For my project, I wanted to look at the interplay between what lies on the surface and what lies underneath in two of Sulpicia’s poems, 3.13 and 3.18. 3.13, in particular, is about concealment or the lack thereof, and 3.18 works with the theme of concealment as well. So, I set out to see what Sulpicia might be concealing from her reader.
To do this, I first translated the two poems in as literal a manner as I could while making the English work. Then, I went back and made a few changes that radically altered my understanding of the poems.
The biggest thing that I discovered was the degree to which Sulpicia’s language thrums with sexuality hidden just below the surface. This I found to be particularly true in 3.13, which fits with its theme of refusing to cover over one’s relationship for the purposes of modesty and avoiding a scandal. 3.18’s erotic tension is closer to the surface, and rests primarily in the juxtaposition of two words for heat: his fervor and her ardor. Like her attempt to ignore her passion, the reader’s attempt to ignore the passion in Sulpicia’s poetry is futile, especially when you are willing to dig below the surface a little.
Version One - Literal Translation
Finally love came, such that to have covered it in shame
should be more scandal to me than to expose it to someone.
The Cytherean one, moved by my hymns, lifted him up
and put him in our lap.
Venus awarded the promised things: let her tell my joys,
if anyone is said not to have had his own.
I should not wish to entrust anything to sealed tablets,
so that no one would read me before my man,
but to have sinned pleases, to compose a face for shame
tires: let me be said to have been a worthy woman with a worthy man.
For the first poem, I translated “venit” as a simple past rather than a progressive perfect because that seemed to me the most basic reading, and basic was my aim for this go-round. Translating “pudori” as “in shame” was primarily motivated by a desire not to come down squarely on the side of a causal interpretation – yet – while still lending it that flavor. “In shame,” to me, could just as easily communicate cause or characteristic, so I chose it because of its ambiguity, giving me space to make a decision about it later.
I left Cytherea as “the Cytherean one,” instead of saying Venus, because I wanted to leave the epithet as-is. I wasn’t sure how to communicate the combination of prayer and song in a pre-Christian way, so I translated “camenis” as “hymns.” I left “nostrum” as “our,” as that is the most literal translation. For the final translations, I removed the “royal we” where it occurs. “Promissa” I took to be a neuter plural accusative rather than in agreement with Venus, since that made the most sense to me; Venus, a goddess, probably wouldn’t have promised herself to a young woman. I also took her as the subject of “narret.” For “iuvat” and “taedet”, I chose to take the infinitives as the subjects rather than leave the main verbs as intransitives.
With “peccasse” I had some trouble – “sin” is a Judeo-Christian idea, and this poem is in thanksgiving for Venus’s return on her promises, and yet any non-denominational word that might have communicated this idea is either clumsy or doesn’t quite communicate the nature of Sulpicia’s “sin”; “to have done a moral wrong” does not exactly flow poetically, nor does it fit with the situation. I chose “with a worthy man” because proximity makes that the clearest read (and, in my opinion, the strongest read).
Version One - Literal Translation
Let me not be to you, my light, as much now of a feverish care
as I seem to have been a few days before,
if I did anything stupidly in my whole girlhood
of which I confess to have been more sorry,
than that I left you alone last night,
desiring to hide my flame.
With 3.18, the second poem, I tried especially to keep word order intact where possible because I think it is very important to the poem. Therefore, every word in the first line is in its original place from the Latin. I took “stulta” as an adjective in apposition to “iuventa” which in English ends up being translated like an adverb. I translated “ardorem” as “flame”, because that was the base meaning of the word, and I wanted to avoid metaphor for the literal translation.
Version Two - Poetic Translation
At last love has come, and such a love that to have hidden it out of modesty
rather than bare it to someone would be to me the greater shame.
From up on Cytheron Venus, urged by my songs of prayer, scooped him up and
dropped him in my lap.
Flowing desire has loosened me: let her tell of my happiness,
anyone whom is said not to have had her own.
I want to entrust nothing to sealed slabs,
so that no one should read me before my man.
But to have gone astray delights me, and to make up my face with shame
exhausts me: let them talk of me as a worthy woman with a worthy man.
I made several big decisions with this poem. The first was to translate “Cytherea” as “from up on Cytheron”. “Cytherea” is an epithet for Venus meaning “from Cytheron”, so I included Venus in the translation, but wanted to also capture the aspect of Cytheron, which, in addition to being a sacred place to Venus, is the place where the main action of Euripides’ play The Bacchae is set. The Bacchae engages with the ideas of repression (in Sulpicia’s poem represented by pudor) and openness, so it seems like a deliberate allusion on Sulpicia’s part. It may be a stretch, but I want to give Sulpicia that credit, especially since her work on its face is not heavily allusive in the way that the other poetry we read over the course of the semester is. If she worked with or from the other elegists, the absence of myth from her work would stand out greatly. Interpreting “Cytherea” as an allusion to Euripides places Sulpicia in the context of other Roman elegy.
I also used “scooped him up” for “attulit” to add some whimsy to the poem. I find the segment “attulit in nostrum deposuitque sinum” particularly cute, and so the cuteness of the phrase “scooped him up” feels appropriate. I think it brings out the playful sexuality of the word “sinum”.
The other major decision I made, against the judgement of Miller, was to take venus not as the substantive, meaning the goddess Venus, but as the lowercase venus, desire. If amor can be read as male desire personified, then venus is his female counterpart, desire in its feminine aspect. Even more exciting, promissa can agree with lowercase venus. It would not make any sense for Venus to be promised to someone, particularly Sulpicia, and so promissa had be taken as a substantive neuter plural accusative (“the promised things”) when Venus was personified. But if venus is no longer personified, then promissa can agree with venus in the nominative. Promissa has an additional meaning besides its participial meaning; as a simple adjective, it means “flowing”. This allows us to get closer to the base meaning of “exsolvit,” which is “loosened”. Venus is not going to loosen, but desire can loosen. I supplied a “me”. “Flowing desire loosened me” – oh my. Sulpicia makes good on her promise to “nudasse” in this poem; especially once we get rid of Venus as the goddess rather than the concept of desire, sex and desire course through the whole poem.
Sulpicia says that putting on a coy facade is exhausting, and yet she does it so well, dropping hints throughout the poem while leaving just enough innocence that a reader who wanted to ignore the sensuality of this poem could do so. Giving Venus a capital letter does that work on its own, and I feel like this poem really opened up for me once I ignored some of the punctuation. “Tabellis” I translated as “slabs” both for the alliteration and the negativity that it lends to the image of the tablets which she foregoes. “Sealed slabs”, when spoken aloud, is practically a hiss at the false modesty Sulpicia refuses to project. “Gone astray” seemed like a way to translate “pecasse” that was absent of the religious connotations of “sin” while steering clear of the meaning of “nefas” and lending a positive spin to the word, since Sulpicia doesn’t actually see being with her lover as a wrong the way that she fears others might. “Vultus componere” can mean to make up one’s face, as in to put on makeup, and so I translated that section to bring out that idiom, as if shame were a powder that Sulpicia is applying to her face – that is to say, fake. It was argued that taking “cum” as a preposition with “digno” was the easy way out. But I think that, while it is indeed grammatically simple, it is an interesting choice: after a poem of talking about being direct, she finally is.
Version Two - Poetic Translation
My light, let me not be such a source of feverish anxiety to you
as I seem to have been a few days ago,
if in all my young life I have done anything, stupid girl,
which I confess to have regretted more
than that I left you alone last night,
eager to ignore this ardor of mine.
I put “my light” first because I thought it would make the sentence flow more. I took “cura” as “source of anxiety” because among the definitions offered, I thought that “anxiety” best conveyed the tension and sense of something incomplete that the poem presents as Sulpicia’s understanding of Cerinthus’ distress. But saying “may I not be an anxiety for you” sounded exceptionally clunky, so I stretched it a bit and said “source of anxiety” instead.
I spent a long time fretting over how to translate “fervida”. At first, my plan was to make a sort of pun on the words ardorous and arduous, but I couldn’t make it work, so I found myself back at the drawing board. I wanted to capture the twin concepts of heat and duress expressed in the word “fervida,” and I ended up at “feverish” because it seemed to have both those ideas in it. I took “iuventa” as “my young life,” and then made “stulta” a substantive vocative, “stupid girl.” “Commisi” became “done”, which is admittedly not the most creative word choice, but “committed anything” sounded strange and not like something that would show up in a poem in English. Discovering that “dissimulare” could be translated as “ignore” was an exciting moment, because it allowed me to play with the ambiguity that Sulpicia leaves in the last line. It seems for much of the line that she is saying she was getting away from his advance. “Meum” is a twist ending; it is her own desire that makes her uneasy.
Essentially, the work of moving from the literal translation to a more poetic version was the work of stripping away some of the preliminary translating done for me by Miller, in the form of punctuation and capitalization, and then thinking about what the words would look like and mean to me if they stood next to each other as equals. The most rewarding case of that, for me, was when I made “venus” lowercase and saw how that would affect the translation. Once the graceful goddess is left in favor of human desire, not only does that line fall into place in a way that makes much more sense to me, but the poem as a whole makes more sense. Sulpicia’s relationship is not some tame girlhood crush sanctioned by a goddess; it is a mature, hot-blooded affair, the sort of thing she actually would feel the need to keep secret, and the sort of thing that one really cannot keep secret, whether from the world in 3.13, or from the beloved himself in 3.18. Whether or not the affair is real, Sulpicia paints a vivid portrait in winks and nudges, and works the magic of simultaneously obfuscating and speaking directly from the heart.
Maxwell, Mary. 2002. “H.D.: Pound’s Sulpicia” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics Vol. 10, No. 2: pp. 15-48.
Keith, Alison. 2006. “Critical Trends in Interpreting Sulpicia.” The Classical World Vol. 100, No. 1: pp. 3-10.
Pearcy, Lee T. 2006. “Erasing Cerinthus: Sulpicia and her Audience.” The Classical World Vol. 100, No. 1: pp. 31-36.
Miller, Paul Alan ed. 2002. Latin Erotic Elegy. London: Routledge.
William Whitaker’s Words, Notre Dame University, http://archives.nd.edu/words.html.
Arrowsmith, William, trans. The Bacchae. From Euripides V: The Complete Greek Tragedies, ed. David Grene and Richard Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).