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.
(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
Drink now, in revelry
pound the earth with
With the priests of Mars
and deity-bedecked couches—
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,
vainly believing in
Scarcely one ship not
wreathed in flames
her mind, corrupted
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
That this queen of queens drank herself stupid and
Her, infectious, odious procession of half-men
Clouded her dreams of conquest.
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!
Our Caesar flew like a keen-eyed hawk
To capture the dove-like Cleopatra.
His goal—to chain treachery itself.
This woman. She displayed no fear
Facing sword, slander, and a blackened future. Her regal shoulders bore it all.
This is Nobility.
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.
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
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
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
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
it buries itself in the dark earth,
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.