Here's a passage from the Aeneid in three translations. The Trojan hero Aeneas is recounting the fall of Troy to Dido, queen of Carthage. In this passage, Aeneas offers an extended (epic) simile to characterize the Greek warrior Pyrrhus (Achilles' son, also known as Neoptolemus). Pyrrhus is soon seen breaking down doors, hunting down the Trojan warrior Politës, and killing the Trojan king Priam at his own altar. (Virgil spares his reader the details of Priam's beheading.) In this simile, Pyrrhus is a figure of sinister phallic force:
Just at the outer doors of the vestibuleA few details that strike me: Fitzgerald's "sprang" instantly makes Pyrrhus a figure of frightening energy. "Writhes into the light" has an eerie beauty but seems at odds with the sudden movement of "sprang." Lombardo's Pyrrhus is more a warrior who's ready for his close-up, basking in the spotlight and puffing up with pride. "Venomous and swollen" stands out as choice phrasing. (Here, as in his translations of Homer, Lombardo sets off epic similes with italics.) Fagles' translation is striking in its over-the-top alliteration but sometimes bewildering in its diction. "Prancing in arms" seems unintentionally funny (is Pyrrhus camping it up?), and "sheath," which might suggest a sheath dress or, alas, a condom (British slang), seems like a very oddly chosen word.
Sprang Pyrrhus, all in bronze and glittering,
As a serpent, hidden swollen underground
By a cold winter, writhes into the light,
On vile grass fed, his old skin cast away,
Renewed and glossy, rolling slippery coils,
With lifted underbelly rearing sunward
And triple-tongue aflicker.
Robert Fitzgerald, 1983
Framed by the portal to the entrance court
Pyrrhus stood in his glory, haloed in bronze,
As a snake raised on poison basks in the light
After a cold winter has kept him underground,
Venomous and swollen. Now, having sloughed
His old skin, glistening with youth, he puffs out
His breast and slides his lubricious coils
Toward the sun, flicking his three-forked tongue.
Stanley Lombardo, 2005
There at the very edge of the front gates
springs Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, prancing in arms,
aflash in his shimmering brazen sheath like a snake
buried the whole winter long under frozen turf,
swollen to bursting, fed full on poisonous weeds
and now it springs into light, sloughing its old skin
to glisten sleek in its newfound youth, its back slithering,
coiling, its proud chest rearing high to the sun,
its triple tongue flickering through its fangs.
Robert Fagles, 2006
Reader, which version(s) do you prefer?
Aeschylus in three translations
Robert Fagles' Aeneid
Variations of Virgil (New York Sun, article with two excerpts from the Fagles translation)