I’ve been preoccupied with two projects this week – 19 little words and a freshly sanded hallway floor.
At the moment, I’m haunted by both, but for quite different reasons. The hallway is a pragmatic spectre, inconvenient enough during late-night kitchen raids, but requiring merely a weekend and a certain boldness to banish. This tiny space is a shambles, pre- and post- sanding. The modest oak planks are gapped a bit too much for comfort, and pragmatically screwed down in a few spots by a past caretaker. It’s an obvious spot for some TLC.
The words are another story and have haunted me since my teens. It’s famously composed by the Emperor Hadrian on his deathbed:
Animula, vagula, blandula
Hospes comesque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula
Nec soles ut dabis iocos
This little poem, clocking in at a mere five lines and 19 words, defies accurate translation, though it’s easy enough to translate, if that makes sense. There are hundreds of versions by preeminent poets and scholars who know their Latin inside out. (See 43 Ways to Translate Hadrian’s Animula). Many of them are delightful, but no one that is perfect. The most excellent, to my mind, is Marguerite Yourcenar’s in the wonderful Memoirs of Hadrian:
“Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore.
I say Yourcenar, but really the words are Grace Frick’s, since she translated Yourcenar’s novel from the French. (Maybe it’s actually easier to translate to English through the intermediary of translation into French?)
I love this poem, and it’s possible I might be a bit obsessed with Hadrian (why are all my crushes long dead? It’s a mystery). So I want to paint my hallway floor, and inscribe the poem onto the floor in a sort of inscription-y fashion. Because nothing says “resale value” like deathbed Latin poetry. Ahem. But how to paint the poem? It has to look good, graphic art for art’s sake. I think I have it figured out, but that’s another post.
While I was arranging and rearranging the text on a grid representing my floor, a translation made its way, unbidden to the surface of my thought, which is unusual. Historically, I have to tease labored translations out of a dictionary and a grammar reader.
Oh my soul.
Restive partner, little charmer,
but today… stiff and afraid
in the places you once played.
Tell me, dear – what now?
Nineteen words, hundreds of translations, all of them grasping the truth and none of them quite reaching the heights of the original.