Translations of the Aeneid

I decided I might as well do some ‘proper’ research on modern translations of The Aeneid, since I’m not going to visit the bookstore until next week. Well, actually, I’m not sure if a Google search constitutes as valid research, but I discovered one very excellent site: The Aeneid in English. From there, I narrowed my choices down to the four “popular” versions by Fagles, Lombardo, West and Fitzgerald.

Robert Fitzgerald, 1983 (verse)

Fagles’ name is on everybody’s lips nowadays, but apparently Fitzgerald’s translation used to be the most popular [English] translation of the Aeneid. Fitzgerald was recommended to me by Memory, who described his work as poetic and highly readable. He has also been praised for his consistency in meter and language, and his faithfulness to the original Latin.

… Almighty Juno,
Filled with pity for this long ordeal
And difficult passage, now sent Iris down
Out of Olympus to set free
The wrestling spirit from the body’s hold.
For since she died, not at her fated span
Nor as she merited, but before her time
Enflamed and driven mad, Proserpina
Had not yet plucked from her the golden hair,
Delivering her to Orcus of the Styx.
So humid Iris through bright heaven flew
On saffron-yellow wings, and in her train
A thousand hues shimmered before the sun.
At Dido’s head she came to rest.
“This token
Sacred to Dis I bear away as bidden
And free you from your body.”
Saying this,
She cut a lock of hair. Along with it
Her body’s warmth fell into dissolution,
And out into the winds her life withdrew.

David West, 1990 (prose)

I think this was the translation recommended by a commentor on Rebecca’s blog. In yesterday’s Sunday Salon, I mentioned juliadomna’s comment that often classics such as the Aeneid are translated into prose rather than verse because of language barriers. However, West rejects the notion that English prose is inadequate to translate the Aeneid.

…I have had to reject this [that ‘to translate poetry into prose is always a folly’] because I know of nobody at the end of our century who reads long narrative poems in English, and I want the Aeneid to be read. I believe also that this view does less than justice to the range, power and music of contemporary English prose

He writes that he “tried to be utterly faithful to everything I see and hear in the Latin…” and that his “second aim has been to write readable English which does honour to the richness and sublimity of Virgil’s language…”

All-powerful Juno then took pity on her long anguish
and difficult death and sent Iris down from Olympus to
free her struggling spirit and loosen the fastenings of her
limbs. For since she was dying not by the decree of Fate or
by her own deserts but pitiably and before her time, in a
sudden blaze of madness, Proserpina had not yet taken a
lock of her golden hair or consigned her to Stygian Orcus.
So Iris, bathed in dew, flew down on her saffron wings,
trailing all her colours across the sky opposite the sun, and
hovered over Dido’s head to say: ‘I am commanded to
take this lock of hair as a solemn offering to Dis, and now I
free you from your body.’
With these words she raised her hand and cut the hair,
and as she cut, all warmth went out of Dido’s body and
her life passed into the winds.

Stanley Lombardo, 2005 (verse)

Lombardo puts emphasis on natural speech cadences, “in keeping with the performative qualities of the Aeneid, which although it is literary rather than oral epic was nonetheless intended to be recited, practically sung”. Lombardo has been described as the most modern and accessible of recent translations; ‘joepye’ writes that it is a slightly uneven, but very readable, mix of “poetic” and “prosaic” elements.

Then Almighty Juno, pitying Dido’s long agony
And hard death, sent Iris down from Olympus
To free her struggling soul from its mortal coils.
Her death was neither fated nor deserved
But before her day and in the heat of passion.
Proserpina had not yet plucked from her head
A golden lock, nor allotted her a place
In the stygian gloom. And so Iris flew down
Through the sky on sparkling, saffron wings,
Trailing in the sunlight a thousand changing hues,
And then stood above Dido’s head.
“This offering
I consecrate to Dis and release you from your body.”
As soon as she had cut the lock, all the body’s warmth
Ebbed away, and Dido’s life withdrew into the winds.

Robert Fagles, 2006 (verse)

This is the translation I’ve heard most about, and the one that I’ve seen in all the bookstores – probably because it’s the most recent one available. Fagles’ intent was to find a ‘middle ground’ between “the features of an ancient author and the expectations of a contemporary reader”. He did not, by any means, attempt a line by line translation; such a literal rendering of Virgil’s language would have cramped his own.

Then Juno in all her power, filled with pity
for Dido’s agonizing death, her labor long and hard,
sped Iris down from Olympus to release her spirit
wrestling now in a deathlock with her limbs.
Since she was dying a death not fated or deserved,
no, tormented, before her day, in a blaze of passion–
Prosperina had yet to pluck a golden lock from her head
and commit her life to the Styx and the dark world below.
So Iris, glistening dew, comes skimming down from the sky
on gilded wings, trailing showers of iridescence shimmering
into the sun, and hovering over Dido’s head, declares:
“So commanded, I take this lock as a sacred gift
to the God of Death, and I release you from your body.”
With that, she cut the lock with her hand and all at once
the warmth slipped away, the life dissolved in the winds

Final Verdict?

David West is, of course, eliminated since I’m searching for a translation in verse. I am the most interested in Fagles and Fitzgerald. Fagles is concise, eloquent and rhythmic whilst retaining modernity of tone, whilst Fitzgerald is slightly archaic in comparison, but very beautifully written – his appears to be the most lyrical of the modern translations. There is no final verdict; I can’t really decide. I’ll have to just buy whatever’s available at the bookstore. And so I return to square one.

All in all, this was a futile exercise, but hopefully it’ll be useful to anyone who is attempting to choose between the various translations.

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3 thoughts on “Translations of the Aeneid

  1. Wow, thanks for that! I hadn’t realized West was prose. I’ll be revisiting this post next year when I need to make an “informed” decision about which translation to read. Since I can get pretty much any translation via libraries, this would be a great resource!

  2. I’m glad it’ll be of use to you – it hasn’t helped me at all, to be honest! I just can’t seem to make a decision. Right now, though, I’m leaning slightly towards Fitzgerald since his appears to be the most poetic of them all :)

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