BMCR 2005.08.06

Virgil’s Georgics. A New Verse Translation

, , Virgil's Georgics : a new verse translation. Yale new classics. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xxiv, 114 pages).. ISBN 9780300137736 $23.00.

Janet Lembke (L.)’s new translation of Virgil’s Georgics ( G.) is beautiful but problematic, and cannot be recommended without reservations. Although L. often succeeds in capturing what she calls “Virgil’s close observation [and d]elighting in detail” (xx), at times she mistranslates, is mistaken about fact, and, worst, seems to misrepresent the poem’s central theme and images of labor. Her notes and some lines seem to derive a bit too much (though in some places not enough) from Thomas’ commentary. Finally, the book itself is awkwardly formatted. In sum, despite L.’s general fluidity and many felicities, hers is a problematic translation which may be of use primarily as a possibly provocative source of comparison for those who read Virgil in the original.

On paper L. seems an ideal translator of the G. She is an accomplished translator of Greek and Latin poetry ( Suppliants; Hecuba, Electra, and Persians for Oxford’s series partnering scholars and poets; and an intriguing treatment of Latin poetry to 100 BC, Bronze and Iron). She is also a poet in her own right, with long-standing interest in the natural world (e.g. Dangerous Birds: A Naturalist’s Aviary). Drawing on her long poetic practice and, especially, on her loving knowledge of gardening, animal husbandry, and nature generally, she positions herself against earlier translators of the G., “British … men who know much about poetry but little about farming” (x) in order to render the poem into “American English”.

The effect of all this is mostly successful and often beautiful. (Indeed, I may impress her chiastic injunctions on my Latin students: “In with grain, out with corn! Out with truncheons and buskins, in with sturdy twigs and boots!”) Her knowledge of farming and husbandry is employed to the reader’s advantage. To take just three examples, one learns why darnel is considered poisonous (ad 1.153), why the idea of pendulous dewlaps no longer makes sense (3.53), and how “lumpy wool and … strawberry foot-rot are caused by a single bacterium” (3.299). I wished for more frequent notes along these informative lines (on the Notes generally, see below), and for a glossary treating such natural terms as ‘serviceberry’ rather than ancient names and L.’s modern substitutions.

L. is especially at home with lists of specialized language or technical terms: the trees beginning book 2, kinds of olives (“testicle-/and shuttle-shaped, and a bitter-berried sort” at 2.85-6), grapes and varietals of wine, types of soils ( terris leuioribus is perfectly ‘hardscrabble’ at 2.92) — the lists are V.’s but L. adds a practiced comfort that goes beyond his Alexandrian literary effects. This combines rather fruitfully, I think, with her decision to use “the present-day names of some geographic features” and to translate “[t]he names of mythical characters … in several ways” (ix). Inventories of names that might otherwise be obscure or boring for the modern reader are instead made evocative and charming. A shining example is the party of nymphs attending Aristaeus’ mother Cyrene (4.336-344): to take just the first line, V.’s Drymoque Xanthoque Ligeaque Phyllodoceque becomes “Woods Girl and Golden and Clear Voice and Fancy Leaf” (incidentally also one of the better approximations of V.’s rare four-word lines in L.’s five- and sometimes six-beat lines).

There are many well-turned phrases and passages with an earthy sensibility behind them. A few examples: “frugal bees” ( apibus … parcis; 1.4); “whickering” for frementem (1.13); animals reacting to a coming storm (1.268-275); the inspired “high, drawn-out howling of wolves” (1.486); “a voice made of iron”, unusually beat-for-beat for ferrea uox (2.44); the testing of soils (2.226-258); “blood so dark its black drips from their bodies” (3.221); and the provision of shade and stream for bees, capturing the rhythm of the original and nicely turning uere suo into “spring, / which is their time” (4.18-24).

In all of these and other instances L. is a fine and careful translator, rendering V.’s meaning into charming, if sometimes admittedly anachronistic, modern terms. Unfortunately, she is not always so careful, and in places takes poetic license, or her own love of the land, too far.

L.’s very first claim is that “[t]he G. is a poem for our time” (xiii). She grounds this in what she identifies as V.’s understanding of “what happened to the land when smallholders were dispossessed” (xvi) and his sense of how important husbandry is for the land. But the former reading makes V.’s lament rather bloodless (“it may well provoke a contemporary reader to think wistfully of the disappearance of family farms across North America” (xvi-xvii)) and the latter is an unconvincing anachronism: some accurate comments on fallowing and nitration notwithstanding, V. is not overly concerned with preserving nature or even his native land as such — ‘sustainability’ would ring strange in Roman ears. In the G. nature is not an end to itself, as is evident from V.’s errors, inventions, and literary exaggerations, but a setting for the human world, for human beings and how they are yoked to Jovian labor. V. thus does not “passionately advocat[e] caring without cease for the land” (xiii): instead he points out, at length, that we have no choice but to do so and may yet fail. This is the “full-hearted burden of the whole song” (xxi).

Thus draining the poem of its venom, L. mistranslates the crucial phrase at 1.145-146: labor omnia uicit / improbus becomes “[r]elentless work conquered / all difficulties”. As Thomas cogently argues ad loc., this translation is “impossible”: improbus does not mean ‘unflinching’ in V. but “always retains its basic sense, ‘not probus‘”; and the parallels between labor and amor, both in the G. and in the E., make labor a negative power that cannot be escaped. Thus the phrase is “insatiable toil occupied all areas of existence” (Thomas). L.’s rendering is an incorrect and unexplained reversal; because of the importance of the phrase, the reversal informs her entire translation.

Thus the central problem: L’s sense of change in farming life, and of life generally, seems less grim than V.’s, such that her translation is better at celebration than at capturing the original’s pervasive sense of headlong violence. As a result, important parts and themes of the poem are treated unevenly. Books 1 and 3 are generally less convincing than books 2 and 4; the grimmer or more strident passages less successfully rendered than the lists, close observations, and moments of joy. While this pattern does not affect every passage, because of the centrality of labor to the poem, which L. acknowledges in her notes, it changes the meaning of the poem in a serious way.

From this perspective, for example, L.’s choice to identify by name the figures V. only alludes to can dispel some of the original’s haunting ambiguity. At 4.491-493, V.’s omnis / effusus labor atque immitis rupta tyranni / foedera becomes “his hard work emptied out, the agreement with brutal Death / shattered”, limiting the possibility of reading V.’s concluding mythological example as a more general comment on the human condition. And only thus is L. able to use the same phrase for both the famously headlong chariot that ends book 1 and for how not every species of tree may grow in every place, capturing the latter but deflating the former: ‘willy-nilly’. What works in one place does not, indeed, work everywhere.

Others of L.’s choices are as inexplicable (or at least as unexplained) as her reversal of V.’s central phrase. Why substitute “while day still permits” for dum sicca tellure licet (1.214); or “countless” for profundi (1.243) (in both these and other cases the notes are silent)? Why translate V.’s borrowing from Hesiod at 1.299, nudus ara, sere nudus as “plow bare land, sow bare land” — is this reticence, or shame, or simple mistake? At 3.31, the Parthians’ uersisque sagittis becomes, weakly, “volleys of arrows”, missing the image of shooting backwards from horseback (in her n. ad loc. L. writes that the lines “present the Parthians … as ineffective warriors”).

Behind all of these and other questions looms the larger one of the translation’s relationship to Thomas’ commentary. Having named him as her “meticulously edited and annotated” text (x), L. then seems to follow his notes and paraphrases rather closely in places (see further below). Why not then use it to greater and more explicit advantage throughout, correcting mistakes and the central misreading?

However beautiful at times, L.’s translation requires close scrutiny and second thoughts. On the very first page of the Introduction, V. is misnamed (Publius Vergilius Naso). This is not a small mistake, and one suggestive of other problematic aspects of the translation that a potential reader must keep in mind.


The book is handsomely printed and bound. In addition to the translation, the book contains a Translator’s Note, in which L. briefly sketches her impetus and methods and acknowledges some influences; an Introduction discussing the poem’s basic themes and structure and providing some context from V.’s life and his literary predecessors; Notes to the Translation, which explain L.’s modernizations of ancient names, discuss some points of natural and ancient interest, and, strangely, announce the content of upcoming sections of the text; and a Glossary of ancient names and of L.’s modern renditions of some names.

There is some odd formatting. Headers are all caps on even pages, in a different font from the text and from the odd-page headers, which are capitalized normally; since none of the book’s sections has subheadings, and thus headers on facing pages are always the same, I’m not sure what the difference in capitalization and font is meant to indicate. Likewise, there is no indication in the translation that a given line or passage has a corresponding note: the reader looking for elaboration must either flip to the Notes at random or read them separately from the text; already not comprehensive, they are thus also awkward to use.


The Notes seem to follow Thomas’ commentary rather closely, as do some lines in the translation. Some seeming borrowings are closer and more extensive than others. I append examples here.

(L. first; Thomas second; n = note; t = translation)

1.41n(ote) “V. asks for a revitalization of agriculture”; “the poem’s intent was to revitalize Roman agriculture”

1.398n “mythical halcyon, which was thought to be able to calm the sea in winter for fourteen days; during that time, it made its nest and raised its young at sea”; “mythical halcyon … was thought to choose fourteen consecutive calm days in winter to make its nest and produce its young at sea”

2.66n “One has it that Hercules made himself a crown of poplar leaves after he had brought the dog Cerberus up from Hades, the other simply that he brought the white poplar to Greece after finding it in Thesprotis”; “Hercules made himself a crown from the tree’s foliage after bringing Cerberus up from Hades; … merely observes that Hercules brought the white poplar to Greece, having found it on the banks of the river Acheron in Thesprotis”

2.116t(ranslation) “trees have their allotted habitats”; “trees have their allotted homelands”

2.346n “here the lines treat of manuring, draining, and protecting plants”; “Manuring, drainage and protection for the young plants”

2.536n “Jupiter was reared on Mount Dicte in Crete”; “Jupiter was reared on Mt Dicte in Crete”

3.522-3t “his flanks sag loose / beneath him”; “his flanks hang loose beneath him”

4.21n “we do not know if V. knew the truth, but even if he did, it would not have been in his best interest to say so”; “even if V. knew the truth, it would have been in his interests to suppress it”

4.110-11n “ithyphallic wooden statues of him were often placed in Roman gardens” and “was originally worshiped there”; “ithyphallic wooden statues of Priapus watched over gardens” and “was originally worshipped in Lampsacus” (under lemma Hellespontiaci)

4.150-2t “to reward them for / following the Cretans’ melodic chords and clashing bronze / and nourishing the king of heaven in Mount Dicte’s cave”; “in payment for which they fed the king of heaven in the shelter of a cave on Mt Dicte, as they followed the melodious sounds and clashing bronze of the Curetes”

4.150-2n “as a reward he gave bees their nature, which was characterized by work”; “Jupiter’s reward for the bees is a nature which is characterized by labor”

4.160n “though both Greeks and Romans referred to the nectar of flowers as tears, V. may well have intended to nudge the listener to think of Narcissus weeping over his own reflection”; “though the exudation of flowers is elsewhere referred to as ‘tears’ …, Servius may well be right in supposing that V. intends a secondary reference to Narcissus’ weeping over his own reflection”

4.177n “The honey made by the bees on Athens’s Mount Hymettus was famous in ancient times”; “the honey from the bees of Athens, specifically of Mt Hymettus, was proverbial”

4.197n “these lines survey the reproduction and life-expectancy of bees”; “reproductive habits and life-expectancy”

4.210-18n “the reverence that the bees show to their king, a reverence greater than that shown by inhabitants of eastern countries to their rulers”; “the bee gives even greater reverence to its king than do the peoples of the east to their monarchs”

4.228n “how and when to gather honey and lists the pests … that may attack”; “how and when to collect the honey … the various pests which are prone to attack”

4.247n “the myth of Arachne, who challenged Minerva to a weaving contest. Incensed by such arrogance, Minerva turned her into a web-weaving spider”; “an oblique reference … to Arachne … who challenged Minerva to a weaving contest and was turned into a spider for her arrogance”

4.255-6n “the language here is that used for human funerals”; “the language is that of human burial”

4.294t “the entire region entrusts its sure prosperity to this art”; “the entire region places its sure preservation in this art”

4.299t “the horns on his two-year-old forehead / just arching up”; “whose horns are just now arching up on his two year-old forehead”

4.301-2t “and when he is killed by blows, / his flesh is pounded through the intact hide until it breaks down”; “and when he has been beaten to death his carcass is pounded through the intact hide until it disintegrates”