Mediaeval Latin Lyrics

By Helen Waddell

Not having benefitted from a classical education, I have never been able to teach myself enough Latin to read anything but the simplest books a vue — the Legenda Aurea or the Vita Karoli Magni and the easier bits from the Colloquia. So, when the Holy Nicholas of Myra presented me with a bilingual compilation of Medieval Latin verse, I was tickled to death.

  • Author: Helen Waddell
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics
  • Published: 1962 (1929)
  • Pages: 352

And not for nothing. Finally I have a compilation of Latin verse where even I, with my meager knowledge, can correct the translator. When Ausonius writes olim regum et puerorum nomina, it is surely essential to get the contrast that is caused by the juxtaposition of kings and children in the translation, and not merely give up with “once bewailed names of kings.” The Dutch translation that springs to mind is “eens de namen van koningen en kinderen”, but I have to admit that I cannot so readily phrase that in alliterating English.

There are other places where Helen Waddell, who is otherwise about as far above my touch as a person can be, is busy rhyming instead of translating. A pity, since I now cannot use the volume as a crib to aid my own imperfect understanding.

The usefulness as a crib is further diminished by the printing of the Latin text in a slightly smaller font than the translation. It does not succeed in its apparent goal of focusing attention on the English, and means that English and Latin line up even worse than usual. Add to that that English is usual wordier, and the outline of the problem will be clear.

As to how her translations fare as poetry in their own right: even though they do not always accurately transfer the sense of the original, they are nice, as poems go. But I do think that the original authors generally produced a stronger bit of poetry, with more meaning, oomph and espieglerie to it. Even if they wrote in a timid, half-articulate Latin, as Helen Waddell reminds us in the preface.

Of course, in the end, this is a very famous and very class compilation that I just happened to stumble against (or rather, that Sinterklaas) stumbeled against — and criticism about seventy years after the fact is a bit silly. But I’m still glad I caught the kings & kids’ names.

Errantes silva in magna et sub luce maligna
inter harundineasque comas gravidumque papaver
et tacitos sine labe lacus, sine murmure rivos,
quorum per ripas nebuloso lumine marcent
fleti, olim regum et puerorum nomina, flores.