Shakespeare as Ovid?

My new weblog – ain’t it great?

I was just browsing Shakespeare’s sonnets in Latin — yes, they were published in Latin translation on the cusp of WWI, the life’s work of Alfred Thomas Barton. And of course the first thing you want to know is what he did with the sonnets you’re familiar with. The answer is — Barton triumphed again and again. Eg. the immortal Sonnet 18 —

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Here is Barton’s version:

An similem aestivae pingam te, care, diei?
Haud ita fit constans, haud ita pulchra dies.
Flabra novas agitant, Maio sua gaudia, frondes,
Ac brevis aestivam continet hora moram.
Sol, oculus caeli, nimiis fervoribus ardet
Interdum, aut hebes est aureus ille color;
Pulchraque declinant a pulchro, forte caduca,
Aut quia naturae lex ita flectit iter.
At tibi perpetua est, indeclinabilis, aestas,
Deciderit nulla flos tuus iste die;
Mors nihil ipsa suis de te iactabit in umbris
Carmine in aeterno dum sine fine vires;
Donec homo spirabit enim poteritque videre,
Vivit in hoc vitae carmine causa tuae.

Among so many splendours it’s hard to choose one, but start by noticing, from a purely technical point of view, how Barton several times (and in the right places) manages the rhyme in the pentameter, and all his pentameters end on two-syllable words! And it’s a 100% faithful translation!

But here’s the kicker: I think the translation may be superior to the English original. Compare some couplets:

Mors nihil ipsa suis de te iactabit in umbris
Carmine in aeterno dum sine fine vires;


Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,

Here the literal meaning is identical; but isn’t “vires” more evocative than “grow’st,” since it includes the idea of being fresh and green (in addition to mere life)? Moreover, it echoes the flos of two lines earlier — itself a more real and tangible equivalent of Shakespeare’s vague “that fair thou ow’st.”

Likewise “mors ipsa” (“death itself”) is better than “death,” coming towards the close of the poem: in Latin the poet is able to challenge even death, not just humdrum old English death tout court.


So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


Vivit in hoc vitae carmine causa tuae.

Here the Latin poet can’t bring off the neat complement of “this, and this,” but nonetheless “vivit causa tuae vitae” (“the ‘case’ of your life lives,” where causa is a legal term) is much more evocative than “gives life to thee” — because it brings in the poet again as an impassioned advocate for the person praised, where the English simply mentions the poem as vehicle.

Above all, there is the effect of the flexible Latin word-order. Consider the Bard’s

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

compared to

Ac brevis aestivam continet hora moram.

and forget about the facetiousness of summer subletting us (somehow). The movement of the English line is unidirectional: first we learn that summer is leasing something, and then that that lease is quite short; and once we reach the end of the line we are not much concerned with its beginning.

The Latin, by contrast, uses the agreement of adjective with noun to build a thought which looks both forward and backward. One runs the risk of subjectivity in describing this effect in detail — it’s a bit like playing a record at slow speed to try and figure out the notes; but here’s how I feel it here: the occurance of brevis first tells us we are going to be dealing with something brief, and its being coupled with aestivam in the first half of the line lets us know that brevity and the summer are somehow going to be associated, even as the caesura suspends their relationship temporarily. Then the second half of the line provides first a verb (which tells us that the brief thing is going to be encompassing the summer thing) and then that the brief thing is but an hour (hora), and the thing it contains is a delay (moram). When hora is plopped down into its slot in the jigsaw puzzle, it both fulfils the promise of brevis and provides a subject for the verb; when moram at last rounds out the line, it simultanously gives aestivam something to modify, provides a direct object for the verb, and completes the theretofore unresolved sentence, “And the hour is brief which encompasses summer’s delay.”

In English prose, the full effect could be rendered as something like, “And it’s brief, speaking of summer, the thing which encompasses – the brief hour which encompasses summer’s delay.” When you put that into a sharply defined metrical pattern like the pentameter, the effect is much more beautiful than “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”

But I’m probably already sounding like a heretic in some ears. How can the immortal Bard be upstaged in his own Sonnets by a Victorian dandy? Mais ce n’est pas possible! Something must be wrong! Bard-Worship in danger! Fly, fly!

Yet if we put aside the irrational worship of Shakespeare that permeates our culture — and if you doubt that it’s irrational, you need only note how people who have read some Shakespeare have exactly the same view of him as do those who have never read a blessed word — if we put aside the irrational, I say, what does it signify if the Latin elegiac versions of some of these hallowed sonnets are superior to the English original? Can a translator of poetry actually improve upon it?

Well, I dunno. Apparently he can! At least if he is working in as beautiful a medium as Latin elegy. And perhaps that is the answer: the medium itself triumphs. That is, while the English sonnet struts up and down in hose and codpiece and frilled collar, the Roman couplets sit back in simple shirt and toga, at once dignified and relaxed. Notice how jingly the rhymes, as rhymes, sound in the original when you read them after the unrhymed Latin! And how few syllables the English poet, in spite of his monosyllabic advantages, has at his disposal. But then our English sonneteers were themselves writing in a “foreign” idiom — an Italian one, which in its original language (Italian) had much less room for expansive layering of metaphors à la Bard. Perhaps, with his proto-metaphysical sensibility, Shakespeare was meant to be a Latin poet, in some Hindu sense, and Barton has merely corrected wayward nature.

In any case, you can check out the Latin sonnets and decide what you think!


1 Comment

  1. I am thankful for your explanation on the depth of that single Latin phrase — these days I have trouble know what agrees with what! But it’s certainly provocative to compare these two poems, because it gets to the core of what makes Latin (and similarly structured languages) so different from English. Using Shakespeare to do this (though I am redirecting your intent slightly, I know) seems analogous to climbing the highest mountain in order to talk about breathing; it focuses the mind on the very basics but also on what is at stake.

    While I am all for giving the translation of poetry more respect (each poem, like the architectural idea of the diagram, or like a virus even, could flit between languages seeking its most beautiful embodiment), what really fascinates me here is what must already be common knowledge: the effect of such grammar structures on how the speaker frames his thoughts. Are Latin speakers somehow more flexible, less focused, given to reclining at mealtimes and spreading their food all over the place…?

    Surely there are books that already look into this. I have often wondered if learning French as a young child did anything good for my brain. Since I am now forgetting it (and, looking at modern France, suffering but little remorse), was it all a waste of time?

    But also, as almost everything could, this leads me to wonder whether Latin notions of grammar (where a great tolerance is given to the suspension of meaning/understanding) might help think about Go.

    Perhaps by combining thinking from architectural drawing and Latin grammar/verse we might hit on some new readings (hence ways of playing) for Go games.

    Anyway welcome to the blogosphere! Are you categorizing or tagging your posts right now? I suggest you check out ‘ultimate tag warrior’ as a wordpress plugin, if you haven’t yet. You’ll find a post about that on my blog (use the ‘blog’ tag to find posts about the structure of the blog).

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