological position between the end of the third and the start of the fourth book, with McClatchy titling his version the ‘Centennial Hymn’, and Sydenham calling his the ‘Secular Hymn’ (any confusion potentially arising from the common contemporary meaning of ‘secular’ is mitigated by Sydenham’s introduction to the poem, where he explains the meaning of the term in this context, p. 181). These arrangements make sense, as the Carmen Saeculare is part of the lyric genre. The shift of focus from the personal to the national arena that this public ode occasions, anticipates the increased political and Augustan focus of Horace’s fourth book of Odes. In the American volume the translation of the Carmen Saeculare is by Dick Davis, who, like Sydenham, uses rhyme in his English rendition.

At the beginning of this review I suggested that to be considered worthwhile, new translations of Horace’s Odes should be both innovative and contribute to the enjoyment of the poems. What do I think of the translations themselves? Do they contribute to our enjoyment of the poems, the pleasure of the text, as it were? Although Sydenham’s translations are all fine, and good in a classroom context, personally I find that I have a preference for the more innovative renditions of some of McClatchy’s translators. In fact, I would have liked to have seen even freer translations, and more innovation with vocabulary and punctuation than is on offer in this volume. Particularly enjoyable, though, is Heather McHugh’s free translation of the Pyrrha Ode (1.5), where the sea and hairdressing imagery are cleverly entwined in a love tangle: ‘Who’s caught up in your net today, your coil/of elegant coiffure? He’ll call himself/a sucker soon enough, and often, and rail/at the breakers . . . ’ (p. 29), and the final stanza uses a striking innovation to make the same point that Horace does: ‘ . . . I’ve thrown off the habit, and hung up/my wet suit there (You see? It’s dripping.)’ (p. 29). This is appealing because ‘wet suit’ can refer both literally to Horace’s uvida vestimenta and to the modern sea-going apparel of the wetsuit. The dripping of the wet suit/wetsuit (another valid translation of uvida) indicates the recent emergence of the speaker himself from the clutches of this dangerous woman. And of course the ambiguity in ‘I’ve thrown off the habit . . .’ is simply brilliant. Equally enjoyable is McHugh’s rendition of another femme fatale in the Barine Ode (2.8). Although inexplicably calling her Barina (to emphasise the three syllables in Barine?), McHugh entertainingly renders publica cura at the end of stanza two as ‘you traffic hazard!’ and tua ne retardet/aura maritos at the end of the poem as ‘lest a whiff of your musk in the night waylay/the swaying groom’.

In his foreword to Sydenham’s work, Philip Howard makes the point that while Horace has been translated more often and into more languages than almost any other author, it is the near impossibility of adequately turning these extraordinary poems into other languages that keeps the translators returning to Horace: ‘We keep on trying because it is impossible’ (p. viii). Nevertheless, the challenge of Horace has been admirably met by both the works under review here. They are both good translations. Get them both.


[[1]] Paradoxically, D. S. Carne-Ross & K. Haynes (edd.), Horace in English (London 1996), provides a retrospective selection of English translations of Horace over the centuries.