10-year journey to translate epic

PRINCETON, N.J. — For the past decade, professor emeritus Robert Fagles has kept a Barrington’s Atlas on the desk in his study, open to pages showing the Greek isles, the Italian coast and the surrounding Mediterranean— a region sailed in history by many and in legend by the Trojan warrior Aeneas.

You could fill a shelf with translations of “The Aeneid,” from John Dryden’s edition in the 17th century to modern volumes by Robert Fitzgerald and Allen Mandelbaum. Nevertheless, if Mr. Fagles’ long-awaited version sells like his editions of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” it eventually will be known to hundreds of thousands of readers, by choice and by assignment.

“His diction is lofty, yet without seeming archaic or stilted,” says Robin Mitchell-Boyask, chair of the Department of Greek, Hebrew and Roman Classics at Temple University in Philadelphia.

The 73-year-old Mr. Fagles, thin and slightly stooped in appearance but rhythmic and precise in speech — the kind of scholar who calls a reporter to apologize for misquoting Tennyson— was interviewed recently on a rainy afternoon in a winding 1950s-era house he shares with his wife, Lynne.

He says Virgil’s epic of the founding of Rome was a natural successor to his work on “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” just as “The Aeneid” was Virgil’s sequel to Homer’s narratives about the Trojan War. “The Aeneid” took around the same time to complete as Mr. Fagles’ previous translations but proved a greater challenge, not only because of age but because of language.

Mr. Fagles’ speciality is Greek, and for “The Aeneid,” he had to refresh himself on the Latin he learned in college, using grammar books and the works of Catullus, Horace and other Roman writers.

“Homer’s is not a literary language; Homer’s is a composer language, as if he were recording a musical event,” says Mr. Fagles, who taught comparative literature at Princeton University until retiring in 2002.

“Virgil is a writer, a literary writer, and that lent itself to a certain amount of complexity. “The Aeneid” is one of the saddest poems I know of in any language. It is hard, heroic, heartbreaking.”

Translation has always been both art and science, the strenuous embrace of literal meaning and creative truth, updating the text for the present without losing the spirit of the past. Mr. Fagles, whose editions of classical works date to the early 1960s, finds it the ideal combination of scholarship and creativity, a “discipline that takes me closer to a text than any other way of approaching it.”

“I really feel like you get to know your author,” he says. “Virgil is often seen as stately, imperial, propagandist, even. I came across those realities, or some of them, but I also came across a remarkably personal and personable poet who utilized the whole arsenal of the effects of Latin. No one can compete with him.”

The challenge of translation is illustrated by Virgil’s most famous words from “The Aeneid.” The first line, “Arma virumque cano,” was immortalized in the 17th century by Dryden as “Of Arms and the Man I Sing,” a title George Bernard Shaw lifted for his antiwar comedy “Arms and the Man.”

However, the line, and meaning, changes with every translator. For Dryden and for some of Virgil’s contemporaries, “Arms and the Man” was Virgil’s boast that he would combine the qualities of Homer’s two works (“The Iliad” being a story of arms, “The Odyssey” of a man, the warrior Odysseus) into a single story. Mr. Fagles’ interpretation, “Wars and a man I sing,” is more somber, emphasizing the contrast between the plurality of battles (wars) and the singularity of Aeneas (a man).

“I wanted to convey something about the modern understanding of war and then about a man, an exile, a common soldier left terribly alone in the field of battle,” he says. “Aeneas is like Clint Eastwood, like Gary Cooper, a warrior and a worrier. He changes into the heroic tragic man, duty and endure, endure and duty.”

Mr. Fagles makes other changes, too. While other translators have told “The Aeneid” in the past tense, he uses the present, believing that the story demands immediacy and tension, a mythic quality suggesting that the life of Aeneas is renewed with each reading.

For countless students, “The Aeneid” has been one of those dusty, required texts to get through, with its Old World story of gods and fate and empire. Mr. Fagles, though, says the book is not only a lively read — an Eastwood Western “with better language” — but that its subject has never been more timely.

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