Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Mystery of the Latin Pillow

Or: The Curious Case of the Classical Cushion
by Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries


It all started when a keen fan from Tasmania asked me to translate a cushion in her house.
This happens a lot.
Not necessarily being asked to parse a pillow, but I am often asked to help with Latin homework, compose mottoes and translate inscriptions.
Top Fan Julia had a tapestry cushion with Latin on it.
She diligently copied down the Latin and sent it to me:

LOQUERIS
Si vis me flere, Dolendum est

Telephe vel Peleu male si ipsi

dormitabo aut Mandata

on satis est pulchra

Ridentibus adrident, ita

RIDEBO

The Latin looked extremely dodgy so before launching in on a translation, I did what any self-respecting scholar should always do first: I googled it. Sure enough, a search of si-vis-me-flere took me straight to several pages of chat about these pillows. It seems to be a few verses from Horace’s Ars Poetica, but badly garbled.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus AKA Horace was a poet who lived in the time of Julius Caesar and the first emperor Augustus. He is most famous for his Odes and Epodes and for coining the phrase Carpe diem! or 'Seize the day!' His Ars Poetica, 'The Art of Poetry', was actually a letter to a friend, written about 20 BC. A hundred or so years later, the orator Quintilian was the first one to call it the Ars Poetica. The Oxford Classical Dictionary describes it as ‘a most puzzling work … [saying] little that is worthy of Horace.’

So here we have an obscure passage from an obscure Latin treatise. The passage from which the pillow phrases are taken comes about a hundred lines into the letter. If you look at the cushion you can see phrases have been chopped and changed, words have lost initial letters or dropped out altogether.

Here is the non-garbled version:

Non satis est pulchra esse poemata: dulcia sunto
Et quocumque volent animum auditoris agunto.
Ut ridentibus adrident, ita flentibus adflent

humani vultus. Si vis me flere, dolendum est

primum ipsi tibi: tunc tua me infortunia laedent,

Telephe vel Peleu; male si mandata loqueris,

aut dormitabo aut ridebo: tristia maestum
vultum verba decent; iratum, plena minarum
ludentum lasciva, severum seria dictu.


And here is a rough translation:

It’s not enough for poems to be beautiful: they must be persuasive
and able to lead the soul of the hearer wherever they want.
As we grin among those who are smiling,
so we tend to well up around those who weep.
If you want me to cry, you yourself must first feel anguish
Then your misfortunes will move me, O Peleus or Telephus;
if you speak inappropriately, I will doze off or laugh out loud:
sad words require a mournful expression,
angry ones need a face full of menace,
Naughty words suit a playful mood,
serious words go with sober topics.


(By the way, Horace names Telephus and Peleus as examples of mythic characters tragic tales to tell. Telephus was a son of Hercules, famous for a fresco from Pompeii that shows him suckling from a deer. He had a miserable life which included suckling from said deer, being a beggar, almost sleeping with his mother, suffering for many years with a would not heal, etc. Peleus was a prince from Aegina – the island near Athens – and had to become an exile after accidentally killing his brother. Although he later became father of the great warrior Achilles, several tragedies were written about him.)

According to several online discussions, the guilty fabric is manufactured in China. But in the guise of cushions, upholstery, wall-hangings and curtains, it has found its way all over the world: Australia, Germany, Norway, Chile, Oxford, South Yorkshire and Tasmania.

I was at Alderley Edge School for Girls (Greater Manchester area) last week to talk about my series of books set in ancient Rome, when the librarian Ruth pointed at the heavy curtains in the hall. ‘Look!’ she said. ‘Latin curtains!’ I stepped closer and peered at the letters. Sure enough, it read: ‘Loqueris 
Si vis me flere…etc.’

If someone asks you to translate their cushion, and you recognise some of the words I’ve been talking about here, tell them it's garbled but that it says something like: ‘If you want to be a poet, laugh with those who laugh and cry with those who cry.’

How on earth a Chinese manufacturer got hold of the random and rather obscure piece of Latin poetry remains a mystery.

P.S. Someone has recently translated another piece of Latin gobbledygook – the famous lorem ipsum text filler – into English. 

[The Roman Mysteries books are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are even DVDs of a 2007/2008 BBC TV series.]

20 comments:

  1. Omg! I have that cushion (well actually its a sofa). I was reading this blog - looking hopefully for the notice which said 'the man from pomegranate street will be released early, today in fact', but unfortunately despite my wishing it didn't appear. Anyway, suddenly I saw that the cushion in the picture looked familiar... very familiar, in fact, seeing as I was sitting on the same material! I can't believe my obscure sofa was on your blog - what are the chances of that? Thanks for finding out what it means, it excited my mum so much!

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  2. LOL! If you send me a picture of you reading one of my books and sitting on the sofa I'll add it to the blog! First names only, of course. Send it to flaviagemina@hotmail.com. Or not.

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  3. P.S. The Man from Pomegranate Street is out and should be in your local bookshop soon. If it isn't, ask them to order it!

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  4. It's out? Seriously! But I thought it came out in June?? I pre-ordered it from Amazon and they said I'd get it on the 17th of June! I hope they send it soon cos I can't really buy two copies! But people in the world will know what happens in the end, while I have to wait another 18 days!! Also the batteries on my camera are dead - can't find the charger, but when I do I'll email you a picture. Thanks!

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  5. I have one of these, which I bought in Ireland about 2001. It's green, of course.

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  6. What a treasure to find your blog and get the dodgey Latin deciphered. From time to time I have seen this fabric, usually in the guise of cushions and I have wondered. The Latin seemed not quite right but I never had taken the time to try to sort it until today. What a relief to have part of the mystery solved.

    Nice way to discover your blog and your books.

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  7. Anonymous10:48 PM

    My mother has had two of these pillows (in beige/light brown) for at least 10 years I think. We had always wondered what that text meant (if anything) and I never thought of googling it until today. Thanks for the explanation.

    --GvdV, the Netherlands

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  8. I had a carpet sort of thing in my bedroom for 5 months. At that time i was living in the French Alps - La Rosiere and wondering what was the meaning.. Im glad i found out abt your blog! Good luck on your studies!! Flavia Pickler

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  9. dense-thicko3:59 PM

    Well it was the frequent exposure to 'lorem ipsum' text used to fill up preliminary web pages that triggered me to google this directly upon removing from the washing machine today's cushion cover purchase inspired in the charity shop by a notion that any visitor could not seize on the banality of an english homily and could be astounded were a translation solicited.

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  10. Anonymous2:43 AM

    So my bf & I bought this blue tapestry at a thrift store for $1 a couple years ago, it hangs on the wall in our bedroom. Always loved it, and he was always bugging me to figure out what it meant. Sadly, he died suddenly of a heart attack on Feb. 24. He was 42. Tonight's mission (it helps to have missions) was to decipher it. First, I put it into my iphone's translation app...not good lol. So thank you - finding your blog made me laugh and cry, and mission accomplished. peace and success to you!

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  11. Kathy Holden8:33 PM

    We have just purchased four of the cushions which accompanied a second-hand sofa from a charity shop in Preston, Lancashire two days ago. We wondered what the latin was, my husband Lawrence, is quite good at latin but couldn't quite make it work. Thanks to you we can know inform anyone who come to the house and asks what it says, what it actually does say.

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  12. I bought my cushion covers in a charity shop, because I am a lover of words (and a blogger). I am vaguely interested in languages and wished I had studied Latin instead of German, but I kept being told: "it's a dead language"... A real shame.
    Thank you for going to the trouble with this... I googled the words and was brought to you. Good work, Caroline.

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  13. Thank you so much for this! I have the cushions, which were my partner's from his previous house. I have always wondered what the words mean, and whether I am resting my head against a cushion saying `I am a dork who paid of fortune for these cushions' or similar! The actual poem is so poignant, even centuries after it was written. Latin may be a `dead language' but sentiment and emotion is universal.

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  14. I have a hat in this fabric, made by Tamsin Young of Norwich. She told me it was unique because all the others she made in this fabric are of a different design!

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  15. So glad to know what the words meant I purchased a blanket today in charity shop for my dog but now that's its washed and I know what the words are I may just keep it my self, thanks again.

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  16. I have 4 cushions given to me last week i was wondering what the words meant

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  17. I looked up the translation as I was allowed take a memento from my friends house who tragically took his life a while back. I'm glad it has such a meaningful translation..he truly was a poet!.. He would laugh when you laughed and cry when you cried x

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  18. Oh my god, no wonder I had trouble translating this wall hanging my grandmother gave me! I don't know that I can keep it now, being a stickler for grammar...

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  19. I have just picked up a throw with it on from our local charity shop in Egremont Cumbria UK, love your explanation, now makes sense that other sites I visited found it hard to translate! Thanks for sharing :o)

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  20. I have just got two cushions and a throw/wallhanging in a gorgeous navy blue colour with exactly the same Latin on it it puzzled us I'm so glad we found your blog, I now know what it means and I like it even more thank you ��

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