Friday, October 10, 2014

Three Virgils

Something I wrote when comparing translations by Robert Fitzgerald, Stanley Lombardo, and Stephen Mitchell:

A translation of a poem as vast as the Odyssey rises or falls not in its treatment of great, memorable lines — such as those that describe Argos, lying neglected and bug-ridden on a pile of dung — but in its treatment of what might be called ordinary lines, those that go by in a way that invites no special attention from a reader. Someone walks into town; someone offers a greeting; someone serves a meal: the translator must attend to it all.
So too with Virgil’s Aeneid , which I’m now teaching. A couple of days ago I found myself admiring these lines from Stanley Lombardo’s 2005 translation (in the Latin, 4.522–529):
It was night, and all over earth weary bodies
Lay peacefully asleep. Woods and wild seas
Had fallen still, and the stars were midway
In their gliding orbits. Ox and meadow were
And all the brilliant birds who haunt
The lapping lakes and tangled hedgerows
Were nestled in sleep under the dark, silent

But not Dido, unhappy heart.
For me, Lombardo’s translation of these lines shines even brighter when read against translations by Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Fagles. Here is Fitzgerald’s 1983 translation:
The night had come, and weary in every land
Men’s bodies took the boon of peaceful sleep.
The woods and the wild seas had quieted
At that hour when the stars are in mid-course
And every field is still; cattle and birds
With vivid wings that haunt the limpid lakes
Or nest in thickets in the country places
All were asleep under the silent night.
Not, though, the agonized Phoenician queen.
And Fagles’s 2006 translation:
                                     The dead of night,
and weary living creatures throughout the
are enjoying peaceful sleep. The woods and
    savage seas
are calm, at rest, the circling stars are gliding
In their midnight courses, all the fields lie
and the flocks and gay and gorgeous birds
    that haunt
the deep clear pools and the thorny country
all lie quiet now, under the silent night, asleep.
But not the tragic queen . . .
In FItzgerald’s translation, the clause beginning “cattle and birds” seems weighted down with prepositional phrases: “with vivid wings,” “in thickets,” “in the country places,” “under the silent night.” Fagles’s translation is marred by clichés (“dead of night,” “savage seas”), redundancy (“living creatures,” “calm, at rest”), and strangely extravagant phrasing (“gay and gorgeous birds”). Here as elsewhere in his translations, he . . . trails off.

Looking at Fitzgerald and Fagles helps me to notice how Lombardo captures the Latin pictaeque (“painted,” “colored”) with the one word brilliant and avoids the predictable “silent night.” Looking at the Latin (via the Perseus Digital Library) helps me to admire what Lombardo does with the final line, “At non infelix animi Phoenissa” (literally, ”But not the unhappy Phoenician soul”). From soul to heart : a reasonable shift. And, I suspect, a tip of the hat: in William Morris’s 1876 translation, 4.529 refers to Dido as “that most unhappy heart.”

For my money, it’s Lombardo first, Fitzgerald second, and Fagles a distant third.

Related posts
Aeschylus in three translations
Three more Virgils
Translators at work and play
Whose Homer?

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