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April 13, 2004

The Latest in Latin Translations

by Ron Hogan

The NYT drops in on Robert Fagles, who's in the seventh year of his efforts to translate Virgil's Aeneid. (He must have started right around the time the world went gaga for his Odyssey, which led to this 1997 interview, among many others.) Chris Hedges does a great job with this profile, including this striking passage (reduced to two paragraphs by me):

[Fagles] asked if it would be acceptable for him to read a passage that bedeviled him. He got up, knelt on the carpet in front of his file cabinet and pulled out some pages. The passage was one of the most famous in "The Aeneid." In Latin it reads, "Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit."

"One of the most beautiful lines in Latin," he said, "and also one of the most famous. I know the translation police will be looking, as well as good readers." He peered through his wire rim glasses, and read, "A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this." He looked at the page for a moment. "It is about loss, about overcoming the worst," he said, "but the word 'perhaps' is important. It may not be a joy to remember. It may be a bloody misery."

My Latin's a little rusty, as I haven't seriously applied myself to it since college, but some quick handiwork with a lexicon led me to this alternative: "And maybe some day it will please us to remember all this." Well, actually, "iuvabit" is probably better rendered "it will be delightful" than "it will please us," and I'm not sure where Fagles' "even" comes from...If I wanted to really loosen up, I'd probably say, "And maybe one day we can look back at all this and laugh." But at that point, I'm probably not so much translating as writing my own version--like John Dryden: "An hour will come, with pleasure to relate / Your sorrows past, as benefits of Fate."

Fagles studied under Bernard Knox, who, as it happens, wrote the introduction to Charles Martin's new translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. (Actually, it's a 1998 New York Review of Books essay comparing Martin's work, then in progress,favorably to other translations by Ted Hughes, David R. Slavitt, and a group of other poets who tackled individual stories from the epic for an anthology.) Oddly enough, there's another newly published translation by David Raeburn. It's a Penguin Classic in the UK, so chances are we'll see it soon here as well. Nicholas Lezard warmed up to this version reviewing it for The Guardian, though I'm not entirely convinced. Here's Martin on Diana's transformation of Actaeon into a stag, the reference point used by Knox in his essay:

No further warning:
the brow which she has sprinkled jets the horns
of a lively stag; she elongates his neck,
narrows the tips of his ears to tiny points,
converts his hands to hooves, his arms to legs,
and clothes his body in a spotted pelt.
Lastly the goddess endows him with trembling fear...

It seems to me a lot more gripping than Raeburn's version, and not just because of the use of the present as opposed to the past tense:

The head she had sprinkled sprouted the horns of a lusty stag;
the neck expanded, the ears were narrowed to pointed tips;
she changed his hands into hooves and his arms into long and slender
forelegs; she covered his frame in a pelt of dappled buckskin;
last, she injected panic ...

There's also the Elizabethan-era version credited to Arthur Golding:

She sharpes his eares, she makes his necke both slender, long and lanke.
She turnes his fingers into feete, his armes to spindle shanke.
She wrappes him in a hairie hyde beset with speckled spottes,
And planteth in him fearefulnesse.

I have to admit I like the Golding just a smidgin more on that passage, but I'm dying to get settled in at some point and start working my way through Martin's version, as the last time I went anywhere near Ovid was, well, high school Latin, when I was trying to do it myself and failing miserably. (Though I was reasonably decent at Cicero and, oddly enough, Petronius.)


I do appreciate this version. Some years ago I also tried to translate from Greek and Hebrew...
and failed...
I'm going to recommence my efforts some day :)

Posted by: Helen, translator at August 18, 2004 01:57 PM
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