Tag Archives: dies irae

Translating the “Dies Irae.”

Working through Wheelock’s grammar is tough.  (I’m at chapter 16!)  Naturally, I decided to liven up my Latin by reading a famous medieval dirge for the dead.  The “Dies Irae” is ascribed to Thomas of Celano, thirteenth-century author of the first hagiography of Francis of Assisi.  Think what you may, I am sure you have heard this hymn before, especially if you saw Amadeus:

Here I’d like to look over the first two stanzas of the hymn and supply some translations.  I have given up trying to keep the meter, rhyme, and meaning intact.  I figure two out of three ain’t bad!

Dies irae, dies illa
solvet saeclum in favilla
teste David cum Sibylla.

Quantus tremor est futurus
quando iudex est venturus
cuncta stricte discussurus!

Notice that each line is in trochaic tetrameter, “Dies irae, dies illa,” with eight beats in each line.  In each stanza, all three lines rhyme: illa / favilla / Sibylla.”  Peter Walsh’s translation in his fantastic Dumbarton Oaks One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas volume is the most literal I have seen:

Day of fury, that sad day
will reduce the world to dust,
as claim David and the Sibyl.

What a trembling there will be
when the judge is to appear
all things harshly to review! (Walsh 347)

As amazing as Wash’s volume is, his translation doesn’t even try to keep the poetic elements of the hymn.  I tried my hand at keeping the rhyme.

The day, that day of fury
When the world will turn to ashes in a hurry
As David and Sibyll told us to worry.

How greatly all will be trembling,
When the judge is assembling,
The world gone to disassembling.

[Alternate translation of the second stanza:]
A great tremor will be scattering,
When the judge with his feet the earth battering,
The world gone to shattering.

Despite my best efforts, some of my wording is just awkward: “As David and Sibyll told us to worry” doesn’t capture the eschatological urgency of the original.  Sometimes the languages provide their own obstacles.  The participles that rhyme so well in Latin translate into static gerunds in English that don’t adequately capture the drama and action.

Two other translators tried to keep the rhyme:

Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending!

Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
When from heaven the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth.
(William Josiah Irons, 1849 — link)

That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
as David and the Sybil say.

What horror must invade the mind
when the approaching Judge shall find
and sift the deeds of all mankind! (link)

Irons’ is the loosest, even switching the second and third lines in the first stanza.  I like it more, despite its archaisms. The other one uses very limpid verbs (“lay,” “say”) — not appropriate for eschatology!

Still, there seems to be a certain energy in the original Latin that rhyme-oriented translations don’t capture.  So I worked on keeping the meter instead:

Day of wrath, that day when all burns
World turns ashes, God breaks, smashes,
David, Sibyll witness’d, told us.

Tremor breaks out, how great, how loud,
When the Judge is coming, sitting,
Viewing souls, soon shatters bad ones.

I love the energy of the first stanza.  The second stanza did not come out as well, especially the third line.  (Any suggestions?)  Ironically, to keep the meter of the Latin, I have to use short, one-syllabled Germanic words!

I could only find one translation that preserves both meter and rhyme.  Ambrose Bierce satirically throws meaning out the window:

Day of Satan’s painful duty!
Earth shall vanish, hot and sooty;
So says Virtue, so says Beauty.

Ah! what terror shall be shaping
When the Judge the truth’s undraping!
Cats from every bag escaping!

Thoughts?  Suggestions?  How would you translate it?