Can’t Translate Horace!

William King, Political and Literary Anecdotes:

Some ladies of my acquaintance, who have a fine understanding and a turn to  poetry, of which they are good judges, have often complained that they could not discover any great beauties in the Odes of Horace, which are so much admired, although they have read the most celebrated translations (for they are unacquainted with the original) in English, French, and Italian. But the truth is, the Odes of Horace never were nor ever can be translated, so as to display the beauties of the original, which wholly consist in the language and expression.

In the thought or sentiment there is nothing extraordinary or more excellent than what may be found in the poems of his cotemporaries; but the language is inimitable, and I doubt whether the most learned critic of the Augustan age, allowing him the best taste as well as judgment, could have mended a single expression in any of the Odes, or even have changed one word for a better. This is what Petronius calls the curiosa felicitas of Horace; which two words are as happily joined together as simplex munditiis: and these four words are, perhaps, sufficient to characterise the poet, and express the beauty of his style in his own manner.

I could never read the first stanza in the Carmen Seculare without falling into a fit of devotion: and yet when I read it in the best translation, it does not affect me. Thus likewise those beautiful odes Donec gratus eram, &c. and Quem tu, Melpomene, &c. (of which Scaliger said he would rather be the author than King of Arragon) rendered into any modern language, do not seem to deserve an hundredth part of the praise bestowed on the originals.

Horace, as imagined by Anton von Werner

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