From time to time, I dig through the poetry of Theodulf, ninth-century bishop of Orleans, looking for nuggets to translate. Theodulf was a wit, so I’ve had fun making modern English versions of his Latin verses about pilgrimages, libations, wildlife, stolen horses, and children’s dreams. But what, I wondered, could Theodulf do for me on New Year’s Day?
I shouldn’t have worried; the old Goth didn’t let me down. In the middle of a dull poem about faith, hope, and charity (Dümmler, MGH Poetae I, 466-467), I found four lovely lines of Latin, and I plucked ’em:
Nam pia dona spei tereti signatur in ovo,
Tegmine obumbratum quod vehit intus habens:
Ut pullum ova tegunt, sic spem praesentia celant,
Hic patet exutus, illa futura parat.
With the reckless optimism of a Leyendecker baby, I give you this translation:
To see the blessed gift of hope, behold
The egg that keeps a secret in its shell:
The present, hiding hope, conceals it well;
The future cracks it: tiny wings unfold.
Those of you who read Latin are shaking your heads at this rather free rendering of the original. So be it! It’s a new year! Old habits limp to their graves, ashamed! Besides, I did some research and found that these four Latin lines have been translated repeatedly throughout the centuries, often by poets who took far greater liberties than I did.
For example, here’s a little-known translation by Langston Hughes:
THEODULF AT THE 125th ST. DINER
The sunny side
An egg supplied
Upon t’morrow gambled.
It hides in a shell
That poached it well
And never got it scrambled.
The present keeps our dreams deferred.
The future hatches: out pops a bird.
And here—dear reader, I was as astonished to discover it as you surely are—is a translation of Theodulf by none other than T.S. Eliot:
The sea-birds race inland from the storm
Above the subtile chicken seeking quiet in the barn
Where she dares not hope
—“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“—
But for the egg:
The shell conceals our tatterdemalion past—
The shell incubates our necessitous future
—and hope becomes a farmer
With shards of egg in his desquamative palm
Forgetting the recrudescent monotony of the plow, straining
To hear the eager peeping in the straw.
My translation isn’t looking quite so loose now, is it?
On behalf of Theodulf, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and a room full of imaginary chickens, I wish you a happy and recklessly hopeful new year.
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