Horace’s Ode to Pyrrha can be interpreted in many ways, but I’ve always detected a note of jealousy over a woman and a love that eluded him. He has put aside his relationship with the woman who is now engaging in a tryst with a man he, rather condescendingly, calls a gracilis puer (simple boy.) He then accuses Pyrrha of being vain and shallow and believes that only those who truly know her realize that her beauty is skin deep. If he doesn’t care for her anymore, if he is so relieved to be free of her, then why protest so much? Why insult her?
I offer here two translations, one is my own and one is by a fellow classicist. We had great fun exchanging and critiquing (arguing over) one another’s translations. I won’t identify them, but one translation is very traditional, closer to the grammar of the original text and the other is more colloquial and captures the spirit of the poem without being as literal.
So who’s that pretty boy, soaked in cologne,
grinding against you in the rose bushes
near that pleasant grotto, Pyrrha?
Is it for him that you do up your blonde hair,
stylishly simple? Ah, how often
he will be in anguish over fickle faith
and fate, and be caught off guard – astounded –
as if at the sea abruptly churned up by a dark gale.
He may be enjoying you now – your radiance –
always believing in your easy-going love, unaware
of the deceptive way the wind blows.
Miserable are they who’ve never basked in your glow.
As for me – see my dripping clothes hanging on the holy temple wall as an offering
for the powerful god of the sea? Well, they show that I’ve survived that particular storm.
What simple boy, having doused himself in perfume,
hems you in on a bed of roses under cover of a pleasant
cave? For whom do you, Pyrrha, simple in your
elegance, arrange your golden locks?
Ah, how many times will that boy cry over fickle
faith and fickle fortunes and, in his insolence,
will stand aghast at the oceans made rough by
That trusting boy, who now enjoys
you in all your magnificence and who always hopes you
are available and always hopes you are loveable,
is ignorant of your false charms.
Wretched are those to whom you appear glamorous
without knowing your true self. A sacred wall shows that
I have suspended my wet clothes there as a votive
prayer for the powerful god of the sea.
Which do you prefer?
(As a side note I showed both of these translations to my students and it sparked an interesting and lively debate about the art of translation. They were able to pick out which translation was my own. They are my Vergil students, most of whom I have had for five semesters of Latin, so they are all too familiar with my style, quirks, approach to translation, etc.)