National Poetry Month: A New Translation of Virgil’s “Aeneid”

There is a smart new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, by Shadi Bartsch, a classics professor at the University of Chicago. We have seen a number of translations of Virgil in the twenty-first century; and at first I wondered if we needed another. But Bartsch’s spirited, readable translation is a worthy addition to to the Virgil canon. It is a labor of love by a scholar-poet who has examined every nuance, matched each line of English translation to the Latin lines, and attended to problematic lines that continue to stump scholars.

Readers at Thornfield Hall know my love of Latin poetry. I am fond of Virgil, whom I first met through Rolfe Humphries’s lively translation of the Aeneid in an undergraduate class. Hypnotized by the brilliant, nerdy world of classicists, I did a crash course in Latin, and three years later was teaching Virgil in Latin as a T.A. And not for the last time.

The problems of translation are manifold. Latin is an inflected language, unlike English, and the sense does not depend on word order, but on word endings that cue the reader to the relationship of words in the sentence. We are not only reading but deciphering a puzzle that can seem jumbled until you understand the elegant effect of separation.

Bartsch addresses many such problems in the Translator’s Note, including the challenge of Latin vocabulary.

Bartsch explains,

Latin words do not map cleanly onto English words, and this gives every translator a choice of which term brings the most appropriate nuances for the situation…. Consider the verb condo. Condo basically has the sense of “to put x in y” (including in one’s memory). It also means to bury, to hide, to plunge a weapon into a body, to found or establish (as a city)–and to compose verse!

I am a fan of comparing English translations, and have decided to share the fun with you. Below are two translations of Aeneid, Book XII, vv. 595-603, the first by Bartsch, and the second by Rolfe Humphries.

First, let me explain the context. Queen Amata, who opposed a marriage between her daughter Lavinia and Aeneas, a Trojan refugee fated to found Rome, stirred up a civil war in Italy. Amata is half in love with Turnus, the Italian prince who was the favored suitor of Lavinia. Now, when Amata sees the Trojans attacking the walls, and no sign of Turnus, she believes he is dead, and decides to commit suicide herself. There are similarities between suicidal Amata and suicidal Dido (Book IV), and yet the parallels are strange: Amata is a married middle-aged queen with a thing for her daughter’s aspiring fiance; Dido a young widowed queen in love with Aeneas, then deserted by him.

From Shadi Bartsch’s new translation, vv. 595-603 in Book XII of the Aeneid

When the queen, at home, saw the enemy
approach, saw the walls attacked, torches flying
at the roofs, no Rutulians defending,
none of Turnus’ troops, the unhappy woman
thought he’d died in combat. Pierced by sudden grief,
she cried she was the cause and culmination
of their pain. Speaking wildly, in despair,
and set on death, she tore her purple robe
and hung a noose around a beam–an ugly end.

From Rolfe Humphries, lines 595-603 in Book XII of the Aeneid

…the queen
Had seen the Trojans coming and the walls
Under attack and fire under the gables
And no Rutulian column, nowhere Turnus
Coming to help. He had been killed, her hero,
She knew at last. Her mind was gone; she cried
Over and over:–I am the guilty one,
I am the cause, the source of all these evils!”
And other wilder words. And then she tore
Her crimson robes, and slung a noose and fastened
The knot of ugly death to the high rafter.

Here is the Latin:

regina ut tectis venientem prospicit hostem,               595
incessi muros, ignis ad tecta volare,
nusquam acies contra Rutulas, nulla agmina Turni,
infelix pugnae iuvenem in certamine credit
exstinctum et subito mentem turbata dolore
se causam clamat crimenque caputque malorum,               600
multaque per maestum demens effata furorem
purpureos moritura manu discindit amictus
et nodum informis leti trabe nectit ab alta.

Which translation do you prefer?

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