September 30, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Some of the primary texts that we study at Harrison Middleton University date back to the Roman Empire. Obviously we use popular translations of these texts, but it is always a worthy exercise to look at the primary texts. Much information can be gained by looking at the original versus the translation.
It is also interesting to note how prevalent Latin is in American society today. For example, the dollar bill, contains the three following phrases. First, “E pluribus unum” often translates to: “Out of many, one.” This unlikely phrase traveled all the way from Virgil’s poems where it originally described a salad. Also on the dollar bill is the phrase “annuit coeptis,” often translated as “He has favored our undertakings.” The “he” mentioned originally referred to Jupiter, but in America, is most often associated with a Judeo-Christian God. The phrase “novus ordo seclorum” can also be located on the seal and often translates to “a new order of the ages.” This nod to both classical influence and Latin language indicates that, at least at the time of its founding, if not continually, America honors and reveres the ancients. If this is true, then a study of classical texts might help us to better understand ourselves. (Another future blog-worthy example would be to question why we name space exploration after Greek deities such as Apollo and Artemis.)
Clearly, ancient literature and languages are important in American culture. While English is considered a Germanic language, more than half of the terms come from Latin. Words like ego, virtue, excellence, and despair all come from Latin.
In order to play more with this ancient language, I have begun some translations with the help of a wonderful Latin instructor, Hugh Himwich, who suggested that I begin with Catullus’s “Odi et amo” (number 85).
The entire poem by Catullus reads:
Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
For my first attempt, I wrote:
Simultaneous love and hate. How?,
you might ask. I don’t know, yet
as a result, I feel immeasurable woe.
Already you see how clunky the English appears. First, I wrote three lines when Catullus only had two. Also, the words simultaneous and immeasurable seem unreasonably long. This poem means to express a passionate emotion, and my translation sounds more like a contemplative analysis of sorrow. Unlike the original, it appears to be removed from experience. However, the Latin poem gives the impression of fire and heat and pain. Finally, Hugh explained that “excrucior suggests a reference to the cross. No Roman citizens were ever crucified. 7000 of the men (all previously slaves) in Spartacus’s army were nailed on crosses along the 90 miles from Rome to Naples. Has Catullus become like a slave?” In other words, Catullus expresses anguish, pain, and torment at the thought of his lover, not “immeasurable woe.”
These issues raise the question of whether one should maintain a faithful, direct translation of the poem, or try to be faithful to the poem’s sentiment. In many cases, the original language may not make sense in the target language. Also, a single word in one language may need many words in the translated language, which adds bulk and distance. For example, the first three words “odi et amo” allow for the subject to be expressed in the verb conjugation. English demands a subject, so we must add the pronoun “I” if we want to be clear.
In an attempt to preserve the emotion, Hugh translates it as:
Hates she I love. Don’t ask!
My tongue’s ripped out.
And after a few dozen revisions, I ended with the following:
Hate what I love. How?! you ask.
Tormented, I do not know.
There is much left to be done, however, so take this opportunity to try a quick translation!
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