Virgil's vox regained in translation - Sarah Ruden has translated Virgil's "Aeneid"

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Virgil's vox regained in translation

Jennifer Howard | October 15, 2008

FOR more than 2500 years, classical epic has been the province of men: written by, for and about them, and passed down through the centuries by male translators. One could certainly describe Virgil's Aeneid as a manly poem. From its arms-and-the-man opening to its climactic bloodbath on the battlefield, the Latin epic tells a tale of exile, combat and slaughter, with a body count rivalling that of Homer's Iliad. Women figure mostly as collateral damage.

In what appears to be a first, however, a woman has finally tried her hand at bringing Virgil's dactylic hexameters to a modern, English-speaking public. Yale University Press has published a blank-verse translation by poet and classicist Sarah Ruden. And she has plenty of company.

The Aeneid has never been a forgotten work, but since the most recent millennial turn it has enjoyed a burst of renewed popularity with translators. Four English-language versions have appeared in the past three years alone.

At least two more editions are in the works, one by poet and translator David Ferry, widely admired for his Horace translations, and the other by Jane Wilson Joyce, a professor of literature in the classical studies program at Kentucky's Centre College, who is about four-fifths of the way through her Aeneid. All this activity comes as scholars have broken free of the constraints imposed by a tradition that stretches back to the early English translations of the 17th and 18th centuries. Bringing a sense of personal passion to the task, modern translators are reminding readers that for all the fierceness and grandeur of the events it describes, the Aeneid is also intimate, at times even tender.

It raises an urgent question - What price empire? - even as it creates a foundational myth of how a great empire came to be. In an age that has had its fill of war and foreign adventures, Virgil's epic, written 2000 years ago, still speaks volumes.

Although the biographical details remain sketchy, we know that Virgil (70BC-19BC) lived through the civil wars that marked the death throes of the Roman Republic and the birth of the Roman Empire. He found a powerful patron, Maecenas, at the court of Augustus Caesar and probably read the Aeneid to the emperor and his sister, Octavia. We also know that the epic was unfinished at Virgil's death. Almost immediately, however, it became required reading for Roman schoolboys, for whom it was a model tale of empire building and the making of a leader.

But this war story is also a tale of piety, loyalty, sacrifice, grief and perseverance. It describes how a family and a people survive catastrophe - the sack of Troy - and make a new home for themselves, founding what will one day become a great empire, Rome.

The first six books of the tale describe Aeneas's flight from Troy with his father, Anchises, and his young son, Iulus. Along the way, the hero encounters storms, shipwreck and ill-fated romance.

He briefly falls for Dido, queen of Carthage, who kills herself after Aeneas abandons her to fulfil his destiny.

The second, less familiar half of the epic - books 7-12 - follows the hero as he lands in Italy and must fight what amounts to a bitter civil war to claim his empire. Aeneas wins, but not before countless warriors have slaughtered one another.

The epic ends with an especially troubling moment: Aeneas denies mercy to Turnus, leader of the opposing force, and skewers him in a fit of rage on the battlefield. The moment ends the story on a discordant note, as the most faithful and pious of heroes succumbs to a dramatic loss of self-control.

It is likely that Virgil did not intend to end the book with that scene; he probably had in mind a much longer work, which would have followed Aeneas's evolution from warrior to statesman. Either way the harsh ending and the story's account of the human cost of war have kept scholars debating: was Virgil an empire booster or a critic who managed to question the imperial enterprise even as he celebrated it?

Our own recent, bloody history makes it easy to hear echoes in Virgil's tragedy. That has made the Aeneid even more appealing to a post-Vietnam generation of translators.

"Particularly when you get meaningless wars like World War I, Vietnam and Iraq, the legitimacy of death gets questioned," says Richard F. Thomas, a professor of Greek and Latin and director of graduate studies in the classics department at Harvard University. "This is a poem that activates that question pretty well: Is Rome worth it?"

He points to a 1971 translation by Allen Mandelbaum as one that has been particularly popular with instructors "who wanted to get Virgil as a post-Vietnam poet".

On the subject of Virgil's attitude towards war, Ruden warns against casting an ancient tragedy as some kind of modern political statement. "People make a fundamental mistake arguing about the politics of the Aeneid," says Ruden, a visiting fellow at Yale divinity school.

"It's about things that have to be, about which people have no choice, and that means it's about submission to the divine will."

Born in 1962 in Bowling Green, Ohio, and reared in the countryside, Ruden did her doctoral work in classics at Harvard. There, she recalls, "somebody told me, 'Don't work on Ovid. All of these women work on Ovid."' Rather than study a writer known for his love elegies as well as the Metamorphoses, she chose the harder-edged satirist Petronius instead. Like many of Virgil's translators, Ruden is a published poet in her own right. But she did not approach the epic for the poetic challenge of it or to be a feminist trailblazer. She signed on for practical reasons.

"I had to do it to stay in translation," she explains. "I had to do a major work. I had to do one that's taught very often. But I got caught up. This was something that came to mean a lot to me."

Here her personal history guided her. After completing her doctorate, Ruden found her first teaching job at the University of Cape Town. Living in South Africa, a country still gripped by turmoil at the end of apartheid, she says she came to understand how Virgil felt about the brutality of civil war.

"How imperial conflict works itself out isn't an academic matter for me," she explains. "The Aeneid isn't a stiff antiquarian pageant. It's immediate and primal. 'They're taking our stuff! They want all of it! They're killing us for it! Let's kill them first!' I don't believe I put the slightest strain on the Latin in trying to echo Virgil's defensiveness and helpless grief, but first I had to understand it, and Africa gave me that gift."

Although most scholars agree that, until now, women mostly have steered clear of Greek and Latin epic, they have more than one theory about why.

Stephen Harrison, a classical languages and literature professor at the University of Oxford, believes the phenomenon dates back to when the works took shape. "Epic was perceived in antiquity as a male prestige genre, and the fact anyone who knows any classical languages will have a view on a translation of Homer or Virgil makes it a tough thing to do, especially for women in pre-feminist days when it was wrongly thought that women could not learn classical languages to the levels of men," he says.

For Stanley Lombardo, professor of classics at the University of Kansas and translator of a 2005 Aeneid, the English tradition hasn't helped. "Pope's Iliad and Odyssey established this standard for epic decorum, and it's all grand and high diction. What woman would want to touch that?"

Lombardo has made a name for himself as a translator and as a performer of Homer and Virgil. He is emblematic of the new breed of Virgil translator, for whom the Aeneid is anything but stuffy and highfalutin.

"This is living literature and that's how it should be rendered," he says. "The immediacy of Greek and Latin literature is astonishing when you read it that way."

To do justice to the Aeneid, Lombardo says, "it's got to pulse with life".

Thomas points to a phrase in Lombardo's edition that illustrates that turn in translation. "Without very much justification on the level of Virgil's Latin but a great deal of justification from what's going on in the poem, Lombardo writes 'shock and awe', which immediately takes one to more-recent events and sets one asking the question: Are we Rome?" he says.

Joyce, well into her own translation of the Aeneid, has opted, like Ruden, for a line-for-line approach. "I try, at least in general, to keep a vaguely dactylic rhythm going, but it's amazing how often it wants to turn around into anapaests," she says. The economy of Latin compared with English is "so unfair", she adds. "It's just a joy."

Like Ruden, she sees beyond the story's martial themes: "I find Virgil a tender presence. So even when horrible things are happening on the battlefield, there is a tenderness, and his feel for human relationships, his feel for landscape and his pity for humans is something that I find intensely appealing." Joyce laughs. "I don't know; I'm in love with the guy."

Such a sense of personal connection, Ruden believes, gives female translators an edge over their male counterparts.

"I'm going to get killed for voicing this, but I believe women have the right attitude," she says. "Women get more involved. The authors are more real to us. We develop relationships with them."

Not long ago, she heard a talk at Yale given by Edith Grossman, who translates Gabriel Garcia Marquez's works into English and has done an English-language version of Don Quixote. "I came away convinced that women, not men, are the natural translators for the great books," Ruden says. But she cautions that women who translate "must follow the Edith Grossman line" and keep a certain scholarly distance and balance. "The danger of emotional engagement is to impose the self on this alien author," she says.

Women now have far greater liberties and a much greater sense of their historical oppression than the women of 2000 years ago did, but that doesn't mean a 21st-century translator should portray, say, Dido as a victim of male chauvinism.

"You shouldn't take that to an author like Virgil," Ruden argues. "You're not being true to his context if you're thinking in those terms. You have to go back to tragedy.

"Everybody in here is a person, an individual, and they get annihilated in these big events. You have these injured or abandoned women; you have these men who are cannon fodder."

That sense of poignant fatalism touches translators male and female. Ferry, an emeritus professor of English at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, is in the first stages of translation, at work on Book 3 of the Aeneid. But even in the grand early passages, in which Aeneas and his family flee Troy, Ferry sees "so much else going on besides the epic": for example, the way that Aeneas's boy, Iulus, "is trying to keep up, matching hisfather's footsteps" as the city burns behind them.

Thomas, who taught Ruden at Harvard, puts it this way: "Epic poetry is the title we give it, but look on to any page and you're looking at human voices, male and female, you're looking at the human condition, you're looking at worlds gone wrong, you're looking at power and victory and defeat."

Translators take up a text such as the Aeneid for an army of reasons. For Ruden, it began as a practical decision.

For Lombardo, Virgil represented the logical next step in retracing the literary journey from Homer to Dante. (He is working on the Inferno.)

For publishers, however, the decision to take on the Aeneid is increasingly perilous. How many additional versions does the world need?

"It's fair to say that it gets more difficult to do this the more translations are published," says Brian Rak, Lombardo's editor at Hackett. Most Aeneid translations are intended to work their way into the undergraduate curriculum but, as with Aeneas, they have to fight to earn their place.

In Rak's experience, an edition becomes entrenched for a while as the classroom favourite, "and it's difficult to even think of another translation that could compete with it", he says.

"But along comes a new translation and people want to have a look at it."

Every new translation offers the tantalising possibility that it will strike closer to the thrill and beauty of the original than any has before. "The sorrow with any translation is that you're never really quite there," Lombardo says. "You may be someplace almost as good."

Behind the hope is a never-ending struggle to crack the code of language.

"I know the Latin of a particular passage once I've worked on it," Ferry says. "Then I start my whole life over again."

"Great works of literature do come from God," Ruden says. "They are so miraculous, you can't figure out how a human being could have pulled off something like this."

A translator must strive to see the work in its own terms, she believes, while knowing that such a goal will always be just out of reach. "But it's something that you keep pushing and pushing and pushing, until you pass out from exhaustion. You have to keep up hope for an impossible thing. Again, it comes back to religion."

No wonder the ancient poets always began their work with an invocation of the muse.

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Ο λόγος είναι μεγάλη ανάγκη της ψυχής. (Γιώργος Ιωάννου)


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