On the Vergil of a Nervous Breakdown

Edward Rothstein reviewed the new Robert Fagles translation of the Aeneid last week in the NYT.

He likes it, but from the review I’m doubtful I will. He doesn’t quote much (a bad sign in a review of a poetic translation) and what he does quote doesn’t exactly bite one on the eye or the ear.

But you, Roman, remember, rule with all your power
the peoples of the earth — these will be your arts:
to put your stamp on the works and ways of peace,
to spare the defeated, break the proud in war.

That’s Fagles, rendering Aeneid 6.851ff:

tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento;
hae tibi erunt artes; pacisque imponere morem,
parcere subiectis, et debellare superbos.

English is just wordier than Latin, but it is annoying that Fagles takes 2.5 times as many words (and an extra line) to inaccurately represent what Vergil says.

Remember, Roman, to rule the nations with lawful power.
These will be your arts: to impose the habit of peace,
spare the conquered and conquer the proud.

That’s my rendering, not terribly original, with only 9 more words than the original. Less words, more impact: it’s a cardinal principle of Latin poetry. It’s clear that Fagles isn’t the man to see this important point, and that may make him an unfit translator of Vergil.

But the thing that really bothered me about the review is that it praised the Aeneid by making it sound like an early Imperial civics text. The epic is this crazy wizard’s garden of gods and magic and monsters and ghosts and love and hate and death and destruction and hope and fate and horror and madness and reverence and revenge and deception and dreams and beginnings and endings and from all of this Rothstein has plucked the gray lifeless bloom of Roman Duty.

I say ugh to that. With friends like these Vergil won’t have any enemies, since no one will pay the slightest attention to him.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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