Odes

odes horace david slavittOdes by Horace, translated with commentary by David R. Slavitt, 2/5

Slavitt sets himself a Herculean task–translating the Latin Odes of eminent Roman poet Horace with a view to recreating for modern readers a similar reading experience to the one that the poems might have offered ancient audiences, who enjoyed a different language, different range of knowledge, and different sensibilities.

The commentary Slavitt provides for each ode, clarifying difficult parts of the text and explaining what he added in or left out, is both helpful and horrifying: helpful in that it provides insight into the intricate art of translation, horrifying in its revelation of some of the liberties he takes with the text.  It set my teeth on edge when Slavitt inserted the anachronistic “cougar” (an older woman who chases younger men) into one of the odes, explaining that “Had such a convenient concinnity of terms been available to Horace, I am sure he’d have used it” (134).  Or when he describes a “murder” of crows, using the word because it’s “one I have always liked” (130).  Or when he invents unwarranted poetic additions simply to increase the “linguistic density” of the poem (113).

I admire Slavitt’s stated goal very much, but felt that many of the liberties he took with the text were unscholarly, unjustified and disrespectful to the original works.  After all, it boils down to this: Horace was one of Rome’s leading poets.  Who is David R. Slavitt?  I would have had absolutely no problem with this book if Slavitt had just fully indulged himself and created a work titled Odes by David R. Slavitt, inspired by Horace.

In addition to my dislike of Slavitt’s approach to translation, I also did not much enjoy the resulting poems themselves.  This is not a reflection of their quality or value, just the fact that I failed to experience a connection with them.  Poetry has always seemed to me a very personal thing–you never know what is going to resonate, when, and with whom.  Overall, however, I did not find the odes to be very beautiful or thought-provoking, they generally did not demonstrate pleasing word choices and metres, and they did not make me look at things in new or different ways (all aspects common to poetry I enjoy).

[Why I read it: I think I just stumbled across it while browsing in the library and thought it looked interesting.]

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