I was browsing online recently because I wanted to order another book of Horace’s Odes or maybe his Epistles in my efforts to understand and appreciate the poet more fully. I was scrolling through the always-poorly organized list of items on Amazon’s search page results (selected, it seems, mostly to promote a wide range of unrelated rubbish they want to offload…). Some titles caught my eye (wanting more books is a longtime obsession… and owning many translations of the same work is commonplace with me) but wasn’t sure if I already had that translation. Who can remember all the names and editions?
Some titles may seem unfamiliar, but are they just a different cover from an edition I already had? An earlier print run or later reprint of something already on my bookshelves? Was it a revised edition with corrections and additions?
So, before I ordered anything, even before I went searching online for more information from the publishers, I did a little inventory of my editions of Horace. Here is what I already owned (as of Oct. 11, 2022), listed with publisher/translator/publication or copyright date:
Satires & Epistles:
Oxford Classics – John Davie – 2001
Penguin Classics – Niall Rudd – 1973 rev 2005
Loeb – H.R. Fairclough – 1926 (received last month)
Odes & Epodes:
U of Chicago – Joseph P. Clancy – 1960
Penguin Classics – W. G. Shepherd – 1983
Oxford Classics – David West – 1997
Loeb – Niall Rudd – 2004
Loeb – C.E. Bennett – 1914
Everyman’s Library – Horace: Poems – Paul Quarrie ed – 2016 (various translators) – complete Odes & Epodes, selections from Satires & Epistles (received this month).
Modern Library – James Mitchie – 2002
Farrar Strauss Giroux – David Ferry – 1997
Princeton U Press – J.D. McClatchy ed – (various translators) – 2005
Odes & Satires:
Princeton U Press – Sidney Alexander – 1999 (received this month)
Farrar Strauss Giroux – David Ferry – 2001
Modern Library – ed. Casper J. Kraemer Jr (various translators) – 1936
Farrar Strauss Giroux – Horace and Me: Life Lessons From an Ancient Poet, by Harry Eyres – 2013
I went looking through online sources for other editions including Amazon, Abebooks, and others, I can see there are versions out there not already in my collection. But several bargain editions seem to be rather dated. Christopher Smart’s translation, for example, is from 1767. And not all listings show the translator or date: finding it out sometimes takes extra exploration on other sites, and close examination of the small print on images of covers.
What continues to impress me in all of these translations is how Horace manages to reflect humanity through the intervening millennia, and how these translators worked hard to capture feeling that into English.
Horace has been a challenge for translators for many centuries (since 1566). David West, translator of the 1997 Oxford Classics edition, wrote “Translation of poetry is always impossible but translation of Horace’s Odes and Epodes is inconceivable.” Well, maybe that “inconceivable” was just his nod to The Princess Bride. Clearly such translations have been conceived and accomplished many times over the intervening centuries by a host of people (as the Quarrie edition shows) and continue to be done by modern writers (as seen in the McClatchy edition).
Horace’s Odes contain 103 short poems (Book I: 38; Book II: 20; Book III: 30, Book IV: 15). His Epodes contain 17 poems, Epistles 22 (Book I: 20; Book 2: 2), his Satires 18, plus his Carmen Seculare (aka the Centennial Poem) for Augustus. A total of 161 poems. And, unlike so many other classical authors whose works have been lost wholly or partially, we have all of them. Well, we as in Western libraries, museums, and archives. I, too, have them all, albeit in various more modern editions.
The first poem of Horace’s to be printed in Latin using the new-fangled printing technology that Gutenberg made famous was Ode IV, 7, published in 1465. And even then, that was stuck into the final leaf of a Latin edition of Cicero’s more famous work, On Duty. It wasn’t until 1557 that any of Horace’s Odes saw print in an English translation, and not until 1621 that saw an entire book of his Odes translated. But since then, there have been many editions in print, and many more translators. Paul Quarrie’s selection of Horace’s poems (Everyman’s Library, 2016) includes 62 different translators dating from Francis Bacon to David West. The McClatchy edition of the Odes (Princeton University Press, 2005) includes translations by 35 contemporary poets. So there’s no shortage of translations or, apparently, contemporary translators.
I admit I don’t speak Latin (I can recognize many words, but not more than that, yet I do enjoy that small ability), and I don’t have the educational background to properly assess anyone’s translation from a technical point of view. I can only comment on how different translations speak to me, how they move me, how sometimes these poems reach out to me, how sometimes they leave me cold.
I prefer newer, more modern phrasing, at the very least from the 20th century, over those done earlier. And better yet, I prefer those done in the 21st century, or at least the past three decades. Which leads to my question to anyone else out there who appreciates Horace: am I missing any recent, worthy translations? Book reviews of Horatian poetry in popular media are rare, so I don’t have a lot to go on.
I really reappreciate Rudd and Ferry most of all the editions I own, but who else should I be reading? One poster on the Literature Network forums recommended a two-volume set from The Limited Editions Club, published in 1961, but only in an edition of 1,500 copies. The poems were selected and edited by Louis Untermeyer, but translated by various people. I looked into this, but it’s outside my budget. Damn… it looks like a very nice set.
Meanwhile, I have ordered another book to add to my already overflowing bookshelves, and am considering more (Richard Tarrant’s analysis of the Odes is particularly appealling):
- Staffordshire University Press; The Fleeting Years: Odes of Horace from the Augustan Age of Rome, selected and translated by Stuart Lyons, 1996
Susan indulges me in these obsessions of mine, no doubt with a subtle shake of her head. They are a small cost, not dangerous, and keep me occupied, and still bring a smile to my face when I come across some well-worded lines.
Update, Oct 28: Received The Fleeting Years: Odes of Horace from the Augustan Age of Rome (Staffordshire University Press, 1996) today, translated by Stuart Lyons. English in both blank and rhyming verse, no Latin. Also has excellent endnotes. Plus I added some titles in the comments, below.
In case you want to read more, I’ve written several posts about Horace (and other Roman poets) in the past few years, including: