Thursday, November 25, 2010

my Vergil problem

This holiday morning I'm brooding over book orders. Yes, I turned them in weeks ago, but it's probably not too late for revisions.

Here's the deal: After dithering around over Homer translations, I finally settled for Fagles (Penguin), who seems solid enough, & whose texts are accompanied by really excellent extended introductions & notes by Bernard Knox. The Aeneid proved something more of a challenge. I like C. Day Lewis's version, find Fitzgerald's rather bland, & have a fondness for Frederick Ahl's recent Oxford, even though I recognize it makes a hash of Vergil's elegant concision. But I finally succumbed to the publicity materials – wow, they even sent me an e-mail! – and ordered Sarah Ruden's new translation from Yale UP. Academic friends, admit you've done this before yourselves – ordered a book for a class without actually having a copy in hand; please, admit it, so I don't feel like such a jackass. (I did, however, download their PDF of Book I, and liked it very much.)

At any rate, my desk copy arrived yesterday, and I'm having buyer's – or rather, assigner's – remorse. On two counts: First, the translation itself. Ruden is good, there's no getting around it. She translates Vergil's (and for some reason I'm very fond of that old-fashioned Latinate spelling) hexameters into terse iambic pentameter, & there's a kind of electric telegraphy to her lines that make the poem more fast-moving & active than any other Aeneid I've encountered:
The trumpets gave a harsh blare. Turnus raised
The war sign from the tower of Laurentum,
And whipped his horses up, and clashed his weapons.
Instantly all of Latium joined in frenzy
And panic. Its young men grew cruel and savage. (VIII)
But her decision to translate not merely in pentameter – ten-or-eleven-syllable lines – but line-for-line, an equal number of English lines to hexameter Latin lines, is simply mad. Latin is notoriously more compressed than English. (Her own example, from the Twelve Tables, "Si in ius vocat, ito," can be translated no more succinctly than "If a man is summoned to court, he must go" – 5 Latin words into 10 English.) And the hexameter is simply longer than the English pentameter. So her Vergil is of necessity a bare-bones, almost telegraphic version: all sorts of detail, all manner of adjectival richness, have gone by the board.

At times, this reads like Vergil as rendered by Beckett, or by LZ. That's not at all a bad thing – as I say, I admire her version very much; but is it the first Vergil for my junior-level undergrads, almost none of whom have any Latin, many of whom are encountering classical literature for the first time, to read? In some ways, Ruden's ideal reader is someone who already knows the Aeneid fairly well, and who can thereby appreciate this stripped-down version.

And there are a couple of weird moments in Ruden's all-too-brief introduction, as when she comments on enjambments:
I have reproduced enjambments wherever I could, but Anglo-American poetic taste in this connection is fairly stringent. Though making exceptions for emergencies, I took as a ready reminder of what is allowed two lines of A. E. Housman's that I particularly like: "It looked like a toad, and it looked so because / A toad was the actual object is was."
This does not, I fear, given me much faith in Ruden's sense of the poetic line. What about Milton's "sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another"; what about the stunning and expressive enjambments in Spring and All? Why pretend there is some unitary "Anglo-American poetic taste" regarding line breaks (exemplified in a formally retrograde English poet of a 100 years ago), and ignore not merely the whole modernist moment but the wonderfully cunning line breaks of Paradise Lost?

My second moment of doubt is more academic: Yale/Ruden gives us the (English) text of the Aeneid; they give us a brief and unhelpful introduction that focuses mainly on her method as translator (no background about Vergil himself, no situating of the poem within the epic tradition, no historical context); and they give us a glossary of proper names, itself strikingly minimal. What Yale/Ruden don't give the undergraduate reader: explanatory notes, so that one can make sense, say, of the parade of Roman history in VI; any clear sense of Vergil's poetic, how it's related to yet distinct from Homeric epic; maps, so one can figure out the geography of Aeneas' wanderings.

All of this is provided in Ahl, and in spades. Indeed, his Oxford edition has one the best apparatuses I've encountered recently in a scholarly press edition of a translated work. His lengthy introduction (by Elaine Fantham) is a wonder of information, interpretation, & commentary; his notes are lavish and pertinent; there's a bibliography, and a chronology of Vergil, and three very useful maps.

But Ruden, from the point of view of sheer poetry, is by far the superior text. Ahl is accurate but wordy; his own hexameters end up padding the Latin, even as her pentameters end up abbreviating it. Is this a distinction, however, that my students are going to appreciate? Do cultural & historical context – & general understanding – trump poetic elegance on my syllabus, or vice-versa? (Keeping in mind, however, that both versions are after all translations...)

So over the holiday weekend, along with the essay I'm close to finishing revising, I'm stuck with a dilemma: Should I howl "stop press" to the bookstores, and have them substitute Ahl for Ruden at the last minute? (Well, it's not quite the last minute – we won't read the Aeneid till sometime in late March, so there's plenty of time.) Or do I soldier on with Ruden, hoping to supplement all the things missing in her version thru classroom lectures, handouts, and online resources? I suppose I'll decide by the end of the weekend, but thoughts and suggestions would be more than welcome.

(Let me anticipate the first comment: Mandelbaum! Taken under advisement. And the second: Fagles! But Fagles is right out – they've already had enough of his voice after reading the Iliad & the Odyssey both.)


Anonymous said...

DO go with Rolfe Humphries' 1951 Scribner's (no non-sense)

The Aeneid of Virgil A Verse Translation.

Humphries' Introduction AND his (at the end)
Virgil's Life and Times (about 725 words long ... are all that is necessary as "foot-notes")

"Publius Vergilius Maro, whom we call Virgil, was born up north in Italy, somewhere in the vicinity of Mantua, in the year 70 B.C. Julius Caesar, that year, was a man of thirty. The poet's father was a landholder, sufficiently affluent to afford his son a pretty extensive course of education. [...]."

why SHOULD I /one take a course at University to read something that one can read on their own?

why didn't Virgil burn his epic... like he wanted to?

Peter O'Leary said...


Two years ago, I read Stanley Lombardo's translation of The Aeneid and it is marvelous. Glossary of names, plus a killer 50+ page introduction by W.R. Johnson, extending the qualities of his Darkness Visible. I'd use the book in a heartbeat.