Sunday, August 31, 2008


My old friend Andrew has been devoting time to Vergil.

I have recently run across an old scrap of Caesar, which I will share.

(I have plenty more I should be posting these days, but I’ve been paying attention to other things.)

Before we get started, I have to hold up a few details for special admiration. If you were never a Latin student, and if you never read Caesar in his original words, you will miss some of the wit that follows, and you may not recognize how accurately this condenses the original. But even monolingual English speakers can appreciate “fits of peak” and “elbow rheum.” Sharper eyes will spot wicked puns on everything from grammar to typography.

Beyond the obvious, though, two subtler terminology notes:

The heroic couplet is a standard form in English language poetry that combines the sturdy meter of iambic pentameter (“To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”) with the convenient packaging of couplet rhyming (aa bb cc dd etc.) to tell epic stories of manly achievement.

And a “trot,” in the jargon of a language student, is a translation someone else has made already that helps a student read and understand a passage in a foreign language. (Another word for the same thing is a “pony” translation.) Teachers generally frown on students’ use of trots as crutches. But every schoolboy who’s ever had to wade through a thicket of foreign grammar understands their value.

So before we even get out of the title, this translator has already accomplished a mess of alliteration and a couple of puns. The pace continues.

One final note: I do not know where this was originally published. I’m posting it here because it’s far too good to be lost to the world forever. If you know where it can be found in print, I’d be happy to post a link.

On with the scholarly translation:

Caesar in Cowardly Couplets:
A Tetrametrical Trot

One . . . . . . .

Gaul is thirded. Tribal traffic
Demonstrates a demographic
Tendency to split the space
Of Gallia in partes tres.

The Belgae, Aquitani, plus
The Celtae roam around the rus
And differences are found among
The three in customs, torts, and tongue.

Fortissimi sunt Belgae. They
Collide with Krauts cotidie,
And teethe their tots on tiny tela
Just to make them sooner maler.
Belgians, then, warm up for wars
By arming their dependent claws,
But, while they’re waiting for results,
They act quite queerly for adults:

They stay, for instance, in the sticks,
A site that sees them seldom mix
With city-slickers selling stuff
That tends to tenderize the tough.
Furthermore, they’d never feel
That Prohibition needs repeal,
For booze, imbibed by rummies rural,
Nullifies their nature neural,
Works against their will to fight,
And keeps them out too late at night.

It’s qua de causa that the Swiss
Are seldom canned for cowardice,
For they, of all the Celts, are known
To be the best at bashing bone,
And, like the Belgians, their caprice
Is seeing that the Krauts decrease.

Two . . . . . . .

In Switzerland, argentum speaks
And, due to dough, Orgetorix,
A Swiss who swam in legal tender,
Was the jewel of his gender.
Some years back, however, he
Was prompted by his pedigree
To overthrow the Celts by force
And put himself in charge, of course.

He started out by feeding natives
Compound verbs that dote on datives,
All connived to couch his cause
In one enormous purpose clause.
The gloom of his subjunctive mood
By some was rather roundly booed,
But most, agreeing with the sense,
Applauded him for proper tense.

The swanky Swiss was swift to add
That Swiss topography was bad:
With avalanches every week,
It fetters folks with fits of peak.
From this, he ventured to assume
The Swiss complaint was elbow rheum,
The cure for which he stated thus:

The Swiss must make an exodus.

Three . . . . . . .

The sound of sense in what he said
Inclined the clan to go ahead
And make arrangements so the whole
Of Switzerland could take a stroll.

The plan looked easy on papyrus,
But, in practice, to apply was
Quite a different colored steed,
For certain snags delayed the deed.
There was, to mention only one,
The task of toting by the ton
Sufficient suppers and supplies
To manage such an enterprise.
To do the job, the Swiss decreed
A two-year span for finding feed,
Which meant that early in the third
They hoped to have their heap and herd.

The question as to whom to choose
To tell their neighbors of the news
Could best be answered, so they felt,
By searching out the smoothest Celt,
For such a chore required a gent
Of diplomatic temperament.
Orgetorix, of course, was chosen
For the legate’s lederhosen,
All of which just goes to show
That Swiss IQs were rather low.

In other words, the Swiss were blind
To what their hero had in mind,
Which was to use the Swiss as pawns
Upon a board of Celtic lawns
And make the march a misdemeanor
Aimed at grabbing grasses greener.

Setting out, Orgetorix
Went far afield for fit physiques
Who, sympathetic to his cause,
Would lather up some local wars.
In fact, to one among his clients,
He swapped his daughter for alliance,
Something that, although in vogue,
Is still the measure of a rogue.

Four . . . . . . .

The Swiss, at first so fully fooled,
Were soon awakened.

Someone stooled.

The revelation rocked the rubes
Who, burned at being branded boobs,
Demanded death right then and there
For him who’d pranked the proletaire.

However, true to tribal tort,
Orgetorix was dragged to court
And there was forced to speak his peace,
Or word his war, ex vinculis.
But when his case came on the docket,
Cronies came to town to block it.
Then, unlike a proper noun,
Orgetorix slipped out of town.

The Sheriff, since his set was hossy,
Rather swiftly swore a posse,
But before it quenched its quest,
Orgetorix mortuus est.

It isn’t known for certain how
He faded from the here and now,
Although the gossips quickly claim
He fell upon his sword in shame.
In any case, the Swiss were moved
To have his grave grotesquely grooved:

Here lies one who, when alive,
With politicians did connive;
But as attested by this tomb,
Swissful thinking spelled his doom.

Charles Packard
Middlesex School
Concord, Massachusetts

Printed in an unknown source prior to March 1, 1982