Need help rendering Poe in Latin.
July 10, 2009 11:55 AM   Subscribe

Can someone help me translating this Poe quote into Latin?

I have been studying Latin for only two months, so this is a tall order for me. Turns out, as soon as you tell people you are learning Latin they hear you say "I am fluent in Latin and can translate anything you throw my way".

"All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream." Poe

A friend of mine recently asked me to translate this into Latin for an art project she is working on. I searched around online and found this, but there is not much response and what is there does not feel right.

I understand that there are issues with translating between modern English and Classical Latin, but thought I would give it a try for her.

From the link above, I get:
"Quodcumque videmus vel videmur est somnium intra somnium"

But even though I am still memorizing verbs, conjugations, declensions, and basic vocabulary, that does not feel right.

What about:

"Omnia videmus vel videmur est somnum intra somnum"
"Omnia somnum intra somnum est videmus vel videmur"

I am having trouble with somnium - am I confusing it with somnum? Have I written "sleep" instead of "dream"?

Like I said, I am still in the first stages of learning, so this is an interesting exercise to take on.

Thanks so much!
posted by Tchad to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
at work, will crack the Cassell's when i am home to confirm but

- somnium is most certainly a dream or vision

you're lacking the "but" in your latin, so let's cram "modo" into there

omnia videmus vel videmur modo somnium intra somnium is your literal "everything we see or seem is merely a dream within a dream"

omnia videmus vel videmur solum somnium somni "a dream of a dream" sounds better, solum sounds better (only, just, merely) - dig that consonance! dig that alliteration! ugh.
posted by beefetish at 1:53 PM on July 10, 2009

"But" is sed, not modo. How about we all wait for somebody who actually knows Latin to come along and translate it? (N.b.: I do not know Latin well enough to translate it with confidence.)
posted by languagehat at 2:34 PM on July 10, 2009

In the sense of merely, as here, modo is fine for but.

Not that I'm going to tackle the rest of it, mind.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:50 PM on July 10, 2009

So, I've always heard that, in classical Latin, you really want your prepositions to come off verbs, not nouns. You want something like "A dream, which is in a dream". Kind of clunky, I know. Medieval Latin, of course, all bets are off.

There's also a hidden relative phrase (because we can suppress them in English), so it's "All [that] we see or seem is...", which is why you've ended up with too many finite verbs in your "omnia" clauses. (I'm not entirely sure "omnia quae videmur" makes sense, but maybe. It seems like "all" is idiomatic for something else, there.)

Also, the original quote seems to rhyme, so you'll want to put your final translation into meter.
posted by Casuistry at 3:56 PM on July 10, 2009

Thanks so far, everyone. I told her it may be a while as I am still trying to memorize conjugation and declension tables. I appreciate the input.
posted by Tchad at 4:08 PM on July 10, 2009

Apologies in advance for the long post:

As near as I can figure, 'All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream' could be translated like this: Omnia quod videmus aut videmur sunt modo somni intra somnia. (I think, it's been a few years since college Latin).

Casuistry is right, though, there's a relative clause in there 'that we see or seem,' to be specific. The best way to treat those is to temporarily forget about them while translating, leaving just ' but a dream within a dream.' Which runs us into another problem translating 'all,' because omnis, omne is the best word here (as opposed to totus, -a, -um). However, it's only in the plural that omnis means 'all,' while in the singular it usually means 'every.' That leaves us with 'Omnia' as a subject in the nominative plural. In English, though, we treat that plural as a singular (thus allowing Poe to use 'is' instead of 'are') even though the means 'All things;' it has a singular sense in English while being grammatically plural in Latin. So from then we have the verb 'to be,' (in this case sunt to match the nominative plural of the subject, omina: 'Omnia sunt.' Now the second big problem, which is that the first dreams is a subject complement, which means that instead of being in the accusative like a direct object, it has to match the subject in case and number: somni (nominative plural of somnium, somni(i). That makes it plural though, which isn't what Poe uses, but the weird 'omnis' being plural thing screws with the whole formula. After that comes 'intra somnia,' where intra is a preposition meaning 'within, inside' which takes an accusative (thus somnia). So far it's 'Omnia sunt somni intra somnia,' translating to 'All things are dreams within dreams.' Throw in the adverb 'modo' and we get 'Omnia sunt modo somni intra somnia,' or 'All things are but dreams within dreams.'

Now to the relative clause. the relative pronoun introducing the clause can mean 'which' or 'that,' derived from 'qui, quae, quod.' The gender and number are determined by the antecedent (in this case 'Omnia') giving us plural and neuter; the case is determined by how it's used in the clause, which I've often found tricky. I went with the accusative, since the pronoun is the direct object of the active 'to see' and the passive 'to seem' (although with passive verbs the accusative acts as a subject I think, but anyways..), giving 'quae.' Videmus and videmur are correct, I think, giving us as a relative clause: 'quae videmus aut videmur,' translated as 'which/that we see or we seem.'

Putting that together in literal order, we get 'Omnia quae videmus aut videmur sunt modo somni intra somnia,' 'All things which we see or we seem are only dreams within dreams.' If it was Classical Latin, it would probably be something like 'Omnia quae videmus aut videmur somni intra somnia modo sunt.' (They loved to put the verb at the end, but the relative pronoun is usually next to the antecedent).

Like I said, this could be incorrect, mostly because I'm not sure how to navigate the idea of the plural 'omnia' without making the subject complement (somni) plural as well, since if you make 'omnis' singular you get 'Every' instead of 'All,' which isn't the meaning we're going for. Additionally, I'm quite rusty on my relative pronouns, so that could be the wrong case (but the gender and number have to agree with the subject, so if that were to change it would alter the pronoun as well).

Sorry to go on for so long, this was a fun little problem, though I'd imagine if you're only two months in half of this doesn't make sense at all! (N.B., Whitaker's Words is a great resource, as is Wheelock's textbook if you're not already using it.) Best of luck, and everybody please feel free to correct any of this that seems wrong!
posted by scdjpowell at 7:22 PM on July 10, 2009

If people stop thinking that pithy, lovely English quotes will somehow be better or more profound in Latin, will we Latinists be out of jobs? (I'd hope not, of course.)

That said, the translation you found already is perfectly grammatical, unlike many of the suggestions offered here*. It's using quicumque, "whatever," an indefinite relative pronoun, which is not a bad choice at all. The statement, though, would not be particularly comprehensible, to a Roman ("dream within a dream" would be an utterly opaque concept, I'd wager), and it is missing the "but" (insert tantum vel sim.). It also falls prey to an Anglicism, as Casuistry mentioned: the 'men in the castle' construction (preposition modifying a noun phrase instead of a verb).

A Roman would understand the concept of a "waking dream" (vigilans somniat is found in Plautus, although with the sense rather of "be foolish," "daydream," "talk foolishly.") How about omnia vero quae videmus videmurve vigilantes solum somniamus? It's awfully long, though. I'd want something more compact in general.

To really attempt translating this bit of poetry into Latin, it seems to me you'd probably want some kind of epigram, maybe. A first try: omnia quae nobis in somno clara videntur / et vigilantes nos saepe videmus acres -- okay, I couldn't actually think of a last / u - / there that would make sense, and the monosyllabic nos is jarring! Anyone want to improve it? I was trying to keep the videre/videri play.

[*In brief:
1. Yes, the English quote suppressed a relative pronoun. You cannot have multiple main verbs. It's obligatory in Latin to use the relative.
2. Yes, the "but" used in the original is equivalent to "only," not a conjunction. (Like "ne... que" in French.) Latin would use a word for "only," so sed or tamen are not going to work.
3. The plural of somnium is somnia, not nominative *somni. It's neuter; all neuters have nominative and accusative plural in -a. (Fun fact: not just in Latin! Rule works in Greek and a bunch of other old IE languages too.)
4. Passive verbs take nominative subjects, just like active verbs. (Only infinitives take accusative subjects.) But because of the syncretism of the neuter (nominative and accusative are always the same form), there is no need to repeat the pronoun when switching from accusative object of videmus to nominative subject of videmur.
5. I'm not enamoured of quae videmur in the first place, but it does seem nice with videmus, so I've used it.
6. Latin word order: The most important word is generally first, the second most important last, everything else in the middle. Often, these two most imporant words are the subject and the verb, giving an SOV sentence, but that's really only a general guideline. Thus the copula is usually not first (unless it's meant to be existential: est in lecto canis, "there's a dog on the bed") and is usually not important enough to be last (more common to have canis est bonus than canis bonus est, though both are found).]
posted by lysimache at 9:00 PM on July 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Also, yes, 'sleep' is somnus, somni m., a second declension masculine noun. 'Dream' is somnium, somni n., a second declension neuter noun. Note that 'dream' has a stem ending in -i, as well, to distinguish between them.
posted by lysimache at 9:03 PM on July 10, 2009

Again, thanks so much, everyone.

I am using a combination of Wheelocks's "Latin, An Introductory Course", 501 Latin verbs, Adler's primer from the mid-19th century, and a ton of online vocabulary mp3's.

After work today I will go through this and work it out.

As far as I know, from what she told me, this is not so much about it sounding more profound but rather some experiment in translation made visual - she is doing a number of different texts in a number of languages, etc.

Thanks again, back to the books....
posted by Tchad at 5:55 AM on July 11, 2009

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