Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.6.2

Edward McCrorie (trans.), The Aeneid. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Pp. xvi + 290. $14.95. ISBN 0-472-06595-5.

Reviewed by Sarah Ruden, University of Cape Town,

Edward McCrorie's translation of the Aeneid comes with far more expressions of confidence than normal, a dropsy case of hype. Vincent J. Cleary's preface and McCrorie's own do little but stress that the Aeneid is a great book, and that this is a great translation. The hyping of the translation, though irritating, is easier to take. McCrorie says, for example, 'Since my idiom derives from writers like Yeats and Wilbur, Lowell and Walcott, some readers may find the style of the translation rather high and solitary, stern at times' (13); but this probably will do no more damage than to make students of Great Books courses1 -- the market toward which the book seems to gallop -- guffaw, especially if they know that the adjectives come from a description of a woman of unearthly beauty. More worrying is the praise of the Aeneid itself. Cleary concentrates on 'maturity', launching from T.S. Eliot,2 Jack Kerouac, Emily Dickinson and the idea of poetic tradition ('Virgil [worked consciously within a tradition] and so does Edward McCrorie' [vii]), and voyaging to the testimonial that 'the Aeneid initiates adolescents into the varied levels and complexities of the adult, Virgilian world' (ix). Cleary explains this in terms of the choices Aeneas has to make (ix) -- odd: the impression of most readers, tutored and un-, is that Aeneas is extraordinarily poor in choices -- until the end of the poem, at any rate. But the empirical reality of a text is nothing in the face of radical Great Books ideology, namely that certain works of literature are eternal moral remedies, which transform a reader's personality almost automatically, no historical or literary background being necessary. There is almost none to be found in these prefaces; what I did find was along the lines of 'The Aeneid contains more differences than similarities with [sic] its Homeric predecessors' (xi). Information -- liberating, diverting, unintimidating information -- is in fact an enemy of the Great Books project, which is to control: to 'mature' students into a particular kind of people.

The translation itself is disappointing. Cleary lists its beauties under the headings Fidelity, Modernity, and so on, all making up that mysterious Maturity (p. xiii-xvi). This is reminiscent of Matthew Arnold's summary of the qualities of Homer a translator should aim to reproduce, a summary around which Arnold composes his review of various translations3; but Arnold -- no, I should not have brought Arnold into this. Cleary can speak for himself; under 'Movement,' the pitch goes like this: 'Together with the orchestral-like [sic] music and the elevated tone produced by it, the reader experiences the passion and emotion of the Aeneid in this translation. It affects readers, involves them in the story, makes of them active participants. One cannot be a passive onlooker in this tale.' The evidence given for this is a combat scene (12.919-26) and McCrorie's very close translation. The adulterous mingling of the idea of the self-evident greatness of the Aeneid with the idea of the self-evident greatness of the translation at hand not only makes Cleary and McCrorie's prefaces ridiculous, but also really does inform McCrorie's philosophy of translation. Even the former idea is raw and expedient here, serving as a justification for ad hoc literal translation, but having little credibility of its own. Like the vision of Aeneas as existential wanderer, the assertion of the self-evident greatness of the Aeneid goes against what is commonly known of the work, not least the typical reactions of first-time readers ('Boring,' 'Yuck') -- including first-time readers of the original, so that the quality of translation up to now could not be entirely to blame for the work's reputation among neophytes, as Cleary implies it is (vii, xvi). Unlike the Odyssey, the Aeneid, with the exception of Book 4, is not an interesting story on its own; it has to be made interesting by informative lectures and, more urgently still, by flexible translation, since Vergil's extremely literary language is as distant from the modern reader as Vergil's experience is. The last thing likely to work is a literal translation like McCrorie's, which seeks to reproduce even the meter, word order and enjambments. Tritely and predictably, I will start with the prologue as an illustration:

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 Iunonem ob iram,
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem
inferretque deos Latio; genus unde Latinum
Albanique patres atque altae moenia Romae.

My song is of war and the first man from a Trojan
coast to arrive in Italy, forced by Fates to Lavinian
shore: the power of Gods repeatedly tossed him
on land and sea, Juno's fierce and remembering anger
caused him to suffer greatly in war while founding a city,
bringing his gods to Latium, leading to Latin
and Alban fathers, to high walls of the Romans.
This just doesn't work for me -- except for the words 'remembering anger.' Given McCrorie's clattering enjambments, which would mar any standard English meter, it is probably fortunate that his meter, an attempt at something like the hexameter ('a flexible five-beat line ... [some have six beats], usually with a dactyl-trochee combination at the line's end [as in Vergil]' [10-11]), is hardly there to mar. 'Tossed,' a super-literal rendering of iactatus, which must actually mean 'harassed' or 'harried' or something similar, sounds odd in its clause. What would 'repeatedly toss' Aeneas 'on land,' if not perhaps an unbroken horse he felt unable to leave alone? 'To suffer greatly in war while founding a city, / bringing his Gods to Latium' may look merely literal (down to word order), but it is wrong as well, implying that Aeneas fights, founds and brings at the same time -- which is manifestly not the case. McCrorie has misunderstood the Latin: dum with the subjunctive means 'until.' Next to the renderings sprung from attempts at literalness, other renderings seem perverse in a contrasting way. Most readers and translators choose 'shores' for the orae of the first line; both are poetic plurals and both connote 'country'; McCrorie's 'a ... / coast' describes a literal coast only, and suggests that there were several coasts in Troy Aeneas could have started from; moreover, 'man from a Trojan / coast' might make a first-time reader of the Aeneid picture Aeneas living on the coast, fishing or perhaps selling shells to tourists. Why not 'shores' as a translation of litora, instead of the singular 'shore'? The anthropomorphic plural 'Fates' is also strange -- why not a literal translation here? The Latin is singular, there is a common singular English equivalent ('fate' or 'Fate'), and, singular or plural, fatum almost never implies an anthropomorphic deity or deities, as Parcae would: Vergil would have used that word, had he meant what that word means. The clumsiness of the present participles in the last three lines is striking, especially after 'Latium,' where the subject appears not to change; either the syntax is unusually inept, or Aeneas is personally responsible for Roman history after his lifetime. Imitation of Vergil could have headed off this problem. Vergil's new clause (or virtual clause -- a basic verb needs to be read in) with its cleanly changing subject allows no syntactical confusion, yet avoids at the same time any ideologically or generically awkward precision concerning agency, through use of the reverently vague unde. (What is the source of later developments? Aeneas' sufferings as an expression of divine will? A still larger design?) Dryden intones, 'From whence the Race of Alban Fathers come ...',4 and other translators as well have preserved both Vergil's basic syntax and his effect. What went wrong now?

McCrorie's prologue, in which literal translation produces awkward and misleading English, and obvious and fairly literal solutions are by-passed in favor of things free and confusing, is typical of the translation as a whole. Speculation about somebody else's process of composition is hazardous, but that McCrorie's work turned out as it did seems to demand some attempt at explanation on the part of a reviewer. Not surprisingly, most translators of the Aeneid have rendered literally -- and rather similarly -- where the Latin invited (or demanded) it, and creatively elsewhere; McCrorie, by committing himself both to literalness (10ff.) and ingenious superiority,5 must have asked for trouble. It looks as if he was forced, by his own policy in relation to existing translations, to translate straightforward phrases with strained originality, and convoluted ones literally. Some of his expedients are bizarre; he shows a penchant for lost, mendicant linguistic anachronism, as in 'plashing the air-waves' (of Mercury, 1.300; volat ... per aera magnum / remigio alarum, 1.300-301) or 'her strung-out hair' (of Cassandra, 2.404; passis ... crinibus, 2.403-404). But there is a wealth of other silliness. "'Hello, you men,'" says the disguised Venus to the shipwrecked Aeneas and Achates (1.321; 'heus,' inquit, 'iuvenes'). 'He saw a white sow in some bushes with piglets, / all in white ... / Aeneas reverently carried and placed mother and litter / on Juno's altar -- yours, powerful Juno -- and killed them' (8.82-85; Latin irrelevant -- as long as it doesn't describe a white-frocked porcine communion class, and as long as the account of the slaughter was not inspired by an anti-war T-shirt, the one that says that by joining the army you can meet interesting people 'and kill them'; a couple of other things I know about the Latin without checking are that the piglets are with the sow, not with the bushes, and that Aeneas is not on the altar while carrying the sow and piglets). Every page or two, there is something similar to the above translations. What did McCrorie's advisors and supporters -- he names some of the most famous American poets and translators (10) -- say about the style that emerged? Frank criticism is hard to come by in the American poetry scene, I know. Maybe I am honest only because I live in South Africa now. What can they do to me?

The translation does have some attractive features. Clarity and freshness in the diction make some of the passages concerning nature good reading, as in 3.570ff.:

Portus ab accessu ventorum immotus et ingens
ipse: sed horrificis iuxta tonat Aetna ruinis,
interdumque atram prorumpit ad aethera nubem
turbine fumantem piceo et candente favilla,
attollitque globos flammarum et sidera lambit,
interdum scopulos avulsaque viscera montis
erigit eructans, liquefactaque saxa sub auras
cum gemitu glomerat fundoque exaestuat imo.

The cove itself was large and safe from the sea-wind
but close to the fearsome thunder and wreckage of Etna,
which coughed up black cloud often to heaven,
pitchy, twisting smoke and flickering ashes.
Throwing up globes of fire that lapped at the starlight
it often heaved up high some fragment or boulder
torn from the mountain's gut, or exposed to the open
air rumbling lava boiled in the deepest interior.
The Latin is plainly close to the translation, and seems to have guided McCrorie efficiently, except that he uses the throw-away word 'often' twice, for the two pointed usages of the word interdum. Both times, Vergil places this word strategically at the beginning of a line and a clause, in order to set apart the different stages or manifestations of the eruption. (Iam ... iam can have a similar function.)

There is a generous glossary (oddly located [1-6], however, between the two prefaces), but no index and no bibliography. The list of 'Principal Characters in the Epic' (14-15) is not necessary in addition to the glossary (and is also oddly located, between the translator's preface and the poem). Line numbers, weirdly missing from some translations, are included, as well as a useful descriptive heading for every scene. In some places there is a descriptive heading for a three-line action. But I am risking a return to steady disapproval. I had better stop.


  • [1] These go also under names like Western Civilization; McCrorie teaches in this program at Providence College, Cleary apparently at a similar program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
  • [2] Brooks Otis, in the second paragraph of his preface (xf.) to Frank Copley's 1965 translation of the Aeneid (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill), cites the same work of Eliot which Cleary cites in the first paragraph of his preface (vii) -- What is a Classic?, London: Faber and Faber, 1944 -- and cites it for the same ideas; Otis, however, explains Eliot's ideas accurately (xf.) and expands on them plausibly (xxiif.), whereas Cleary exploits them superficially, passing directly from quotations of Eliot to a paragraph asserting, on no evidence, that McCrorie's translation is a uniquely fine representation of the 'maturity' Eliot saw in the Aeneid.
  • [3] "On Translating Homer," Matthew Arnold on the Classical Tradition, R.H. Super, ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960 (97-216).
  • [4] The Poems of John Dryden, James Kinsley, ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958 (1064).
  • [5] Cleary tells of James Fenimore Cooper's impetuous flight into competitive writing, and compares it to McCrorie's. Cleary does not add that Cooper was one of the worst stylists ever to become a known author (see Mark Twain, 'Cooper's Prose Style,' Letters from the Earth, Bernard Devoto, ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1938 (135-146)). I am no expert, but it seems to me that good writing -- and good translating, especially -- is the product of years of work, after which the writer might usefully begin to compete. An industrial accident happens in a few seconds.