There’s a line in one of Horace’s epistles that really caught my eye. In Latin it reads:
Utque sacerdotis fugitiuus liba recuso,
pane egeo iam mellitis potiore placentis
Horace: Epistles, Book I, X
No, I can’t translate it.* However, I was reading David Ferry’s 2001 translation and he renders it like this:
I’m like that slave who ran away because
They fed him honey cakes and he longed for bread.
That appealled to me both for my recent passion for making bread, but also for its philosophic – almost Buddhist – intent.
Ferry gives us both the Latin and English, and I struggle to match the original with the English version. And in doing so, something about his translation bothered me. Something missing.
Wikipedia tells us that Horace’s (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) epistle X is about:
The Advantages of Country Life – (Addressed to Aristius Fuscus, to whom Ode I.22 is also addressed). This epistle begins with Horace contrasting his own love of the country with his friend’s fondness for the town; then follows the praise of Nature; and finally the poet dwells on the superior happiness that moderate means and contentment afford, compared with riches and ambition.
Fine. I understand: Horace is saying he prefers the plain life of the country, not the honey-cake life of the city. He doesn’t need the luxuries and the excesses to be content.
Ferry isn’t a literal translator: more of a poetic one. He’s been acclaimed for that, and criticized for it, too, but I like his work. Many English renditions of Latin poetry come across as stilted and forced, while I find Ferry’s work much smoother and reads more naturally (some call it “approachable”). (Read here how other English-speaking poets have variously tackled Horace)
Still, one Latin word in the original stuck out as missing in translation: sacerdotis.
Sacerdotal is an English adjective relating to priests and the priesthood; priestly. Merriam-Webster gives its origin as, of course, Latin:
Origin of SACERDOTAL
Middle English, from Middle French, from Latin sacerdotalis, from sacerdot-, sacerdos priest, from sacer sacred + -dot-, -dos (akin to facere to make) — more at sacred, do.
First Known Use: 15th century.
The Online Etymological Dictionary gives us this:
sacerdotal (adj.) c.1400, from Old French sacerdotal and directly from Latin sacerdotalis “of or pertaining to a priest,” from sacerdos (genitive sacerdotis) “priest,” literally “offerer of sacrifices,” from sacer “holy” (see sacred) + stem of dare “to give” (see date (n.1)).
Genitive means possessive, one of the forms of declensions of Latin nouns. But priestly slave? Or rather, slave of the priest(s)? Does that make sense? Apparently so. Others have included it.
A.S. Kline (2005) translates this line as:
Seeing I flee sweet wafers like a priest’s runaway
Slave: for it’s bread I want now not honeyed cakes.
And in this un-attributed translation on Authorama, it comes out in prose as:
And, like a priest’s, fugitive slave I reject luscious wafers, I desire plain bread, which is more agreeable now than honied cakes.
And this rather dated translation by John Conington renders it (without writing slave):
Like the priest’s runaway, I cannot eat
Your cakes, but pine for bread of wholesome wheat.
And in another archaic translation at Archive.org it comes out:
Like the priest’s runaway slave, I loathe
sweet wafers; ’tis bread I want, and now prefer to
John Stockdale’s translation from 1787 mentions the priest’s slave:
Like some priest’s slave lately fled,
I spurn sweet cakes and long for bread.
Is the reference to a priest’s slave salient to the translation? Most other translators seem to think so.
Why is a priest’s slave different from any other slave? Is there some deeply-rooted Roman cultural reference here Horace’s original readers would have appreciated without need for explication?
Is there a Roman tale about a runaway slave to which this refers? Or perhaps some commonly held belief that priests’ slaves were more likely to run away? Were the slaves of priests fed more luxuriously than, say, household slaves? Horace must have mentioned the priestly connection for a reason. It seems important.
So why would a translator choose to ignore that reference?
Slavery was commonplace in Roman society. Wikipedia tells us it:
…played an important role in society and the economy. Besides manual labor, slaves performed many domestic services, and might be employed at highly skilled jobs and professions. Teachers, accountants, and physicians were often slaves. Greek slaves in particular might be highly educated. Unskilled slaves, or those condemned to slavery as punishment, worked on farms, in mines, and at mills. Their living conditions were brutal, and their lives short.
Slaves were considered property under Roman law and had no legal personhood. Unlike Roman citizens, they could be subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation (prostitutes were often slaves), torture, and summary execution.
…employed by religious institutions in Babylonia, Rome, and elsewhere. Unless they were ultimately destined for sacrifice to the gods, temple slaves usually enjoyed a much easier life than other slaves. They served in occupations ranging from priestess to janitor.
But beyond such general references to slavery, I have come up empty. I can also find no folktale or Roman story about a runaway priest’s slave, let alone one that refers to food as well.
So I can’t say why Ferry opted to ignore the word. Just that it is like one of those little itches on your back you can’t quite reach to relieve, yet can’t quite ignore. Something just nags at me to say this word matters.
* Not yet anyway. I’ve just begun to learn Latin and my reading is at the See Dick, see Jane level. Or more properly at the Tiberis fluvius est; Tiberis et Nilus fluvii sunt level (from the Lingua Latina first book; Familia Romana). Maybe in a decade or two of study I will be able to tackle Horace.