Roman drinking bowl, 1st Century BCE
Unknown, Roman, Bowl, 1st Century BCE, terra sigillata. Mead Art Museum

Introduction by Anthony Ornelaz

I first met Professor Kirun Kapur back in the fall of 2019, in Writing Poetry I, a course where we did just that—write poetry. Under the guidance of Professor Kapur, an accomplished poet and translator, the class worked so well together that many of us followed her into Writing Poetry II—Poetry in Translation.

From the beginning, Professor Kapur exposed us to some of humanity’s greatest poets and their poetry. The likes of Sappho, Horace, Homer, and Mirza Ghalib, to name a few, came to life in our workshop sessions. As we dissected each other’s translations every week, we debated how to bring a foreign language to life in our own languages. Our discussions helped us realize when some of our translations became too rigidly literal or crossed into something totally divergent from the original poem. Soon, we were speaking the jargon of amateur translators, distinguishing metaphrase from paraphrase, and enjoying our playful renditions of past poems.

Professor Kapur also had us produce original work. It was here we began to see what translating was doing to us as poets. We routinely worked in an area that was, simply, lost in translation, and what emerged through translating was a sensitivity. When words and meanings passed through the disorienting space between two languages, we often found poems stripped of their poetic emotions. We learned that it is our job as translators not only to look for local approximations to words but also to reinvent that lost poeticness in our own language. We worked to ensure that our translated poems carried as much meaning and feeling as English would allow in order to do justice to a given poem. This sensitivity expanded our understanding of the associations that any singular word possessed, and it made us feel how the words, lines, and stanzas worked together to create art.

We present to you here a collection of four translations of Ode I, 37 (often called “The Cleopatra Ode”) which we completed towards the end of the course. Ode I, 37 celebrates the triumph of Caesar’s (Octavian) Roman Empire over the Eastern court of Cleopatra. However, it is far from a straightforward commemoration of victory. This poem is particularly interesting to translate because of its dramatic shifts and contradictory sympathies, leaving the reader to wonder about the nature of triumph and defeat. The central challenge of this assignment is the seeming incompatibility between the relatively rigid English grammar and the flexible Latin word order. Horace creates tension between two kinds of meaning–one implied by the position of words on the line and another dictated by the grammar. One of the ways he does this is by separating subjects and objects. Thus, “in triumph”  (triumpho) applies to Caesar grammatically, but is separated from him across lines and line breaks, diluting the connection. Instead, that triumph becomes associated with Cleopatra by its position close to her on the line. So, grammatically and factually, Caesar clearly rules the poem in triumph. However, as we read, a second meaning emerges: it’s Cleopatra who is positioned closest to triumph, as though, in defeat, she has achieved a different sort of victory.

Ranging from “close” translations to innovative interpretations of the original, this folio showcases the work of Ari Robinson, Helen Feibes, Brenna Macaray, and myself as we took on the challenge of bringing one of Horace’s great works into English.

 

Original Text 

(interlinear translation available here)

Horace Ode I, 37

Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero

pulsanda tellus, nunc Saliaribus

ornare pulvinar deorum

tempus erat dapibus, sodales.

 

antehac nefas depromere Caecubum

cellis avitis, dum Capitolio

regina dementis ruinas

funus et imperio parabat

 

contaminato cum grege turpium

morbo virorum, quidlibet impotens

sperare fortunaque dulci

ebria. sed minuit furorem

 

vix una sospes navis ab ignibus,

mentemque lymphatam Mareotico

redegit in veros timores

Caesar ab Italia volantem

 

remis adurgens, accipiter velut

mollis coumbas aut leporem citus

venator in campis nivalis

Haemoniae, daret ut catenis

 

fatale monstrum; quae generosius

perire quaerens nec muliebriter

expavit ensem nec latentis

classe cita reparavit oras;

 

ausa et iacentem visere regiam

vultu sereno, fortis et asperas

tractare serpentes, ut atrum

corpore combiberet venenum,

 

deliberata morte ferocior;

saevis Liburnis scilicet invidens

privata deduci superbo

non humilis mulier triumpho.

 

Translation by Ari Robinson

Cleopatra’s Ode

Drink now, in revelry

pound the earth with

dancing feet.

With the priests of Mars 

and deity-bedecked couches—

A feast

 

Before, to fetch those vintage

Caecuban wines from the storerooms

was to sin

while the Queen,

drunk with destruction

marched to the Capitol.

Anathema to the Empire

 

her herd of plagued,

repulsive soldiers

vainly believing in

their fortune

 

Scarcely one ship not

wreathed in flames

her mind, corrupted

with wine

the Queen

suddenly gripped in fear—

Caesar comes from Italy

 

His swift fleet, 

oars propelling him, 

the Hawk chasing Doves

the flying Hare

snared by a Hunter on

snow-laden peaks

 

Shackling the prodigious creature

who sought a nobler death

not dismayed by his sword 

not fleeing with her fleet

to sheltered shores

 

She, who glared at her crumbling palace 

unflinchingly.

A calm, resolved disposition

she seized serpents 

her blood now drinking black poison 

like wine before

 

In death, she was more fierce

despising his fleet

wanting not to be paraded

uncrowned

before a jubilant roaring crowd

 

Note: I was a little overwhelmed upon initially reading the trot (literal translation) for Horace Ode I, 37, which was marked with countless arrows showing verbs that referred to objects on previous lines. Because of this, I decided to first reword the trot into phrases that would be somewhat colloquial in modern English, yet not losing the foreign feel of the trot. My final poem ended up being very close to that rewording. When I gauged my reaction to some previous translations of this piece, cutting such things as Cleopatra staring at her palace, I decided I wanted my narrative and line spacing to be as close to the original as possible. However, I used syntax that is more familiar to a modern English speaker. Where I was unable to achieve the repetition of the “nunc, nunc, nunc,” in Latin, I attempted to get across a similar marching feel with line breaks. My translation has a similar number of lines and stanza breaks to the original. Most word additions in the translation involve a reference to either Cleopatra or Caesar, which the Latin can accomplish in fewer words.

 

Translation by Anthony V. Ornelaz

Cleopatra’s Ode

Triumph!

Drink the sweetness of victory for our ancestors smile on us.

Let the music of our feet shake Pluto’s house

And let our feasting make Mars proud and envious.

 

Triumph!

For our great people proved virtuous

In the face of Cleopatra’s lustful grasp.

Our wine stocks kept beautiful—ready for the day when our Empire could see light once more.

 

Joyous,

That this queen of queens drank herself stupid and

Her, infectious, odious procession of half-men

Clouded her dreams of conquest.

 

Joyous

Is the queen’s stumble, for her ships meet our fire.

What she used to wage war lay ravaged by our hand—

The hand of Caesar!

 

Resolute

Our Caesar flew like a keen-eyed hawk

To capture the dove-like Cleopatra.

His goal—to chain treachery itself.

 

Resolute.

This woman. She displayed no fear 

Facing sword, slander, and a blackened future. Her regal shoulders bore it all.

This is Nobility.

 

Triumph!

Though her lands lay ruined—she faced the Empire of men.

The gods looked on in silent reverence

As, with careful-pride, she drew the Asps in and let their liquid trace her veins.

 

Triumph!

Cleopatra bowed not to Rome, but to the private honor within.

The spoiled Empire, forever unsatisfied, never receiving its sordid parade. 

Triumph, Cleopatra. Triumph. 

 

Note: This translation attempts to capture what Horace did with ease—confusing expectations. I wanted to do the same, and in so doing, bring to life the power that Cleopatra truly possessed. My translation highlights the failings of Cleopatra’s warring abilities, but at the same time, slowly elevates her godlike resolve in the face of destruction. The Romans control much of the poem, and it would appear that trend would continue through to its end. However, Rome’s victory over Cleopatra was never fully realized because, in her undoing, she found a victory that outlived her and the Empire.

 

Translation by Helen Feibes

Ode I.37, to Cleopatra

Now is the time to drink, to be drunk

to dance and drum the earth

to brighten the air, polish thrones,

bask in the day and feast.

The wine was kept close while she 

circled with that grand idea

of ruin and massacre, but now 

is the time to drink. Her fever passed and

left us untouched; her men, dogs who

drank her disease and stumbled wildly, 

luck liquefied in her head, then spilled

out with the water that sunk her ships;

that woman floating with fever then

drowned to be sobered. He held her 

in the same way a heavy hawk claws

a dove, red blood as red wine 

stains white snow, the hunter to the

hare, his hands untwisting 

chains to be tossed around her

neck;

though she was a sight, the last of her

sunken body dripping with wild thought

not fearing the bite of his blade,

and not seeking any shore, she

looked at her ruin soberly

and stone-faced, as though her throne

still sat beneath her, she held the snakes 

in the same way death held her.

Now is the time to drink, to stain

her veins black and stain the streets, as 

Octavian leads, to pour our wine while

Cleopatra drinks her venom, all

in triumph.

 

Note: I approached the Cleopatra Ode as a translation of the rushing and twisting movement in the narrative and sound of the original Latin. I decided to replace the stanza structure with a continuous form and to focus on parallels in language that keep the poem moving and turning. I followed the hawk/dove and hunter/hare parallel and let it carry me to “she held the snakes / in the same way death held her.” As the original begins literally with “now drinking is to be done,” I wanted to tap into the parallels of being drunk on celebration, drunk with war, and drinking poison. It was a way I felt I could connect pieces of the poem and introduce new words while moving alongside the original rather than away from it. I aimed to not delete or add so much as mold what was already there in a new way: a personal favorite would be “luck liquified in her head, then spilled / out with the water that sunk her ships,” which combines separate but connected images crossing two stanzas in the original. 

 

Translation by Brenna Macaray

Horace, Ode 1

Now we must drink, now we must beat

the earth with feet flying  —

bless war with revelry, our libations wild 

with dancing now — when 

no wild mirth could live 

while still lived the mad queen.

Her stomach hungering for destruction,

devastation in her wake 

with her rabid herd, she led onward

repulsiveness itself:

Honey-thick luck on her lips, pouring 

from out of her mouth —

How her eyes focused from

their intoxicated madness too late:

when one by one her ships sank

so did her whirling frenzy 

as fury sliced the air, hawklike

to pierce doves’ wings and hares’ throats 

with talon-chains and draw thick blood,

a monstrous Thing.

The hare’s red eyes, unblinking 

stare back into that void.

Her beating heart drinks fang-poison —

blood and breath mere elements 

transformed, to fuel her steely radiance.

No talons will pierce this throat and drag the limp 

carcass away, 

it buries itself in the dark earth,

triumphant. 

Note: With this translation, I wanted to allow myself more divergence from the original for a couple of reasons — this poem has been translated into English many times over, and I wanted to bring across an essence of intensity that I thought could most effectively be achieved by going in a more “modern” direction. To me, the standout aspect of the original was its tension and pure vigor, and the shift in the poem towards a portrayal of Cleopatra as blood-chillingly calm and resolved in the end, triumphant in death. I abstracted Caesar himself into his metaphor, more a force than a character, because I wanted the focus here to be that force, both on his side and Cleopatra’s. Cleopatra’s transformation and character, I tried to portray with as much punch as I could. Above all, what I wanted to bring to the front in my translation was the original’s intensity of language, and I tried to take the end of the poem as solidly in that direction as I could, using the strength of the original imagery.