Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Translator’s Dilemma

Verse translation — translating poems as poems — is perhaps the most difficult and underappreciated task any writer can be tasked with. Doing so usually requires fluent command (though, as Douglas Hofstadter proves, there are exceptions) of both the original language and the target one, command that extends beyond just communication standards but knowledge of poetic norms. For example: Is reproduction of a rhyme scheme viable? a metrical structure? If it is not, how does one go about reproducing the “flavor” of the thing?

Naturally, despite the difficulty of the work, verse translators often labor in obscurity, with their names invoked only after the originator. So one might say, for example, “Hofstadter’s Pushkin” or “Falen’s Pushkin” when referring to different translations of Eugene Onegin, or “Fitzgerald’s Aeneid vs. Fagles’ Aeneid vs. Lombardo’s Aeneid, and so on (though in this case the name of the work has become inseparable from its originator, i.e. Virgil).

Yet verse translation, despite its thanklessness, is necessary. Prose can only go so far in translating a work of literature — indeed, it turns everything into novels. You lose some sense of the epic in Graves’ execrable translation of Pharsalia — or his prose renditions of Homer and Virgil which I vaguely recall reading in middle school — and a prose translation of Eugene Onegin loses its sense of verse-ness and hence the bulk of Pushkin’s punch.

In This Craft of Verse, Borges points out that “the translator’s work is always supposed to be inferior — or what is worse, is felt to be inferior” (“Word-Music and Translation”, pg. 65) despite the fact that he holds Campbell’s translation “When all the house was hushed” to be superior to San Juan de la Cruz’s original “estando ya mi casa sosegada” (pgs 60-65 ff). Why should this be?

Perhaps Borges has tripped himself up by his own choice of language here (recall Wittgenstein). It isn’t necessarily “inferiority”, which implies the original’s superiority; it’s that we feel the translator is somehow a broker, a go-between allowing us access to the original despite the fact that we cannot read the language. Thus, for example, unless they have name their names elsewhere, as Nabokov or Hofstadter e.g. have, we tend to ignore the translator’s efforts in allowing us access to this or that famous work. How many of us, for example, know that William Weaver translated Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose for our reading pleasure?

Seen from this perspective, translation is little more than ghostwriting with a byline.

Tellingly, perhaps, Borges never translated his own texts, despite being bilingual more-or-less from birth in English and Spanish and achieving fluency in at least German and probably French too (the former he tells us as much; the latter because he went to a Francophone college in Geneva). Translating one’s own work can be thought of as an act of interpretation — you’re re-interpreting yourself for a whole new audience — and can anything be more arrogant than that?* **


* Lots of things, to be honest. I can think of a few off the top of my head.

** It’s worth pointing out here that the fourth section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, “Death by Water”, which runs like this:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
And the profit and loss. A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Entering the whirlpool. Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

is in fact a translation into English of the end of his earlier French poem Dans le restaurant (“In the Restaurant”), which runs like this:

Phlébas, le Phénicien, pendant quinze jours noyé,
Oubliait les cris des mouettes et la houle de Cornouaille,
Et les profits et les pertes, et la cargaison d’etain:
Un courant de sous-mer l’emporta tres loin,
Le repassant aux étapes de sa vie antérieure.
Figurez-vous donc, c’etait un sort penible;
Cependant, ce fut jadis un bel homme, de haute taille.

“Death by Water” has always been my favorite part of The Waste Land, incidentally.

Advertisements

The Tale of Igor’s Campaign

1024px-igorsvyatNow here’s an interesting one. In my pursuit of the medieval epic, I ran down a vague reference or two to a Russian poem of the period called variously The Song of Igor’s Campaign or The Tale of Igor’s Campaign (Nabokov uses “song” so naturally I use “tale”).

Medieval epics have aroused my curiosity and interest from an early age, but I’ve only recently gotten around to reading any of them not named Beowulf. (Seriously, check out the Seamus Heaney translation — it’s great.) So it was with some interest that I found some references to this poem, said to be one of the first in Russian literature.

Like most medieval epics, it is a legendary treatment of actual events: Song of my Cid is of course a legendary treatment of his conquest of Valencia; The Song of Roland of the Battle of Ronceveaux / Roncevalles (I’ve seen it spelled both ways) Pass; Beowulf apparently comes from an incident or two also narrated in the (conveniently) lost Skjöldunga saga (that is, “Saga of the Shieldings”). So too the Tale of Igor’s Campaign, which tells of a disastrous raid by the Kievan prince, Igor, on their eastern neighbors, the Kumans, in (roughly) the Donbass region.

It is a brief read — only about 860 (very short!) lines in Nabokov, and 15 or so pages in the Indiana University edition — and can be read in less than an hour. That said, though, its brevity belies a deep sonic resonance that not even a pest like Volodechka can expunge from his pages, a sense of rapid-fire action that keeps the reader glued to the screen (or page), as the raid sets out and goes south, leading to Kuman subjugation of the Kievan Rus’, Igor’s father eulogizes him, and eventually Igor himself escapes from thralldom to the kagans. Supernatural occurrences are mentioned: a solar eclipse bodes ill at the raid’s start; two suns are mentioned during the battle, both shrouded; and one of the princes turns out to be a werewolf … It’s that kind of read.

It well and truly feels like a Norse saga, just with Russian instead of Germanic names.

I’m struggling to find things to say about it other than it’s a pretty typical text of its genre … and it is. Most of the Tale of Igor’s Campaign’s analysis has historically focused on its authenticity, with arguments made that it was a forgery, à la the Songs of Ossian, made by the Czech scholar Jozef Dobrovský around the turn of the 19th century. (Dobrovský is also associated with another “medieval” forgery — the Kraledvorsky Manuscript — though here as a scholar questioning its authenticity.)

These arguments also claim that the Tale is self-consciously nationalistic in a way that wouldn’t have occurred during the time period it was purportedly written in. This is silly: the text itself is no more or less nationalistic than the (clearly authentic) Song of Roland, Song of my Cid, or Beowulf; claims that the Kumans are Muslims seem to be later interpolations that are entirely unsupported by the text — Mohammed, for example, is mentioned (in a rather silly passage) as an idol worshipped by the Saracens of Saragossa in The Song of Roland, but the only mention of the Kumans’ religion is that they are “pagan” (leaving it up to the reader to fill in further details).

Linguistic evidence shows, however, that this is not the case; the Tale uses several words and turns of phrase that only occur otherwise in Novgorodian birch-bark texts — the oldest documentation of written Russian — and texts that were unknown in Dobrovský’s day, and applies a very different grammatical system than the one he favored. This controversy is much akin to arguing over whether e.g. Piers Plowman is a forgery or not because our knowledge of the text’s linguistic history is woefully incomplete … that is, it’s silly.

So read it for what it is. A fast-paced, easily-read tale, perhaps the only significant work of literature that survived from the old Kievan Rus’, a tale of a campaign that goes bad with hope for redemption in the future. It’s kind of fun that way.

If you read: There are two reasonably-decent verse translations available, both freely available on line. Nabokov’s is here — though unfortunately without his introduction and notes — while Haney and Dahl’s 1992 version is available from the University of Indiana here. I have to admit, though, that (other than that unbelievably ugly word “vatic”) I actually slightly prefer the rhythm of Nabokov’s.

Eugene Onegin

41phy69137l-_sx284_bo1204203200_When most people think of “great Russian literature”, they think of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, of War and Peace or Crime and Punishment. These are great novels (that I have yet to read), mind you, but when you ask a Russian what the greatest work of Russian literature is — much as a Spanish-speaker is apt to say Don Quixote or an Italian the Divine Comedy — they’re more like than not to say that the greatest work of their own literature is instead Alexander Pushkin’s slim volume — Eugene Onegin

There’s something else that’s stranger still about Eugene Onegin: it’s written entirely in sonnets. Pushkin was a master of the iambic tetrameter, and his sonnets are a virtuoso display of both rhythm and rhyme, employing a variation of the Shakespearean sonnet that gives each individual internal quatrain its own rhyme scheme and alternating “masculine” and “feminine” rhymes (English poetry rarely attempts “feminine” rhyming, which is in fact what rappers call “multi-syllable rhymes”, but in a language like Spanish, where there are only a small handful of masculine rhymes, rhyming can be characteristically thought of as being feminine).

But its being written entirely in sonnets is not — not by a long shot — the strangest thing Eugene Onegin has to offer. That honor lies in its thoroughly postmodern plot. Eugene Onegin, you see, is a love story, and being a love story of the early 19th century, one might expect it to have a happy ending. Tales from this period like Romeo and Juliet were rare, and Shakespeare no doubt wrote its plot with an eye towards shock value.

But Eugene Onegin’s love story does not have a happy ending — nor does it have a tear-jerker ending — it, in fact, is a classic literary example of a work with no clear ending, in the sense of a stable and long-lasting resolution between our heroes. They sort of … leave us on a cliffhanger …

Or maybe the sense of a cliffhanger is because the plot is pulling our heroes in a direction we don’t want them to head? Romances are meant to be stories of how men and women win their loves, and Pushkin’s genius, the irony and subversion of Eugene Onegin, is that it does not allow this to happen …

The other way of reading it, however, is that we’re not just looking at plot; it’s meant as (among other things) a satire on period life and a vehicle for Pushkin’s own observations and wit. Which is true in its own way — Pushkin frequently interjects himself into his work, and the first chapter’s second stanza is directed specifically at his readers, ending in the quote (my favorite from the Hofstader translation):

The North was, shall we say, ‘severe’,

referring to his long internal exile from St. Petersburg and Moscow for writing some mildly subversive verses.

I personally don’t find much joy in Pushkin’s gratuitous sexism, however, but the best parts of Eugene Onegin are his satirical narration of various public events, the way Eugene himself is very much a hermit by inclination (I can relate to that!), the subtle irony of his letters — first from Tatyana to Eugene in the middle of the book and then from Eugene to Tatyana at its end — and, best of all, the dramatic irony of Chapter VI’s duel (Pushkin himself was killed in a duel).

He is very much a witty, lively writer, though, and can pull you through rough patches with his oozing charm. Plus, at only 400-ish stanzas or 134-some-odd pages, Eugene Onegin is appealingly short. It’s much more of a novella, like The Great Gatsby or The Old Man and the Sea, than the Russians’ usual doorstopper classics. And because of that, it’s a great introduction to the Russian literary world.

If you read: Go with Douglas Hofstader’s (one of us!) or James Falen’s translations. Falen’s is considered by Russians to be the best on the market — that is, he creates a Pushkin that reads like Pushkin — but I find Hofstader’s translation’s jazzy feel to be more irresistible. Plus there’s the sense of camaraderie implicit in the fact that Hofstader (author, recall, of Gödel, Escher, Bach, among others) is hardly a Russian specialist and did his translation purely as a labor of love.

Avoid Nabokov’s translation like the plague, unless you like literal cribs with a side of gratuitous hubris. A shame, too, because if anyone could have made a good Pushkin translation — he could. I’ll probably be detailing more of the problems with Nabokov’s translation theory in a later post.

The Elder Edda: A Selection

51jugp514hl-_sx373_bo1204203200_Before Tolkien came along, Old Norse studies and perusal of Eddaic literature was largely the purview of scholars. In the Hobbit, though, Tolkien made use of several Eddaic allusions: most (if not all) of the dwarves’ names — as well as Gandalf’s — come from a listing of the dwarves in an Elder Edda poem known as the Völuspá, as does the cognomen “Durin’s Folk” for dwarves in general; the name Mirkwood comes from the Völundarkvida. And of course, the name Middle-earth is an Anglicization of “Midgard” (Miðgarð actually in Old Norse).

(It was only with the Lord of the Rings’ writing that Tolkien merged the Hobbit’s standalone world with the world of Beleriand and Númenor that formed the bulk of his worldbuilding efforts.)

It took some time for both of Tolkien’s major texts to become publicly popular — in fact, they did not do so until the 1960s — but once they did, interest in Old Norse folklore and literature, one of Tolkien’s world’s major sources — positively exploded. It is in this environment that the famed poet W.H. Auden, in collaboration with the Norse scholar Paul B. Taylor, offered The Elder Edda: A Selection.

So why this long digression on Tolkien? Because this text is dedicated to Tolkien.

As a translation, it’s nothing much by modern standards. It is, quite literally, just a selection, and as a selection, focuses almost entirely on the Elder Edda’s mythological (rather than heroic) section. At 150ish pages long, it’s maybe a third the length of its source text. Penguin offers a widely-available translation of the Elder Edda — the entire Elder Edda — and the bulk of Old Norse literature takes the form of (usually prose) sagas, anyway. So why read this old translation?

Because W.H. Auden co-translated it. Yes, that W.H. Auden.

This, like Pope’s Iliad and Odyssey and Dryden’s Aeneid, is a translation that might be outmoded in modern translation theory but is one still worth reading due to the importance of the translators themselves. W.H. Auden was probably the most important British-born poet of the early 20th century, and his early work is contemporary with T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats’ later work, while his later work occurred during and immediately after WWII; in general Auden’s major output is contemporaneous with e.e. cummings and Wallace Stevens.

Auden’s poetry — I have not read much of it at all — is characterized by being ironic and witty, and one of his major stylistic contributions to English poesy was reviving Anglo-Saxon alliteration as an alternative to both the scansion derived from classical poetry and the avant-garde free verse that pervaded his contemporaries’ work. In this sense, Auden shows — like Yeats — a British sensibility more grounded in prosodic history instead of the Whitmanian sense of unrestrained poetic freedom the American Modernists derived from Song of Myself.

In his version of the Elder Edda, Auden brings this alliterative sensibility to bear on works that were originally alliterative, works such as the Völuspá (rendered “Song of the Sybil”), Hávamál (“Words of the High One”), Lokasenna (“Loki’s Flyting [sic]”), and so on. The verses, as one can expect from a master of the craft, are fine and well-wrought and occasionally even memorable, such as Loki’s insults to Freya and Njörd …

… enough that the ultimate effect of the work, especially in contrast with later editions of the entire Elder Edda, is one of startling incompleteness. Why focus just on the mythological poems? Why not use the heroic texts? In fact, the part of the Elder Edda Auden and his collaborator didn’t use forms the largest continuous corpus of heroic poetry in Old Norse, a culture more given over to saga literature.

I’m not making the silly complaint that Auden’s translation lacks because it’s not a saga, now, mind; indeed, such a complaint would self-evidently miss the point. (Actually, I’m kicking myself because I used to own a book called The Sagas of  Icelanders which I never actually read and don’t own anymore.) What I am complaining about is that he could have chosen to translate the entire Elder Edda — in which case his translation would have become the reference text in modern English — and chose not to.

In other words, as a work of Auden’s poetry, it’s perfectly adequate. As an actual useful text for studying the Eddas, though — my primary interest here (though I do need to read more of Auden’s work) — it’s hopelessly inadequate.

“This Craft of Verse” and the Epic

24151I haven’t read enough Borges — just the Labyrinths — and so when I saw this text at the library, I couldn’t help but pick it up. By the time I got home, I’d already read the first two (of six) lectures. Before I was even finished reading it, I was citing from it … It’s that good.

This Craft of Verse is Borges’ Norton lecture series, delivered 1967-8 at Harvard, and in its six rangy lectures, Borges offers ruminations on the nature of a poem, of metaphor, the missing epic, translation theory, and so on, until at last he offers up his own “poet’s creed” … or not, as the case may be.

These lectures were delivered in Borges’ classic, allusive way, quoting and misquoting freely from English and Spanish and German works, from classical literature, from Anglo-Saxon and Snorri Sturluson, a manner befit someone who was, in his time, considered perhaps the most widely man in the world. They reveal a complex and subtle thinker, one perhaps a bit too in love with Berkeleyan absolute idealism (though “A New Refutation of Time”, which manages to cast Hume — of all people! — in a Berkeleyan lens, might’ve already suggested it), and one in tune with the literary problems of his time.

Borges suggests the novel is itself a form of poetry — and there are probably examples already coming to you where this is so. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are the first to ring for me. But then he also says that, though the novel be poetry rendered in prose, it is also something else — the anti-epic. For, he suggests, the epic is a fundamentally optimistic work, to such a degree that trying to create a modern Iliad or Odyssey or Aeneid or Beowulf is more-or-less impossible: their heroes are too optimistic.

My reaction to this line of thinking is rather complex. Borges has a point that James Joyce represents a kind of breakdown of the novel; Finnegans Wake, as he points out, is “ineluctably unreadable”, and postmodernist novels — such as The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Foucault’s Pendulum, White Noise, Underworld, Infinite Jest, House of Leaves, and so on, continue to play with Joycean themes, particularly the theme of the English language becoming a character in its own right, albeit in more interesting and readable formats.

Yet at the same time we can pinpoint a hole in Borges’ reading, though one we can forgive the man for: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. By the late 1960s Borges’ eyesight had largely failed him — apparently, when he delivered these lectures, yellow was all he could see. Unfortunately, that was also when Tolkien’s work first saw the enduring popularity that has characterized it for the last fifty years. Lord of the Rings is an epic in terms of presentation, albeit one rendered in prose, and that’s exactly why it spawned its own derivative genre. Borges was right that the reading public hungered for a rebirth of the format, yet the strange thing that he did not realize is that its rebirth has happened — so far — in the field of genre literature: high fantasy, that is, or space operas or horse operas before them.

It’s why we so insatiably crave Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker, Captains Kirk and Picard, and why Sergio Leone delivered epics so pitch-perfectly that he rather killed the very genre he was working in.

For Borges was right. Epics are too optimistic for this day and age. Despite the essential optimism Tolkien or Leone or George Lucas or Gene Rodenberry delivered, the genres they’ve spawned have become more novelistic, more rejecting of the essential optimism they present, over time. One need only look at relatively pessimistic series like Battlestar Galactica or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to see this in action. Perhaps this is the real reason why the Western died; all that could be said in the format, whether novel or epic, had been said.

Perhaps, then, the epic requires a space on the margins of the known world? The American Western, and its related genres in e.g. Russian and Argentine literature (Martín Fierro being an example of the latter) occur at the edge of the known world, so to speak, as do the Ramayana, Argonautica and Odyssey; other classic examples of epic literature, such as Gilgamesh, Mahabharata, Beowulf, the Song of Roland, Iliad, and Aeneid occur at the edges of experiential time (a sort of “mythic time”, perhaps? If this be the case, then the Spanish literary corpus has no true epic, for Cantar de mio Cid, like Pharsalia, was written with events in living or near-living memory in mind, and — unless you’re a Camões consciously mythologizing such events — mythic time is a kind of fermented time: events need to pass beyond even the scope of elders’ remembrances before they become epic.

Borges’ complaint that the two world wars had yet to spawn an epic, therefore, is unfounded; the events were (and are) still in (near-)living memory and therefore have had no time to ferment into mythologizations — this despite the near-mythic quality some of its heroes and villains developed in their own time. This is also why we feel that texts like Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, while well-wrought war poems, are hardly “epic”. Contrariwise, therefore, though, events like the Seven Years’ War (that’s “French and Indian War” for us Yanks), Napoleon’s conquests, and the (American) Civil War are starting to metastasize into mythic time: events like Valley Forge or Napoleon’s march on Moscow, battles like Gettysburg and Waterloo, and characters like George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and Napoleon himself have acquired larger-than-life feels to them.

That said, there is another problem WWII presents for those of epic mind. As Borges points out, despite the Greeks being the Iliad’s protagonists, it’s the Trojans whom we ultimately feel are the real heroes of the war, and it is in part for this reason why nearly every subsequent society learnèd in the classical tradition, from Virgil on down, has wished to make their mythic founders Trojan exiles. Yet this is only possible because of the Trojan War’s ambiguity — neither the Greeks nor the Trojans are clearly seen as being “in the right”. This is in contrast with WWII, whose villain really did exterminate several million people for no apparent reason, or even with the American Civil War, whose chief question — chattel slavery — quite clearly did have a right answer and a wrong answer, despite some 150 years of Southern recasting and denial. It might be easy to feel sympathy for Robert E. Lee or Erwin Rommel as characters, but there is no denying their cause was ultimately mistaken.

This is in contrast with WWI, where we really can feel that there was no clear “right” side; if it hadn’t been for American intervention late, the Central Powers would’ve won;* and even in interbellum literature — witness Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse — there’s a sense of dignity in the German defeat that does not occur in the Confederacy’s or the Nazis’. The problem WWI poses, then, is one of heroics — there are no clear larger-than-life characters from the era, and most of the individual larger-than-life incidents ended in disaster for the instigating side. Perhaps we need mythic time to metastasize characters. Perhaps the characters that “fit” the conflict need to be largely, or wholly, fictive.

Borges commands thought. He commands thinking. Just one essay — of six — commanded a thousand words. And I still haven’t gotten to his translation theory!


* Food was becoming an issue on both sides. Germany ultimately capitulated because they were about to starve — Erich Maria Remarque (heh) remarks, in All Quiet on the Western Front, that, by the end of the war, German army bread had become little more than pressed sawdust. More than anything else, American entrance into WWI fed the Allies. One suspects that had the Zimmerman Telegram ploy worked, and an American theater been opened up, the Central Powers would have won WWI. (That is, assuming the Zimmerman Telegram can be taken at face value.)

The Literary Detective Novel: Borges, Aristotle, and Poe in “The Name of the Rose”

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rosehis first major novel, was also one of the 80’s great surprise bestsellers, and a book that has remained on classics lists since. In it, we find a monastic spoof of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Brother William of Baskerville, a high-ranking Franciscan, and a Benedictine novice, Adso of Melk) confronted with a series of grisly apocalypse-themed murders. Far more than a great detective novel, though, The Name of the Rose is a paean to world literature shot through with allusions and an ultimately tragic dénouement.

SPOILERS AHEAD! BEWARE! Continue reading The Literary Detective Novel: Borges, Aristotle, and Poe in “The Name of the Rose”

The Aeneid

pompeo_batoni_-_aeneas_fleeing_from_troy_1753-e1525154413803For classics students, the Aeneid is the third great text, the completion of the classics triumvirate along with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. For lay readers, though, the Aeneid is half-forgotten and underappreciated, which is a shame, because it is awesome.

“Homer makes us hearers, and Virgil leaves us readers,” Alexander Pope once said — in his time, Pope translated Homer to accompany his elder Dryden’s famed translation of the Aeneid — and this is true on the deepest of all possible levels.

For the plot of the Aeneid, y’see, is dirt simple: It is the tale of the Trojan hero Aeneas’ exile from fallen Troy, his wanderings over seven years with several ill-fated attempts to found a “new Troy”, a replacement home for his people, and eventually successfully prosecuting a war to win their foretold homestead … which just so happens to be the Latium plain, modern Lazio, Rome’s ancient heartland.

Why Rome? Because the Aeneid is the quintessential Roman epic, a poem commissioned by the Emperor Augustus from the best poet of his day to tell of Roman glories. It is, in short, the national epic of Rome. Why make Aeneas the hero? Virgil had three reasons to hand: first was a desire to link Rome to Troy, to make of Rome a “Troy reborn”, and the second, a desire to link what were, at the time, some rather disjointed cycles involving Aeneas into a unified tale.

And the third? Because, to Virgil and Romans, Aeneas more than any other hero in the Greek legendarium exemplified Roman values — the Latin adjective pius and related noun pietas meant much more than the “pious” and “piety” they became in English; rather, they reflected a sense of Aeneas being a fundamentally dutiful character, and this sense of duty defined the Roman national character (much like the untranslatable Gemütlichkeit is thought to define key qualities of the German national character).

From a simplicity of plot, though, Virgil develops a complexity of character primarily through associations and allusions. The Aeneid’s whole plot reference to Homer is just the tip of the iceberg: Virgil takes and refashions a plethora of Homeric similes and allusions to meet his own ends; a whole flourishing field of scholarship is dedicated just to finding every last one of Virgil’s Homeric allusions.

Nor does his vision’s scope end at just Homer. Extensive allusions to Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica are also detectable, primarily with Queen Dido being an allusion to Medea, where the love affair echoes the Argonautica’s latter half and Dido’s own tragic end Medea’s (as told by e.g. Orestes). The Aeneid’s seventh book, like the Argonautica’s third (the halfway point of both epics), begins with an invocation to Erato — problematic in both texts — and other allusions, such as Hercules’ presence lurking on the fringes of the Aeneid’s latter half or more direct allusions to e.g. the Argonautica’s tale of Phineus, are detectable.

If extensive allusions to all three major Greco-Roman epics that’ve come down to us from Virgil’s day are visible, then in all likelihood others still lie beneath the surface. Virgil is known to alluded to Ennius’ Annales in his poem, for example, though exactly what those allusions are remains a matter of debate. Similarly, the frieze showing the Trojan War’s latter half is an ecphrasis and arguably hence an Argonautica allusion (as that was the only major poem to use it as a device in Virgil’s time)* and a direct summary of the Cyclic epics Aethiopis and Little Iliad, both of which were outmoded a few centuries later by the late epic Posthomerica (which, like the Cyclic epics it is a condensation of, is also considered inferior to the major Greek and Latin epics predating it). Camilla’s character from the Aeneid’s Book XI is probably an allusion to Penthesilea (from the Aethiopis), for example.

Nor, as the allusions to the Argonautica and Annales make clear, do Virgil’s allusions end at the Trojan Cycle. Indeed, one of the Aeneid’s most outstanding traits — once you start reading with an eye for them — are its allusions. In this sense, Virgil resembles T.S. Eliot more than any other poet, in large part because of his consciously allusive style, a style that sets him apart from writers like Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Homer, and closer to ones like Camões, say.

And thus perhaps also the tension within the work, the desire, on one hand, to humanize his hero Aeneas, and on the other, to glorify Rome and make a god of its alleged founder. It is this tension — just as much as the onrushing wave of his masterful hexameter — that propels the reader through Virgil’s masterpiece, the Roman masterpiece, and one of the great masterpieces of world literature.

If you read: There are more good translations available of the Aeneid than any other poem in Latin — to such an extent that only reason to read a prose version is for a crib.

The easiest translation to find is probably Robert Fagles’, which is currently Penguin’s standard text. The scholarly preference, however, is for Robert Fitzgerald, which should still also be widely available. I’ve read both of these and think Fitzgerald’s translation is superior.

Other well-known verse translations include Stanley Lombardo’s and Allen Mandelbaum’s. Mandelbaum, in particular, is notable for trying to recreate Virgil’s dactylic hexameter in English. Finally, John Dryden’s Aeneid was the best-known for a good hundred years or two, and though it wouldn’t stand up as a “good” modern translation, it is generally respected as the best translation of its era and a masterpiece of its creator. Dryden’s Aeneid would be well paired with Pope’s Iliad and Odyssey to make a heroic couplet-era classics trifecta.

For my money, though, the most underrated translation of the Aeneid — one difficult to come by these days — is Rolfe Humphries’ half-century-old effort, one which delivers the poem with a directness and muscularity that lends it a similar feel as Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.


* Aeneas’ shield (from Book VIII) is perhaps the most prominent example of ecphrasis in the whole poem. It functions as a double allusion — to Achilles’ shield from the Iliad (buggered if I can remember what book it’s in) and to Jason’s mantle detailing his family’s history from Book I of the Argonautica, the one he seduces Hypsipyle in — with Virgil’s own twist, making it a history not of times past but rather times to come (which Auden chastised him for in his “Secondary Epic” — foolishly, once considered in context).