Sunday, May 24, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Jeffrey H. Kaimowitz (trans.), The Odes of Horace. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. xxxi, 173. ISBN 9780801889967. $25.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Paul Franz

In his preface, Jeffrey Kaimowitz (hereafter K.) outlines his two main goals: (1) to produce translations "in verse schemes reminiscent of Horace's meters but firmly based on English prosody," and (2) to produce translations "intended as poems in their own right." (vii) Between these two goals, there is an evident potential for conflict. When K. states his preference for "clarity and comprehension" over strict literalism (e.g. in the rendering of unfamiliar proper names) so long as this can be effected "without sacrificing the overall meaning and movement of the poem," (vii) he suggests that "movement" is preeminent. Unfortunately, as we will see, K.'s excessive identification of "movement" with meter (narrowly conceived), combined with his inadequate command of English prosody, means that neither goal is completely achieved.

Part of the problem stems from K.'s understanding of Latin and English prosody, which his "Translator's Note" treats in terms of the familiar contrast between quantitative and accentual-syllabic metrical systems. Although useful for the beginning student, this shorthand overlooks the many other factors, beyond basic metrics, that influence the prosodic texture of actual poems in Latin and English. Just as the interplay of coincident and conflicting word-accent and ictus arguably deepens this texture in Latin, syllabic length has always played a role in the composition of English poetic lines, albeit more at the level of rhythm than of meter. That is to say, syllabic length -- along with such other factors as syntactic timing, semantic emphasis, and the gradations of lexical stress -- affects the way in which the rhythm of a poetic line interacts with its idealized metrical structure.1

None of these issues is addressed in K.'s "Translator's Note." In fact, beyond a discussion of Horatian word-order -- which K. rightly calls "one of the most characteristic and most untranslatable features" of Horace's poetry (x) -- there is essentially no mention of how a poem's mode of unfolding might sustain, heighten, or qualify its overt meaning. Although K. praises his author's "virtuosity with metrics" (xi), this is mainly in the context of Horace's skill at imitating his predecessors in the Greek lyric tradition. While it is important for K. to point out this indebtedness, it is unlikely that the general reader approaching Horace in translation will find this an appreciable dimension of his poetry. As an example of a more useful approach to this issue, K. might have explained why a given theme led Horace to choose a certain meter, or vice-versa. As it stands, K. leaves his readers with the impression that meter is an independent and separable poetic element, a marker of virtuosity tout court.

This impression is reinforced by the comparative chart K. provides on p. xii of his "Translator's Note," aligning the metrical schemata of Horace's originals with their "reminiscences" of his own devising. What is striking about these reminiscences is less what they reproduce than what they leave out: caesura and anceps. When Horace is captured by the lyric meters of captive Greece, these interruptions and variations in each fixed pattern preserve a measure of freedom. (That is to say, they make allowance for the inventiveness and syntactic mastery that are his genuine freedom.) In contrast, K. begins his work with his wings already clipped. Of all his reminiscences, K.'s Sapphic strophe seems to cause him the greatest difficulty. This is in part because of its persistent trochaic line-endings. All too often, K.'s solution to this problem is to pad the ends of his lines with prepositions, articles, and other typically unstressed monosyllables, resulting in passages like the following (the third and fourth strophes of Ode II.8):

Helpful is the lie that's pledged upon your
mother's buried ashes and on all the
silent stars and sky at night and on the
gods who are deathless.

Venus herself, I say, laughs at this, the
guileless nymphs and cruel Cupid who is
always sharpening burning arrows on his
blood-spattered whetstone.

There are times when this sort of extreme forward movement can be effective; for example, in K.'s version of Ode I.37 (the third line of his Alcaic strophe also ends in a trochee), similar techniques convey aptly the poem's excitement and agitation. That said, the book as a whole gives the impression that this is less a deliberate artistic choice than a convenient shortcut. In the entire volume, I count 99 lines ending with the word "the," plus an additional 26 lines ending in "a" or "an" (22 and 4 respectively) -- an astonishingly high number for such a marked feature. If one were further to factor in all copulas, conjunctions, prepositions, and attributive personal pronouns in line-final position, this tally would be significantly higher. It makes little difference if, as K. insists, "the four-line stanza, not the individual line within each stanza, is regarded as the metrical unit" (xii); the regular repetition of these elements cannot escape monotony.

At the very least, such repetition indicates a lack of formal control, which leads to problems (so to speak) all down the line. Just try scanning the first line of that fourth strophe from Ode II.8 -- "Venus herself, I say, laughs at this, the" -- as K.'s chart prescribes, with a strong stress on the first syllable of "herself" and on "I" instead of "say." Here, as so often elsewhere, the moment the reader adopts a more natural speaking style, the intricate "reminiscence" evaporates. At such moments, a deeper reminiscence -- the voice of the original -- sometimes speaks out with sudden clarity. For K. is generally at his best when his meter is most unobtrusive. Longer lines, in particular, give him room for greater nuance; notable in this regard are I.4, I.11, and III.30, whose First Asclepiad System is rendered as an iambic pentameter, no more, no less. Iambic pentameter also regularly appears in the first two lines of K.'s Alcaic strophe; K. employs this strophe with greatest success in I.9.

And yet, formal constraints are not wholly to blame for the volume's many infelicities of tone, pacing, phrasing, and word-choice. Take, for example, K.'s rendering of Ode III.1's "destrictus ensis cui super impia / cervice pendet" as "For whom the unsheathed saber dangles by / his wicked neck." Here, K.'s poorly chosen "saber" and mistranslation of "super" as "by" conspire to obscure Horace's highly visual evocation of the sword of Damocles. At other times, fussy or archaic word-choices seem inconsistent with the "modern but dignified tone" K. claims to seek (x), such as when we learn how Prometheus "purloined" fire from heaven in I.3, how a fleeing deer grows "heedless of herbage" in I.15, or when, in III.4, the opening strophe's contrast between singing and the lyre is introduced through the antiquated disjunctive "or ... or" construction, where in contemporary English we would say "whether ... or." Similar missteps can seriously distort Horace's tone. Consider K.'s rendering of the final lines of Ode I.1 as "But if you include me with the lyric / bards, with head held high I'll touch the stars." Translating "feriam" as "I'll touch" instead of, say, "I'll strike," is not only lexically inaccurate (Lewis and Short's unconvincing gloss of this passage notwithstanding); it also significantly mutes the original's audacious confidence.

More consistently successful are K.'s detailed explanatory notes, which are generally clear and helpful. High praise is also due to Ronnie Ancona's introduction. Taking as her starting point the idea that "Horace's life and work were deeply influenced by the times in which he lived," (xviii) Ancona deftly synthesizes the known facts of Horace's life and career into an overall narrative from which even experienced readers of Horace may benefit. Her discussion of Horace's artistry in light of his subsequent reception is equally assured. Unfortunately, these aids for the student are not sufficient to recommend this book.

Even K.'s most successful versions cannot match the vigor and lucidity of the poetic renderings by David Ferry, to my mind the best contemporary translation of the complete Odes (plus the Carmen Saeculare, which K. omits). Because K.'s translation (again, unlike Ferry's) leaves out the Latin text, it seems aimed at readers whose knowledge of Latin is either minimal or nonexistent. One important role played by such a translation is to inspire younger readers to study the original's language. I do not envision K.'s work providing this inspiration. Here is a significant missed opportunity. While Ferry's accessible translations convey the excitement of Horace to a considerable degree, they are also very free-wheeling, sometimes adding and omitting material at will. It might have been useful to see his popular version supplemented by one of greater fidelity, yet approaching the same poetic power. K.'s translation does not measure up.


1.   A good introduction to modern comparative prosody may be found in a series of articles by T. V. F. Brogan (especially "Prosody," "Meter," and "Rhythm") in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Preminger, Alex; Brogan, T. V. F. (co-eds); Warnke, Frank J.; Hardison Jr, O. B.; Miner, Earl (assoc. eds). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. For a recent treatment of the contrast between meter and rhythm in English, drawing on examples of poems written in both "closed" and "open" forms, see Ellen Bryant Voigt, "On and Off the Grid: Syntax, Part II," The Kenyon Review, Volume XXVI, Number 3, Summer 2004, pp. 139-159.

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