Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.09.30

Kristina Chew (trans.), Virgil. Georgics; translated with an introduction and notes..   Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2002.  Pp. xxvi + 152.  ISBN 0-87220-610-6.  $34.95.  ISBN 0-87220-609-2.  $9.95.  

Reviewed by Michael S. Cummings, Queen's University, Kingston (
Word count: 2976 words

Kristina Chew's translation of Vergil's Georgics is a refreshing attempt to, in her words, "make the poem valid for today's readers and create an experience of reading as equivalent as possible to reading the original Latin" [xi]. Chew has indeed produced a living poem rather than an embalmed translation. One unavoidable result of this is that her translation is far freer than most. She rarely fails to represent Vergil's overall meaning but is not much concerned with how Vergil says what he says. She paraphrases and re-works as much as translates, and while she claims that each line of her free verse contains "roughly four beats" [xv] this is evident only sporadically. The result is far from Wilkinson's attempt "to convey, as far as may be possible in English, not only the nuances of the sense and imagery and the expressiveness of the sounds, but also the movement of the verse" [Wilkinson, 55]. Readers' responses to the final product will depend on how much Chew they want with their Vergil.

The fact itself that Chew's translation enters a fairly sparse field makes it welcome. In 1971 David Slavitt wrote, almost truthfully: "John Dryden was in no way exaggerating when he called the Georgics 'the best poem of the best poet.' Regrettably, there has been no translation since Dryden's that has managed to suggest any reasonable basis for such a judgment" [Slavitt XXXX, 85]. Few esteem Day Lewis' Georgics [first published in 1940] as highly as did T.S. Eliot, but it remains a considerable achievement, if one now undermined somewhat by its slangy moments. However, L.P. Wilkinson's translation came along in 1982, and among those of Dryden, Fairclough, Day Lewis, Bovie, and Slavitt, Wilkinson's achieves the best balance between poetry and fidelity, although the reader still catches the occasional whiff of formaldehyde. The easy availability of Wilkinson's [Penguin] and Day Lewis' [Oxford] translations in paperback editions, with lengthy introductions and explanatory notes, makes them the most direct competition for Chew, and it should not be a surprise if Chew in the end cannot rival such brilliant competition.

The beginning is always good place to start. Chew's version of the first four-and-a-half lines is typical of her work [2--the translation criminally lacks line numbers]. I have tried to reproduce her formatting as accurately as is possible in this medium:

How to make fields fertile. Under what star it is right to turn the earth and join vines and elms. What the care of cattle, what the regimen for keeping herds. How much expertise you'll need for thrifty bees.


from here I shall begin to sing.

This is strikingly different from Wilkinson:

What makes the corncrops glad, under what star To turn the soil, Maecenas, and wed your vines To elms, the care of cattle, keeping of flocks, All the experience thrifty bees demand-- Such are the themes of my song;

and Day Lewis:

What makes the cornfields happy, under what constellation It's best to turn the soil, my friend, and train the vine On the elm; the care of cattle, the management of flocks, The knowledge you need for keeping frugal bees:--all this I'll now begin to relate....
Chew is fine here. "Fertile" is perfectly correct for "laetus", although it is unfortunate to lose the element of personification present in the Latin and caught by "glad" [W.] and "happy" [D.L.]. Chew says her translation is "an American Georgics", and her avoidance of "corn" will be welcome to North American readers for whom "corn" usually means "maize". Chew's Blakean "what the care / ... / what the regimen" is undeniably awkward, however. She delays "Maecenas" too much and gives it an emphasis far from the subtlety of the original [it is also centered on the page], but at least has it, unlike Day Lewis. Metrically and structurally, her version has little to do with Vergil's.

The beginning of the invocation of Augustus at 1.24-28 ["tuque adeo, quem mox quae sint habitura deorum / concilia incertum est, urbisne inuisere, Caesar, / terrarumque uelis curam, et te maximus orbis / auctorem frugum tempestatumque potentem / accipiat cingens materna tempora myrto" (all Latin quotations will be from Mynors, whose text Chew uses)] is a crucial moment in the prologue. The modern reader recoils at such language and a translator must make them sound sincere:

And yes YOU CAESAR who are still unsure if you wish to go and see the City's care or that of lands besides (the council of the gods is presently to be convened); and whether the greatest of the spheres shall receive you as originator of Earth's fruits and master over storms wreathing you upon your temples in your mother's myrtle;

Compare Wilkinson:

And you above all, you of the unknown future-- Whether some council of the gods will soon Receive you, Caesar; or whether you may choose To visit cities, succour lands, and be Acknowledged over this wide world (your brow Bound with a wreath ancestral, Venus' myrtle) Author of fruits and potentate of seasons;

and Day Lewis:

You too, whatever place in the courts of the Immortals Is soon to hold you--whether an overseer of cities And warden of earth you'll be, Caesar, so that the great world Honour you as promoter of harvest and puissant lord Of the seasons, garlanding your brow with your mother's myrtle....

Chew's version reads the least like a translation, but also the least like the original. She makes "incertum est" personal. She takes "urbis" as singular--the capitalization clearly indicating Rome--contrary to probability ["this is too narrow for a future deity, and Octavian rules the Urbs already" (Mynors, 8)]. "See the City's care" is awkward: why not say "See to the City's care"? Vergil's effective postponement of Caesar to the end of the second line is neglected by Chew and better captured by Wilkinson and Day Lewis. "The council of the gods is presently to be convened" is far from the Latin. She makes "orbis" plural and her translation of the phrase "maximus orbis" does not reflect its standard classical meaning. "Storms" is surely wrong for "tempestatum", although Mynors is probably right to take it as "weather" rather than "seasons". Finally, the additional preposition "upon" in "wreathing you / upon your temples in your mother's myrtle" lacks Vergilian elegance. Chew is also very sparing with punctuation, which caused me to stumble over "wreathing", as I took it first with "storms".

In fact, Chew swings between needlessly sparse punctuation on the one hand and excessive use of periods on the other. Consider 1.483 ff. "At the same time. / Ill-portending filaments did not cease / to appear among a victim's sickly organs / ... / ... / ... / At another time. / Did more and more bolts of thunder fall / ... / ... / Small wonder then. / If once again. / Philippi saw Roman battle lines / ..." [37]. Yet virtually the whole Aristaeus and Orpheus episodes in Book 4 lack punctuation, sometimes with unpleasant results.

Chew is also fond of manipulating formatting: changing fonts, type styles, and type sizes. "Caesar" in 1.25, for example, is not only all in capitals, but is also in bold, and a type size almost twice as large as the basic type [only italics will be indicated in this review, to avoid a distracting accumulation of formatting codes]. Sometimes this is carried to extremes: on one page [45], for example, one can see the usual font, the usual font in italics, in bold, in bold italics, and a larger different font all in bold capitals. Equally busy pages are common. There also seems to be little good reason for some of the emphases; e.g. 4.86-7 "By tossing a bit of dust / these arousals / of their spirits / and contests / of such magnitude / are pinched and put to peace" [123] is all in caps, bold, slightly larger, and a distinctly different font from the usual one, as well as centred. The largest type-size in the book is, rather puzzlingly, saved for "infertile oats" ["steriles ... auenae" 1.154]. However, Chew also consistently, and helpfully for the reader, uses font and size to create headings and sub-headings from Vergil's Latin; e.g., "Attend to the sky and star patterns" ["caeli mensis et sidera serua," 1.335] is all in capitals [29]; "The praises of Italy" ["laudibus Italiae," 2.138] is in very large bold italics [50]; and "Disease, its aetiology and symptoms" ["Morborum ... causas et signa," 3.440] is in bold capitals [108].

Chew's willingness to play with formatting extends to creating word-pictures, as when the lines "Accordingly / when you will have notices that / a line / of bees / is discharged / from its hive / to the stars / of the sky" [121] drift down and then up across the page, a device whose impact she diminishes by repeating it only two lines later. This can be quite effective at times: the layout of her translation [59-60] of 2.277 ff. reflects the quincunx pattern in which the trees are to planted.

The back cover of the paperback version declares that Chew uses "an idiom drawn from present-day nature guides, gardening handbooks, how-to-manuals, and scientific treatises." This is most visible in her frequent use of numbering and bullet-points to create itemized lists (3.79-81; dashes replace the bullets in the following quotations):

Your horse is to have -a long high-held neck -an open, bold-eyed face -close coupling of loins to front -a broad back -a chest full of spirit -and deep muscle folds.

However, she undermines this by too often using bullets for items that are not truly parallel (3.95-96):

When he declines -shut him up indoors, -sickened by some grave disease -or reduced to dullish sloth -or soon in his years -and show no pity for drear old age.

Any translator must sometimes add glosses to the translation to provide that little bit of extra information that should not be relegated to an explanatory note. But many of Chew's additions are excessive and unnecessary. 1.231-236 ["Idcirco certis dimensum partibus orbem / per duodena regit mundi sol aureus astra. / quinque tenent caelum zonae: quarum una corusco / semper sole rubens et torrida semper ab igni; / quam circum extremae dextra laeuaque trahuntur / caeruleae, glacie concretae atque imbribus atris"] becomes [22]:

Five zones make up the sky: #1: red (because of ultraviolet radiation from a solar flare); 500,000K. #2 & #3: emerald; high volume of ice and meteor showers; approximate position (from #1) equidistant at each of the star system's poles.

And 1.244-248 ["maximus hic flexu sinuoso elabitur Anguis / circum perque duas in morem fluminis Arctos, / Arctos Oceani metuentis aequore tingi. / illic, ut perhibent, aut intempesta silet nox / semper et obtenta densentur nocte tenebrae"] is metamorphosed into something almost unrecognizable as the work of Vergil [23]:

Here the gargantuan Snake spiral glides as a river running around and round and through the two Bears. The Bears (signifying the general celestial North Pole region) dread Ocean's surface layer stains. There (i.e., R.A. 11h, Dec. + 50o; R.A. 15h, Dec. + 70o) as they relate either the night engulfed in stormy weather holds its silence....

The addition of ascension and declination definitely adds to the technical tone of the passage but severely misrepresents the degree to which Vergil is writing in a scientific register, just as the bullets make Vergil seem drier than he is.

Such astronomical details are not the only distracting incorporated glosses. Some are unnecessary ["o Tegeaee" (1.18) becomes "from Tegaea town" (3)] and some inaccurate [the "ursi" of 3.247 are surely not "Grizzly Bears" (94)]. Sometimes they seriously misrepresent the Latin: Chew seems to understand "fratres" at 1.279 [where it seems she has neglected "et"] as referring to Coeus, Iapetus, and Typhoeus instead of Otus and Ephialtes [25]; and "fasces" at 2.495 becomes "standards" [74]. Geographical names are inconsistently modernized. "Atho aut Rhodopen aut altra Ceraunia" [1.332] is rendered "Agion Oros--/Despoto Dagh--/Mondi della Chimera" [29] but Ida [2.84] remains "Ida" [47], Cithaeron [3.43] "Cithaeron" [81] and Epidaurus [3.44] "Epidaurus" [81], although a note points out that it is now "Pidhauro" [n. 19, p. 81].

Most readers will need some help in understanding the Georgics, including a good introduction with all the necessary background. Chew's introduction is barely serviceable and is rather too concerned with her own experiences. It gives little guidance on the political context of the poem, Roman religion and philosophy, Vergil's place within and use of ancient agricultural lore, or even the background to the Aristaeus epyllion. There are also some inaccuracies, e.g. "the Hellenistic Age (third century B.C.)" [viii], and "the late second-century B.C.E. Latin poet Lucretius" [ix]. Wilkinson not only provides a much longer and much more informative general introduction but also excellent short introductions to the individual books. Chew's notes are also idiosyncratic and not as thorough as Wilkinson's, although for the most part she provides the type of help one would expect, and in convenient footnotes instead of endnotes.

But there are some surprises in store. She explains (xii) that her notes "[echo] the scholia scribbled by commentators and scribes in the margins of ancient manuscripts", and, rather amusingly, she seems to have derived inspiration from this. For example, the note on "or whether you will add yourself, a new star" [1.32] reads "Katasterismos, "starization," a poetical condition" [n. 15, p. 4]. She regularly adds long scientific explanations the text does not need, but which make for amusing reading. On "Arcturus" [1.67] she notes [n. 23, p. 7] "... spectral type K2. A red giant (a star spends over 90 percent of its lifetime on the main sequence; then it runs out of hydrogen at its core and cannot resist its own gravity, and it dies)." The mention of "manure" brings a long discussion of the nutrient value of different types of manure, complete with brand names and helpful web-site [n. 31, pp. 8-9]. Another note [42, pp. 127-8] lists 42 types of apples. She quotes cookbooks and almanacs, states ascension and declination for most constellations and stars, gives the scientific names of plants and animals, and offers various helpful hints [buy hyacinth bulbs only from the Netherlands (n. 54, p. 130)]. In all this, she is the very model of a modern ancient scholiast.

Still, there is very much here that is good, and a few examples will have to be enough. "Tristis lupini" [1.75] are "melancholy" [8]; "Lethaeo perfusa papauera somno" [1.78] are "poppies steeped / in oblivion's sleep" [8]; "somersaulting leaves flit about" [31] nicely captures "frondes uolitare caducas" [1.368]; and Vergil's parenthetical exclamation at 1.478-9 ["pecudesque locutae / (infandum!)"]--so hard to make sound natural in English--is striking: "... and the herd beasts / talked [this no words can describe,]" [37]. The Latin alliteration of 1.389 ["tum cornix plena pluuiam uocat improba uoce"] becomes English onomatopoeia: "Then the wanton crow hails the rain / with its kaa kraa konk" [32]. Lines 1.463-468 are, in their way, as effective as in any translation:

The sun will give you signs.

For who would dare to say the sun is false?

Yes. Often does he warn that uproar unseen hovers and that wars and wrongs in secrecy are swelling. For yes the sun has pitied Rome with Caesar killed, when he hid his shining head in gloomy dark and the impious ages feared eternal night.

Her version of 2.280-283 expands on Vergil, but acceptably and to good aesthetic effect:

So often when in a full-scale war a legion in one long line arrayed has unfurled its cohorts of men and in an open field stood fast its battle line; spear rows are raised up and far and wide ripples all the earth with bronze agleam. Not yet have battles of bristling spearheads begun but Mars hesitates, he wanders in and out the weapons [sic] lines.
[60] The disappearance of Eurydice at 4.490-501 is one of the crucial passages of the Georgics. It must be effective if a translation is to be considered a success. A literal translation is guaranteed to be flat, yet the reader will want to feel that the translation gives some idea of how Vergil's original conveyed the scene. Chew is very far from faithful here and cannot be unreservedly recommended; yet, when read very slowly [made necessary by the lack of punctuation], it is strangely compelling, deeply moving, and mercifully avoids sounding in the least clichéd:

he stopped near where light shone Eurydice his own forgot in defeat of soul he looked back all his labor drained away the pact of the pitiless tyrant crumbled Avernus' pools wrenched and roared three times what both me to sorrow you Orpheus has lost she says what thoughtless craze back again the fates who know no mercy call sleep conceals my swimming eyes now farewell I am forced away enveloped in night's immensity stretching out limp hands not no yours and suddenly as smoke twisted in light breezes vanishes in pieces no more did she see him grasping to no end....
A passage like this can make up for a lot. It cannot, however, make Chew's translation recommendable to anyone who wants to read the Georgics and get a feeling for Vergil's original. Both Wilkinson and Day Lewis are far more faithful to Vergil, balance accuracy and readability, and have excellent introductions and notes [by R.O.A.M. Lyne in the O.U.P. edition of Day Lewis]. But if one wants a version of the Georgics that sounds and looks truly modern--with all the good and bad that that involves--then Chew will probably not disappoint. Works cited

Wilkinson, L.P., trans. 1982. Virgil. The Georgics. Harmondsworth, Middlesex. Mynors, R.A.B., ed. 1990. Virgil. Georgics. Oxford. Slavitt, D.R., trans. 1972. The Eclogues and the Georgics of Virgil. Garden City, N.Y. Day Lewis, C., trans. 1999. Virgil. The Eclogues and Georgics. Oxford.

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