magno murmure montis

My most recent translation for my Youtube channel would have produced several numbered trivia, so I decided to use it for my first ‘Behind the Scenes’ post. The easiest way to do this is to go through the song and explain my thought process behind anything I find interesting. (I find the littlest details interesting, so apologies if this is very involved.)

Sicut Aurae Varia (Colours of the Wind) – Pocahontas

Music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

This song was requested (by whom or when, I can’t remember), but I’ve been avoiding it for three reasons: firstly, I’ve never seen Pocahontas (I don’t like the artwork), secondly, there is a lot of untranslatable wordplay in it, and thirdly I was a little uncomfortable with the subject. I think I’ve dealt with the second and third reasons well enough; I still don’t like the artwork XD. Anyway, here goes.

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You’ve been so many places, I guess it must be so

This is very English and prosaic. It literally translates as, ‘tot ad terras ivisti: puto enim ita esse’. Better Latin would be, ‘cum tot urbes videris, scilicet ita res est’. But obviously that’s not going to go into the rhythm. So I went for something of a pun:

tot in orbes pervagatus, errare non potes (Since you’ve roamed right round so many corners of the world, you can’t lose your way.)

‘vagor’ and ‘erro’ are both words that mean ‘wander’, but the former has the nuance of ‘roam’ (vagabond) whereas the latter has the nuance of ‘be lost’ (error). I hope it’s obvious that she’s being wistfully sarcastic. (It probably isn’t.)

Still I cannot see how the savage one is me. How can there be so much that you don’t know?

Again, this is conversational English. Seeing = understanding is much more of an English concept than Latin. It’s also impossible to say ‘the savage one’ on its own, because Latin has no article (a/the). I’d have to go into a really prosaic construction along the lines of ‘I do not understand in what way out of us two I am savage’. So to give the idea that she’s saying ‘I don’t see how I’m the savage one’, as in, compared to him, I focused on him:

quid tamen iam latet id quo me ignaram tu dignes, tu qui mihi videris imprudens? (So why is it unclear how you can call me ignorant, when you seem to me so foolish?)

The ‘unclear’ is expressed in the construction ‘id quo … latet’, ‘that by which [you think me savage] is hidden’ (metaphor).

The word ‘call’ is translated by ‘dignes’, ‘deem’, which carries overtones of approval but which is here being used for him insulting her. Irony, I hope.

I’m very pleased with ‘imprudens’. ‘You don’t know’ at the end of the intro is very effective because there is no stress on any of the three words. You won’t get a three-syllable Latin verb that doesn’t sound out of sync here, so I had to use an adjective construction instead. ‘Imprudens’ fit, because the assonance complemented the tone. ‘Ignarus’ I’d used for ignorant in the sense of ‘savage’, besides it just sounded wrong. (So that you understand what I mean: I had to avoid the juxtaposition ‘lunae lupi’ because it sounded too much like ‘Loony Lupin’ from Harry Potter.) ‘Imprudens’ means foolish in the sense of lacking foresight or inconsiderate/insensitive.

You think you own whatever land you land on

Clever pun (I think so anyway). I hoped that I’d be able to replicate it directly, but the Latin for ‘land’ (verb) is ‘adplico’. So the simplest thing to do was to find a word that sounded like ‘terra’, ‘land’ (noun). The obvious choice was ‘terreo’, ‘I put to flight’ (‘terreas’, as well as a part of the verb, could be part of the adjective ‘terreus’, ‘land-related’).

tenere putas terras quas terreas (You think you own any land you terrorise)

This verb is usually applied to people – individuals or ‘gentes’ (races) – but I thought a transferred epithet, to the land itself, was very appropriate here. It wouldn’t be very noteworthy in English but in Latin it draws attention.

… you can claim

When I hear lyrics, I immediately think of what construction that would be in Latin. This would be a gerundive. The reason I’m highlighting it is that I didn’t use a gerundive, because: whatever I used to mean ‘that you can claim’ had to be the last word, gerundives are mostly three syllables with the stress on the second, and the stress in these three words is on the first – so it’d sound awful. I used the word spolium, ‘spoil’ (as in plunder). I think the apposition of this word to humus, ‘ground’, when spolia would normally be on the ground, makes it as forceful as the English.

You think the only people… (etc)

I followed the syntax of this verse quite closely because the words fit nicely and I thought it had a profound simplicity. However, I changed ‘people’ to mean ‘race’ rather than the plural of person.

Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon?

Well then. Here’s how not to write a song about another culture. Ordinarily I’d have debated whether to translate this as ‘moon of blue corn’ or ‘blue moon of corn’. But I got the feeling I’d better look it up… and the only search results were asking what this line meant – i.e. it held no other cultural significance. The first link I selected – in the ‘Astronomy’ category of some Q&A site – gave the explanation of Stephen Schwartz, the lyricist. I have to quote the whole thing:

‘I feel somewhat guilty to have to tell you that the phrase “blue corn moon” has no actual meaning in Indian lore. I made it up because I liked the sound of it. Its basis is this: In preparation for doing the lyrics to POCAHONTAS, I read a lot of Native American poetry. One of the phrases I came across, in a love poem, was : “I will come to you in the moon of green corn.” (The Native Americans called their months “moons” and named them according to something that happened seasonally, such as the arrival of green corn.) The phrase stuck in my head, but I didn’t think the lyric : “Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the green corn moon” really worked, because of the association of the moon and green cheese, plus the “ee” sound in it, etc. So I changed it to blue corn moon, which I thought had a nice resonance to it because of the phrase “blue moon” and the fact that there are things like blue corn tortillas, etc. Even though it’s not authentic, and actually implies Southwestern tribes rather than the Northeastern Algonkians of Pocahontas, I used it in the lyric and it obviously served me very well. This is probably far more than you wanted to know, but that’s the derivation of the phrase, for whatever it’s worth to you.’

To a translator, this is like… taking a car, putting it through a crusher and telling someone to judge the car on the merits of the scrap metal. My first thought was: why has no one ever brought this up?! Second thought: what on earth am I supposed to do with it?!

I went through a few options:

1) Translate the original phrase, ‘moon of green corn’, as ‘the moon at the end of summer when the corn is ripe’

2) Translate it literally, ‘moon of blue corn’, to highlight the fact that it doesn’t mean anything (I hate phrases that don’t mean anything. Perhaps I’ll talk about meaning another time)

3) Find an equivalent, e.g. a garbled literal translation of a Greek idiom

4) Erase it altogether

In the end I went for erasing it. I didn’t want to use (1) because the original lyric didn’t say that and I wasn’t going to give Schwartz the credit of having even meant it, plus I couldn’t get the entire significance into the space and wouldn’t settle for less; and (2) and (3), while my point would be that this was ridiculous, would emulate the… imprudentia and I was hardly about to do that either.

I replaced it with ‘bicornem lunam’ (crescent moon), the first time, and ‘astris’ (stars) the second. The first was intended to evoke ironically the ‘corn’ sound and draw attention. The second made up for the fact that it wasn’t clear that the ‘grinning bobcat’ refers to the stars (although not to a particular constellation).


Do you sing with all the voices of the mountain?

First things first: for ‘all the voices of the mountain’ I could not ignore the classic magno murmure montis (with a mountain’s great rumbling) which crops up several times in Vergil’s Aeneid. I drew the line at those exact words however, and replaced murmur (rumbling) with vox (voice).

As for ‘sing’, it is possible to say this in Latin, to denote simply the act of producing a tune: cantare. But the stress is on can-ta-re, or in the second person singular (you), can-tas. cantas sounded odd as the first word – I felt it needed a word before it – whereas the simple solution potes cantare (can you sing?) made the first three syllables rushed. So I opted for the other ‘singing’ verb instead: canere. This verb requires an object, as in arma virumque cano (‘I sing of arms and a hero’ – first line of the Aeneid). The question then was what was being sung. I considered viros (heroes) to evoke the Aeneid but as this word most often means ‘men’ I figured it wouldn’t go down very well. I found acta (deeds) too prosaic, vitam (life) I was using for the final line, and aeva and tempus, the only two words meaning ‘time’ that fit, just sounded off. Eventually I had the brainwave of dies, which suggests (to me anyway) individual ‘days in the life’, a lifetime, and time in general.

Can you paint with all the colours of the wind?

vitam pingis sicut auras variam? (Do you paint your life multi-coloured, like the winds?)

I’m putting this here not because of any particular translation issue but because it’s the main line and I’m really pleased with it.

Come taste the sunsweet berries of the Earth

After my elation over finally translating the first line of the chorus had died down, I realised that I had removed Schwartz’ allusion to a love poem, as much as he had warped it. So I decided to put a ‘suggestive’ line in, and I chose this one, mainly because myrta (myrtle-berries) is so much nicer a word than bacae (berries). Myrtle is sacred to Venus, goddess of love.

carpes myrta sole tacta et dulcia (You’ll pluck sun-warmed, sweet myrtle berries)

I think this is probably more suggestive than I intended… Plucking a flower and all that: I didn’t think of that when I used that verb! Grammatically, because Latin didn’t do commas, the object could be ‘sun-warmed, sweet myrtle berries’ or ‘sun-warmed myrtle berries and sweet things’. It’s meant to be the former, but that the latter is possible obviously raises questions as to what the sweet things could be. The whole thing is intended to create an exquisite and heady atmosphere. I’ll shut up now.

The heron and the otter

Anyone who knows a Latin word for ‘otter’, do step forward. I used ursus, ‘bear’.

In a circle, in a hoop that never ends

I translated this as in circlo et ambitu perpetuo (in a circle, in a loop that never ends). The latter word, ambitus, does mean a loop or orbit, but it also means bribery. This was my own cynical touch – I wanted Pocahontas to inadvertently underline that human beings are playing a deadly political game with one another.

How high will the sycamore grow? If you cut it down, you’ll never know

This took me some time. I confess I don’t know how to say ‘how high’ but that wasn’t a big deal – I could alter that. The problem was what was being asked here. I felt it should be philosophical, but the English was a bit… pathetic from that point of view. It’s prosaic and I felt the sycamore was chosen randomly. For all I know it has symbolism, but it isn’t obvious, and I think if you’re going to pick a tree, not considering clear symbolism in a song about nature and spirituality is sloppy.

So, despite being a useless philosopher I determined I would attempt to make it philosophical:

virga quo finem describet? si scideris, numquam sapies. (Where will the branch trace its boundary? If you cut it, you’ll never know)

The branch is supposed to represent a person. ‘You’ll never know’ is numquam sapies; I used the word sapio rather than the more common scio, a) because scio didn’t fit, b) because sapio can mean ‘be wise’ in an abstract sense as well as its later sense of ‘know something’ and I thought this added to the philosophical air I was aiming at.

You’ll never hear the wolf cry

Even though this is supposed to be mostly a repeat, I had to change the words entirely here because Latin doesn’t form verbs like English. ‘Have you heard the wolf cry’ vs ‘you will never hear the wolf cry’: both are long, with the word ‘cry’ identical even if it isn’t performing the same function. In Latin those phrases are audivistine lupum ululantem and numquam audies lupum ululantem. Big problem for rhythm. I think the second chorus’ lyrics are sufficiently different for it to look like a deliberate remix.

white or copper-skinned

nam debemus et aquilo et candido colore canere … vitam pictam sicut auras variam (For we must, with pale and dark skin, sing … of our life, painted in colours, like the wind)

I think the way I’ve expressed ‘white or copper-skinned’ is quite late Latin but I thought it had to be very clear here. Also, I have neglected to put punctuation in the first half of this sentence because it highlights that you have to think about the grammar to work out what it says. I don’t do much enjambement but here is an example: the third line starts colore canere, which when carried over from the previous means ‘[for we must, with pale and dark] skin, sing’) but it can also stand on its own, and mean ‘sing in colour’. Grammatically it doesn’t mean that as a noun is required for the two adjectives, but a Roman would hear the possibility there and it’d evoke the images anyway.

I’ve also put a twist on the end of the chorus, mainly because canere required an object but also because I thought it provided a neat reprise. Rather than saying, ‘Do you paint your life in the colours of the wind’, it now describes a life hypothetically painted thus.

You can own the earth and still, all you’ll own is earth until

This plays on two meanings of ‘earth’, which I don’t think is possible in Latin, so again I used a phonetic pun, on orbis (earth, as in the world) and orbus (empty).


you can paint with all the colours of the wind


To repeat the main line I’d have to say ‘dum vitam pingas sicut auras variam’, which would have been very cramped, so I changed it to dum me pingas (‘until you can paint me in all the colours’, instead of life), which fits the rhythm nicely; I also think it rounds up the theme well, since she started talking about his opinion of her in particular; and of course, it is a love song.




Au cas où vous voudriez que je traduise ces explications en français, faites-moi savoir.

Caso mai avreste voglia di leggere queste spiegazioni in italiano, fatemi sapere.

2 Responses to "magno murmure montis"

  1. “evoke ironically the ‘corn’ sound”
    Literally rofl’ed

    “I didn’t think of that when I used that verb!”
    Sure ;)
    Just think of it as become well-versed enough in Latin love poetry that you are adopting some of their thought patterns.

    “Latin word for ‘otter’”
    that would be lutra-ae fem… one of the ways I get animal names is look at the scientific name (ex. Lutrinae) and then search on la(dot)wikipedia(dot)org till I find an appropriate page. (I went from Lutrinae –> Lutra) From there, I look that word I just found (“Lutra”) in a credible source and then lo-and-behold… OTTER in latin! :D … btw, interestingly the name comes from luo (to wash)

    “This was my own cynical touch”

    “I used a phonetic pun”
    That’s really cool… I love wordplay like that :D
    –other than stretching the meaning or terra or humus, what would a capitalization do? (ex. terra vs Terra)

    • livia

      Hehe, it’s good to know that someone enjoys my nerdy linguistic puns :’) Most people either don’t get them or just give me a look that translates as, ‘Seriously?’ XD

      Honestly, I didn’t! Admittedly, I realised pretty soon afterwards, and decided to leave it… but it genuinely wasn’t intended :P

      I think I recall that word but since it was only used in technical handbooks I decided it would be a bit too niche for poetry – but thank you for looking :)

      Thank you! *high-five*

      Well, on one hand the answer is ‘nothing’ because the Romans wrote in all capitals XD. But the advantage is that ‘TERRA’ in Latin could be ‘terra’ OR ‘Terra’, Earth (while ‘terrae’, plural, could only mean ‘lands’). The case where this would be most relevant here is where I put ‘mortam humum iacere spolium’. The most common meaning of ‘terra’ is ‘land’ as in ‘the promised land’. It would have worked very well here, admittedly, but I used ‘humus’ (most commonly meaning ‘earth’ i.e. soil) partly because it fit the rhythm (‘mortam terram’ doesn’t elide, so it wouldn’t fit) and partly because I wanted to suggest that Pocahontas was accusing John Smith of a self-aggrandising attitude: ‘You’re so desperate for power that you even want to make trophies out of the soil.’ I thought there were enough explicit references to the life of nature that I could leave out this particular wordplay, even though it’d have been nice to get it in! A capitalisation would make no difference to humus because while Terra was occasionally personified, the soil was not.

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