Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Superata Tellus

Five translations and the original:

Why slack off and turn your backs? When you overcome the earth, the stars will be yours.

Why do ye sluggards turn your backs? When the earth is overcome, the stars are yours.

Why do you lazy ones expose your backs?
The earth surpassed, the stars are bestowed.

Shoulder now your burden,
Now without delay, for the earth, once conquered,
Gives you the fixed stars.

Why so sluggishly expose your backs unguarded?
Once earth is overcome, the stars are yours for the taking.

cur inertes
terga nudatis? superata tellus
sidera donat.

The first is Richard Green (the Library of Liberal Arts edition); the second is Beck; the third is Cooper; the fourth is Relihan (the Hackett edition); the fifth is P.G. Walsh (the Oxford World's Classics edition). The lines are the closing lines of Book 4 m7 of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, my very favorite lines in a work full of favorite lines. But the poems are tricky, and never quite get translated well. My rough attempt at 'Englishing' these lines would be:

Why, sluggards,
do you unburden your backs? Earth transcended
gives the stars.

'Unburden' is not a strictly literal translation; but the idea here -- making the back bare or exposing it -- gets its meaning in context from the labor of Hercules where he bears the heavens on his shoulders and for it (and his other labors, which have already been enumerated in the poem) receives the reward of a place among the stars of heaven. I think Relihan has the right idea with his "Shoulder now your burden"; he's hampered in being closer to the Latin because he's trying to convey the rhythm of the Latin in English. He does it decently enough, and I think we need translations that do it, but I don't always like the results, since while the syllables are about the same, English uses little words and Latin long ones, making the English translations always wordy in an attempt to keep up with the Latin. But from what I've read of his translation, he has an excellent ear for the meanings. Beck's and Walsh's would be perhaps be more natural in another context (I'm not a Latin scholar, by any means, but it was the first to occur to me); the Latin does sound a bit like asking why the sluggards 'turn tail' (terga vertere), but I can't make any sense of that in the context.