Reflections on a partial translation of The Aeneid that I did twenty years ago (Book I, lines 1-20)

January 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem,
inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum,
Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae. 

 “I sing of arms and of the man…”  That clause has stuck with me for twenty years now, ever since I took Latin 252 at the University of Tennessee in the Spring of 1994.  That semester, we were required to translate all of Book I and parts of Books IV and VI.  Looking back, it may have been one of my favorite classes in that I learned not only that if I made the effort (which I really didn’t my first three semesters of Latin, making only a B and two C+s, when I could have and should have striven to make As) that a language could become “easy” for me, but also that by paying close attention to words and how they sounded that I would hear music in the words of a poet such as Vergil.  I still have my notebook full of penciled translations, often crossed out or with arrows to denote a second, usually (but not always) better prose translation.  We were not to attempt to write our translations in poetic form, in part because we were not adept enough poets to recast the verses, but also because the focus was on getting the sense of the words while letting the original music of the Latin hexameters work its magic with us.

I didn’t list this in my 2014 reading/reviewing resolutions, but I do plan on re-reading Vergil slowly, maybe 10-20 lines at a time, perhaps with days or even weeks in-between.  As I do, I will post transcripts of my 1994 translation of assigned passages, perhaps with some commentary along the way.  There is something almost “mystical” about Latin for me even today; it possesses charms that other languages in which I am currently more fluent in mostly lack.  Perhaps it is because I’ve read mostly only the very best literature that the Romans produced during the Late Republic and the first half-century of the Empire.  There is a polish to the meters that just cannot be replicated in anything modern today, but that does not stop certain writers from pushing themselves to the limit to recall a faint echo of the melodic lines of Vergil and others.

Let me continue then:

“I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy, by fate exiled, came to Italy and to the Lavinian shore, that man who was buffeted much from land and the deep sea because of the force of the gods, on account of the wrathful memory of fierce Juno, and moreover he suffered much in war, until he founded the city and introduced his gods to Latium, the source of the Latin race and the Alban fathers and the lofty walls of Rome.”

I modified my 1994 translation slightly as I typed this, purposely making it a single sentence again instead of employing em-dashes to separate strains of description, but this is still only but a second, very rough literal translation.  Likely this would be broken further into 2-4 sentences in order to preserve a sense of “flow” in English, but even at this stage, there is the echo of something powerful.  The fierce and long-remembering enmity of Juno, the suffering of this man, only later to be identified as the Trojan prince Aeneas, these are set in a pulsating counterbeat that makes the whole fascinating to consider.  The introduction of the poetic “argument” continues with the traditional invocation of the Muse:

Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso,
quidve dolens, regina deum tot volvere casus
insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores
impulerit. Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?

“O Muse, relate the reasons to me, because of what wounded sense of divinity did Juno, Queen of the gods, compel a man marked by his piety to undergo so much misfortune, to encounter so many labors.  Is there so much anger in heavenly souls?”

Although today I probably would translate the first line as “O Muse, who sparks memory in me” or “O Muse, to me the cause of memory,” but there are some issues with both, as each would not only stray a bit further from the original text, but each might sound more stilted in English.  This is but a minor example of the problems caused when translating from a source language into a target language, especially when time-stressed syllables and allusive language are involved.  To continue with the original assignment, to line 20:

Urbs antiqua fuit, Tyrii tenuere coloni,
Karthago, Italiam contra Tiberinaque longe
ostia, dives opum studiisque asperrima belli;
quam Iuno fertur terris magis omnibus unam
posthabita coluisse Samo; hic illius arma,
hic currus fuit; hoc regnum dea gentibus esse,
si qua fata sinant, iam tum tenditque fovetque.
Progeniem sed enim Troiano a sanguine duci
audierat, Tyrias olim quae verteret arces;


“There was an ancient city (colonists from Tyre having founded it) named Carthage, opposite of Italy and far from the mouth of the Tiber, rich in resources and eager and fierce in the pursuits of war; which single place Juno is said to have honored above even Samos more than all other lands:  here were her arms, here was her chariot; now for a long time she intended and cherished the idea for this to be the ruling power over the world, if the Fates would allow it.  However, she had heard that a race derived from Trojan blood which one day would overturn the Tyrian walls.”

Vergil here not only sets up the immediate action that occurs around a hundred lines into the poem, but he further develops the reasons behind not just Juno’s action but he also creates a thematic contrast to the mythical Trojan/proto-Romans:  the city initially favored, the people who are beloved by Juno, a nation fated to oppose Rome, not just by its geography but by its own sense of historic destiny.  While these lines no doubt could use more polishing to accentuate this, the gist should be clear enough to the reader.

Sometime this weekend, perhaps as early as Saturday, I’ll continue with another 20-25 lines.  Hope this has been of some interest.  And for those whose Latin knowledge is superior to mine, yes, I know there are some areas that could be strengthened greatly, however I am focusing more on showing how the 19 year-old me approached this text, with the comments between the passages reserved for the 39 year-old me to reflect upon.

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