BMCR 2021.04.22

Virgil. The Aeneid: a new verse translation

, , Virgil. The Aeneid: a new verse translation. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2020. Pp. xiv, 403. ISBN 9781585109647 $34.95.


What is the best way to render the hexameter in English verse? Dryden used rhyming heroic couplets, Cecil Day Lewis used blank verse; Shadi Bartsch in her recent version (Profile Books, November 2020) writes iambic (non-rhymed) lines with six or five beats—rather like Richmond Lattimore’s six-beat blank verse lines for Homer’s Iliad (a style aped by Green in his ‘Lattimore-style pseudo-hexameter’ version of Juvenal). Others (such as Melville’s translation of Statius’ Thebaidand James Michie’s 1969 version of Catullus 64) prefer blank iambic pentameters. Importing rhyme-schemes (which were of course not part of the Latin original) imposes massive demands on the translator and few have even tried: Alice Stallings used rhyming fourteen-syllable couplets for her Lucretius (and five-beat rhyming couplets for her version of Hesiod’s Works and Days), while James Falen’s 1990 verse translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and David Luke’s translation of Goethe’s Faust both manage to reproduce the metre and rhyme scheme of the original. This is a risky game to play: too little adherence to formal features makes the verse read like prose, while too much makes it sound stilted. Krisak may now be added to the short list of people who have trodden this tightrope without falling off on either side.

Keeping line-for-line correspondence is only possible if the translator is willing to make sacrifices—Stallings admits that in her Lucretius she will expand a 10-line passage by as much as 40% to get all of the original into her English version, so that the books mysteriously end up longer than the original. A good translation of epic has to be fluent but also has to read as if it were itself an epic poem, and so the run of the narrative has sometimes to trump considerations of accuracy where accuracy would slow things down or simply not work in English.

To see this process of selection in action, look for instance at the death of Rhoetus (9.345-50)

            Rhoetum uigilantem et cuncta uidentem;
sed magnum metuens se post cratera tegebat;
pectore in aduerso totum cui comminus ensem
condidit adsurgenti et multa morte recepit.
purpuream uomit ille animam et cum sanguine mixta
uina refert moriens:

This is rendered:

Cowering Rhoetus,
though, sees everything. Scared wide-awake, he hides
behind a giant wine-jar. Deep in Rhoetus’ sides,
as he stands up, the blade is driven to the hilt;
It comes out crimson. Purple vomits as he’s killed,
mixed with wine-clots

Small details are changed (Rhoetus’ pectore in aduerso becomes ‘deep in his sides’) and the translator spells out the causal link of fear and wakefulness (‘cowering …scared wide-awake’) which is only implicit in the Latin until metuens in 346. Some of the violence in the Latin is weakened—the sword which Euryalus multa morte recepit simply ‘comes out crimson’ as if of its own accord, and the ‘red life (blood)’ (purpuream… animam) loses its sanguinary colour by being rendered as just ‘purple’. That said, Krisak’s version is wonderful in its own terms: Virgil’s sentences are given urgent staccato treatment and the sudden breakdown of the syntax in ‘purple vomits as he’s killed’ focuses the terrifying violence and its disgusting effects in verbal form. Terror, bloodshed and a filthy mess at the end: this is exactly what the original is depicting, and Krisak reproduces it well.

For similar effects look at the version of 2.195-8:

talibus insidiis periurique arte Sinonis
credita res, captique dolis lacrimisque coactis
quos neque Tydides nec Larisaeus Achilles
non anni domuere decem, non mille carinae.

So artful, perjured Sinon filled our ears,
and lying guile won our belief with actor’s tears.
Achilles of Larisa: Tydeus’ son: ten years;
a thousand ships’ all failed! Yet now we were laid low

This also works splendidly: everything in the Latin is there and the phrase ‘actor’s tears’ for lacrimis coactis is inspired. credita res captique is neatly termed ‘won our belief’ and the asyndetic itemised review of the Trojan war set against the emphatic ‘yet now’ is perfect to recreate the weary catalogue of the Latin.

One final sample to illustrate the strength of this translation. Look at the programmatic words of Anchises at 6.847-53:

excudent alii spirantia mollius aera
(credo equidem) uiuos ducent de marmore uoltus:
orabunt melius causas, caelique meatus
describent radio et surgentia sidera dicent:
tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes) pacique imponere morem,
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

These lines are movingly translated as:

Yes some will hammer soft bronze better (well they may),
until it breathes, or coax from marble living faces,
plead cases better, plot with rods the heavens’ traces,
and say when stars will rise. Remember, Roman: you
will rule the nations with your might (that is your due,
your art) imposing on their peace, law’s bless
éd crown—
with mercy (fight the haughty till they’re beaten down).

The rhymes and the rhythm work well here to recreate the sonorous and didactic tone of the original and there are some real gems: the juxtaposition of mollius aera brought out with the oxymoron ‘soft bronze’, the monosyllabic ‘plot with rods’ for the painstaking skills of describent radio, the sibilance of ‘say when stars’ recalling the sound of surgentia sidera—and the archaic touch of ‘blesséd crown’ nicely adds to the grauitas of the utterance. Seven lines of Latin become seven lines of English and the meaning and the feeling of the Latin are there in abundance.

The book has one map (of the journeys of Aeneas) and also a brisk and enthusiastic introduction by Christopher M. McDonough, setting the poem in its context and giving us hints of the back-story and the reception of this text. At the end of the book there is a good set of notes (also by McDonough), picking up names and issues which readers new to the poem will need help to understand and also pointing out intertextual resonances in the poem (without specific line-references to the comparanda). There is also a 22-page glossary of important names and those Latin words which Krisak leaves untranslated, and here I found a minute number of infelicities: at 6.596 the translator thinks that the plural of the Latin iugerum is iugeri (and prints this in the glossary) when it should be iugera, and fas is explained unhelpfully as ‘speakable in the godly sense’. There are odd anachronisms in the translation: at 6.61 Virgil’s simple fugientis is rendered with the Medieval Latin ignis fatuus (for ‘will o’the wisp’, a term not found in Classical Latin), just as at 6.235 we are given Christian Latin (‘named for him/ perpetually per saecula saeculorum’) for Virgil’s pagan aeternumque tenet per saecula nomen. In many ways this version would make a good audio book, but the decision to leave some Latin words untranslated breaks the flow of the verse by requiring the reader to consult the glossary.

These few criticisms of detailed points have to be read in a context of glowing admiration for the overall achievement of this translation. Krisak has been translating Latin (and German) verse into English verse for some time and has won prizes for doing so. His 2000 collection Even as we Speak has a title that identifies the quality which explains the success of this volume under review: ancient Latin epic is turned into the sort of language which all speakers of current English can understand, can enjoy and can admire. Good writers make it look and sound easy: very good translators make their work sound as if it had been written in English in the first place. Krisak does all this and more.