First Encounters with Virgil

Virgil’s Aeneid is the first of six books that I chose for the Really Old Classics project. I’d planned on buying my own copy, but I didn’t have time to go browsing at the bookshop, since I’m still in the middle of exams. Instead, I visited the library and loaned the only copy of The Aeneid that they had: a 1959 prose translation by W F Jackson Knight. It was my first time reading Virgil so I was glad I’d picked up something fairly modern – although I was feeling enthusiastic about classical literature, I was nowhere near ready to swallow archaic verse. The plan was basically to gain a better understanding of the story itself through the prose translation, so that when I attempted it in verse, I wouldn’t be completely lost.

After all, the back of the book said something along the lines of:

This translation by W F Jackson Knight preserves admirably the range, vitality, and music of the original.

Not so. It was stiff cardboard. Basically, I got what I asked for (i.e. a better understanding), but that was about all. Maybe I’m being unnecessarily harsh; it was well-written but it also left me wondering why prose translations even exist. If the original was written in verse, how can you retain the rhythm and flow of the piece without translating it in verse? Feel free to debate with me on this, but I believe that form is just as important as accuracy of language, because each and every art form possesses a unique style that is hard to ‘imitate’ in other mediums.

Particularly after reading Rebecca’s post on different translations of The Iliad, I’ve come to realise that reading classical literature does not necessarily have to involve archaic language and extensive footnotes. So now that I’ve got this edition out of the way, I’ll definitely be trying a modern translation in verse. Or maybe the Odyssey; depends on which I manage to find first. I’ll probably be reading Fagles for both The Aeneid and The Odyssey though- for this project, I’m going with the motto: “whatever’s available”, and I’ve always seen a few of his at the bookstore.

Also, the modernity of his language is very refreshing.

This is Fagles’ 1996 translation of The Odyssey:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns / driven time and again off course, once he had plundered / the hallowed heights of Troy

And this is the fifteenth-century Chapman translation, from the copy I own (needless to say, I was oblivious to translations and such, at the time of purchase):

The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way / Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay / That wandered wondrous far, when he the town / Of sacred Troy had sack’d and shivered down

One last thing – earlier this week I stumbled onto Echoes of Narcissus, a blog devoted to Classical literature. The author, juliadomna, says:

I’m currently a Classics student, passionate about my subject and keen to communicate to others just how relevant Classics really can be … I hope this will be a good illustration of the exciting new dimension Classics can led to modern life.

I look forward to reading her posts alongside the books I’ve chosen for this project, since I know so little about the Classics.

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5 thoughts on “First Encounters with Virgil

  1. I agree about the verse versus prose thing you say: poetry should be translated as poetry!

    Supposedly, though, Virgil is more prose-y to begin with. But I’m just a beginner in these works and “classic lit.”

    I, too, am excited that there are so many translations that are more concerned with readability than exact/accurate translations. That’s probably the wrong way to be excited about Homer, but it does make me happy!

  2. Why can’t it be the right way to be excited about classical literature? :)

    I think in our day and age, accessibility is mostly what matters – it’s not as if we’re Virgil/Homer scholars, or even writing a thesis on their work, so we might as well enjoy the experience, right?

  3. I haven’t read Fagles, so I can’t speak for the quality of his translation, but I do recommend Robert Fitzgerald if you happen to come across any of his stuff. His translation of THE ODYSSEY is both poetic and highly readable. He’s also done THE AENEID and THE ILIAD.

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