Thursday, November 2, 2006

Three Virgils

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 vestibule
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

    After a cold winter has kept him

    Venomous and swollen. Now, having

    His old skin, glistening with youth, he puffs

    His breast and slides his lubricious coils
    Toward the sun, flicking his three-forked

Stanley Lombardo, 2005


There at the very edge of the front gates
springs Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, prancing in
aflash in his shimmering brazen sheath like a
buried the whole winter long under frozen turf,
swollen to bursting, fed full on poisonous
and now it springs into light, sloughing its old
to glisten sleek in its newfound youth, its back
coiling, its proud chest rearing high to the sun,
its triple tongue flickering through its fangs.

Robert Fagles, 2006
A 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.

Reader, which version(s) do you prefer?

Related posts
Aeschylus in three translations
Robert Fagles' Aeneid
Whose Homer?

Variations of Virgil (New York Sun, article with two excerpts from the Fagles translation)

comments: 6

Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting up theses comparisons. I would pick Lombardo over either of the other two because it is far easier to read and less cluttered with what seems like a attempt to be poetic in a kind of 19th century way. I would trust Lombardo's translation to be accurate and in the spirit of the original.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I like the Lombardo translation also.

Regarding "sheath", I think it would have sounded much more conventional if used as a verb. Something like, "sheathed in a flash of shimmering bronze." Or, "sheathed aflash in shimmering bronze." Or, "sheathed in shimmering brazen flash." ("Aflash" is giving me some trouble here.) ;)

Lyman Phillips said...

I must be getting old. I prefer old Fitz. I find his leaning towards an older, fussier style more epic and heroic.

I'll probably read it in both Fagles' and Fitzgerald's translation this Winter, just for fun.


Robert Fagles, 1933-2008

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Lesle. I added a link to the Ruth Stevens obituary to the Fagles post I just made.