- Hymns of Prudentius. The Cathemerinon; or, the Daily Round
Anyone who has tried to translate Latin poetry—or any foreign-language poetry, for that matter—into graceful English verse knows how fiendishly difficult a task it is. Just reproducing its sense clearly, to say nothing of meter, rhyme, or that elusive quality of voice, is the stuff of chewed pencils and wadded sheets of paper. Owing, perhaps, to this difficulty, translations of Latin Christian poetry and hymnody can be notably wooden, the sort of stuff that would lead the ordinary reader to suspect that whatever their merits as didacts, ancient Christian poets did not move the soul as poets. Such a conclusion would, of course, be tragically wrong, especially in the case of so influential a figure as Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348–410?).
To the rescue comes David Slavitt, distinguished translator of Ovid, Vergil, and Seneca, and soi-disant “skeptical Jewish aesthete of the late twentieth century.” He has given us a really elegant, moving, singing translation of the Spanish poet’s Cathemerinon, a series of twelve hymns connected to hours of the day and to feasts and fasts. Slavitt’s rendering breathes life into these verses, [End Page 334] infusing them with the sort of world-weary longing one can easily imagine from an aging, aristocratic Roman prefect-turned-poet.
Something has to give in any attempt at translation. Slavitt, as he says, has “tried to do the voice and suggest to others something of what I admire in it.” To “do” Prudentius’s voice, he opts for recreating an atmosphere, frequently at the expense of a more literal rendering of the Latin such as that found in the 1962 translation of Sister M. Clement Eagan. An idea of Slavitt’s approach can be gained by comparing his translation of the beginning of Hymn 2, a morning hymn, with the Latin and with the translation of Eagan:
Nox et tenebrae et nubilae, / confusa mundi et turbida, /
lux intrat, albescit polus, / christus uenit, discedite!
caligo terrae scinditur / percussa solis spiculo /
rebus que iam color redit / uultu nitentis sideris.
Ye shades of night and turbid clouds,
confusion of the world, depart,
For light pervades the whitening sky,
And Christ, the Sun of Justice, comes.
Asunder now earth’s gloom is rent,
Pierced by the sun’s transfixing dart.
the day-star’s shining glance restores
The hues of meadow and of plain.
An endless night, obfusc and shrouded
so that even our thoughts are roiled and clouded . . .
But then in a gentling of the air
the sky relents and our despair
lifts as if Christ were come again,
returning to the hearts of men
the colors of hope and, in restoration
of every subtle tint and hue,
repairing for us the Lord’s creation.
Certainly Slavitt’s rhymed rendering shows more of the poet’s craft and less of the scholar’s verbal precision than some might like (the adjective “obfusc” surely merits an award for neologism!), and perhaps the bias of a jaded modern shows itself, for example, in the rendering of the strong “Christus uenit” as the wistful “as if Christ were come again.” Whether this translation improves on earlier attempts will be a matter of taste, to be sure. But Slavitt has “done the voice” admirably, such that the pious hymns of a Spaniard in the early fifth century come alive not as relics but as poetry. This Prudentius is a work to put into the hands of those who would use his (Slavitt’s? Prudentius’s?) words to make an imaginative bridge across time. Though one seldom sees such a recommendation in a scholarly journal, this slim volume is, and would make, an excellent gift.