On Troublemakers: Two Translations* from the Latin Poet Phaedrus, Freedman of Augustus (first century A.D.)

Translator’s Prologue

These little tales from ancient Rome
Concern those who would foment strife.
See how the first from her scheme gains
But how the second forfeits life.

 

The Eagle, the Cat, and the Wild Sow

__Upon a lofty oak at varied heights,
Three creatures had established their homesites.
The highest limbs an eagle had possessed
To build within their forks her bowl-shaped nest.
Inside a hollow on the trunk midway,
A cat with kittens found a place to stay.
And by the roots, among the dry leaf litter,
Her young a forest sow did just deliver.

__The cat, though, full of malice and deceit,
Thought she’d the peaceful status quo unseat.
So, to the eagle’s nest, she climbed on high
And said, “Too bad for you your end is nigh,
And I poor soul, as well face ruination.
That devious sow roots up our home’s foundation
And basely works to bring the aged oak down
That she may kill our young upon the ground.”
On hearing thus the sow’s foul plot conveyed,
The mother bird in mad confusion strayed.
Indeed, her apprehensions turned her mood
To haunt her thoughts how she might save her brood.

__The cat then dropped down to the sow’s low lair
To say “For your dear tender ones take care.
For once you leave to forage, I must warn,
The eagle plans to murder your newborn.”

__On having now the bristly sow alarmed,
The cat departed to her hole unharmed.
From there at night, she wandered with soft tread,
The sow and eagle ever home in dread.
Then she and her offspring consumed their fill,
But on return, they quaked with terror’s chill.
For through the day, she feigned a watchful eye
On her fictitious foes below and high—
The eagle resting on her airy perch,
Afraid the oak at any time might lurch;
The wood sow trembling in her gloomy lair,
Anguished the eagle would her piglets snare.

__Yet why elaborate with more events?
The sow and eagle perished not long hence.
For never exiting their oak abodes,
Their high and low arboreal antipodes,
From hunger, they and their small babies died.
The scheming cat, though, with her young survived.
For on the flesh of her deluded beasts,
For weeks the felines dined on ample feasts.

The two-faced double-tongued sometimes create
For those deceived a sad and ghastly fate.

 

Aquila, Feles, et Aper

__Aquila in sublimi quercu nidum fecerat;
feles cavernam nancta in media pepererat;
sus nemoris cultrix fetum ad imam posuerat.
Tum fortuitum feles contubernium
fraude et scelesta sic evertit malitia.
Ad nidum scandit volucris: “Pernicies” ait
“tibi paratur, forsan et miserae mihi.
Nam fodere terram quod vides cotidie
aprum insidiosum, quercum vult evertere,
ut nostram in plano facile progeniem opprimat.”
Terrore offuso et perturbatis sensibus,
derepit ad cubile saetosae suis;
“Magno,” inquit “in periclo sunt nati tui.
Nam simul exieris pastum cum tenero grege,
aquila est parata rapere porcellos tibi.”
Hunc quoque timore postquam complevit locum,
dolosa tuto condidit sese cavo.
Inde evagata noctu suspenso pede,
ubi esca se replevit et prolem suam,
pavorem simulans prospicit toto die.
Ruinam metuens aquila ramis desidet;
aper rapinam vitans non prodit foras.
Quid multa? Inedia sunt consumpti cum suis,
felique catulis largam praebuerunt dapem.
Quantum homo bilinquis saepe concinnet mali,
documentum habere hinc stulta credulitas potest.

From The Aesopic Fables of Phaedrus, Book II, Fable 4

The Cicada and the Little Owl

To those who only think of their own need,
Consider what this bug had to concede.

__A loud cicada, buzzing with great zest,
So stressed a little owl she could not rest.
For in the night, she foraged for her food,
But in the day, she got what sleep she could.
So, from her hollow tree, she hooted to request
The bombinating bug his din arrest.
Her plea but made the insect clamor more
Than he had droned and thrummed the day before.
Again, the owl submitted her genteel appeal.
The pest, though, dared to buzz with greater zeal.

__On seeing how the insect paid no mind,
The bird a clever stratagem designed.
She called, “From Phoebus’ lyre, your gay tunes leap
And by their beauty interrupt my sleep.
So, since I’m now awake, I have a mind to sip
Some nectar Pallas gave me as a gift.
I hope an invitation you’ll not think
Beneath your dignity to share a drink.”

__Delighted that the owl his voice thus praised,
As well as by keen thirst for nectar crazed,
The flattered, parched cicada flew to meet
The bird and to imbibe the proffered sweet.
The insect dived within the hollow tree.
The owl then blocked her hole so he’d not flee
And caught the scared cicada in her beak,
Arranging life so he’d no longer speak.
And thus the dead bug granted the request
To what the living never acquiesced.

 

Cicada et Noctua

Humanitati qui se non accommodat
plerumque poenas oppetit superbiae.
Cicada acerbum noctuae convicium
faciebat, solitae victum in tenebris quaerere
cavoque ramo capere somnum interdiu.
Rogata est ut taceret. Multo validius
clamare occepit. Rursus admota prece
accensa magis est. Noctua, ut vidit sibi
nullum esse auxilium et verba contemni sua,
hac est adgressa garrulam fallacia:
“Dormire quia me non sinunt cantus tui,
sonare citharam quos putes Apollinis,
potare est animus nectar, quod Pallas mihi
nuper donavit: si non fastidis, veni;
una bibamus.” Illa, quae arebat siti,
simul gaudebat vocem laudari suam,
cupide advolavit. Noctua, obsepto cavo,
trepidantem consectata est et leto dedit.
Sic, viva quod negarat, tribuit mortua.

From The Aesopic Fables of Phaedrus, Book III, Fable 16

Note on Translation: British and French writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries offered decidedly cogent and practical advice on translating authors from the ancient, medieval, and renaissance periods. Because such literary giants as John Dryden and Jean de La Fontaine prized meter and rhyme, the guidelines they espoused provide invaluable suggestions to any translator who would render works from a foreign tongue into formal English verse. Along with La Fontaine’s preface to his fables, which were works taken chiefly from the Aesopic tradition, including the Latin Phaedrus, anyone interested in such ideas on translation also may want to consult Dryden’s “Preface to Ovid’s Epistles,” “Dedication of the Aeneis,” and “Preface to The Fables, Ancient and Modern.” The last essay includes Dryden’s discussion of not only his poetic translations from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales but also his verse renditions of three of Boccaccio’s prose tales from Decameron. In their critical commentaries, both Dryden and La Fontaine justified expansions (embellishments) of an original work or deletions from it, with neither writer adhering to exactitude in translation as long as the sense of the original was maintained. In his “Preface to Ovid’s Epistles,” Dryden went so far as to say that exact translation was “servile” and “much like dancing on ropes with fettered legs; a man can shun a fall by using caution, but the gracefulness of motion is not to be expected.”

For an excellent summary of the era’s theoretical conceptions on translation, see Essay on the Principles of Translation (1790) by Scotsman Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee. Originally presented to The Royal Society of London, this work may be accessed at Internet Archive. The critical pieces by Dryden, may be found in the two-volume set Essays of John Dryden, also at Internet Archive. La Fontaine’s preface is available at Project Gutenberg in Walter Thornbury’s translation of The Fables of La Fontaine. Although not the sole font of my approach, these sources form an essential component of my perspective on translation. They are certainly more pragmatic than contemporary notions which I find are often muddled, labored, precious, and pretentious.

 

 

Terry L. Norton is professor emeritus of literacy acquisition at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He is the author of Cherokee Myths and Legends: Thirty Tales Retold as well as academic books and articles on literacy and literature for children and young adults. His poetry has appeared in Ekphrastic Review, Kakalak Review, and The Society for Classical Poetry. His renditions of the first century Latin poet Phaedrus received second place in the 2020 translation competition sponsored by The Society.


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9 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    These are wonderful translations and the texts are as timely as the day they were written.

    Reply
    • Terry L. Norton

      Thank you, Joe. I have enjoyed working with these lesser known classical tales and discovering their universal wisdom.

      Reply
  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Terry, I am becoming a huge fan of your work, and simply adore, “The Eagle, the Cat, and the Wild Sow”. The language flows steadily, playfully and beautifully, and is wonderful read aloud. Although aimed at children, what a lesson in gaslighting and triangulation for any budding psychologist. LOL Thank you for my morning’s entertainment. Bravo, Mr. Norton!

    Reply
    • Terry L. Norton

      Thank you, Susan. Coming from one whose work is as accomplished as yours, your praise is much appreciated.

      Reply
  3. Jeff Eardley

    Terry, not being a lover of Cats, I now know why, and Owls, for me, now have a dark side I never suspected.
    The Owl and the Pussycat, now where have I heard that before?
    Lovely verses and most enjoyable. Many thanks.

    Reply
    • Terry L. Norton

      Glad you enjoyed the two pieces, Jeff. I have found that in these classical fables, cats are usually portrayed as cunning and up to no good. Owls – I’m thinking of fables from India – are depicted more positively.

      Reply
  4. C.B. Anderson

    Terry, I would never think of doubting your expertise in classical literature, but some of your English renditions leave much to be desired.

    On a second reading, I find the translation delightful, but for a couple of things. In the stanza before the final couplet, you attempt to rhyme “abodes” with “antipodes.” By the time I was in the sixth grade I already knew that “antipodes” was pronounced ann-TIP-oh-DEEZ. Was this supposed to be a sight-rhyme, or just a joke?

    In the second poem, the last two lines of the second stanza make no sense, and neither do the first two lines of the last stanza. I defy anyone to rationalize the syntax in these two passages.

    Reply
  5. William White

    Enjoyed these translations, Terry! These lessons from the past never lose their currency! You make them particularly enjoyable (using antipodes, as you aimed to please, with tales of abodes in trees.)

    Reply
  6. David Watt

    Terry, your translations are highly entertaining. “The Eagle, the Cat, and the Wild Sow” is my favorite of the two. As a resident of the antipodes, I agree with C.B. that the rhyme pairing with abodes was the sole distraction in a damn good read.

    Reply

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