Friday, June 12, 2009

On Translating the Aeneid

I'd never read the introduction to David West's translation of the Aeneid, but as I was looking for something else I picked it up and a line caught my eye. I read the sentence, then the paragraph, then turned back to read the whole thing. I was particularly struck by what he wrote about the aims of his translation:

When Peter Schidlof died, one of the other members of the Amadeus Quartet was asked what their approach had been, and he replied: 'Loyalty to the spirit and the letter.' As a translator I think of the letter and the spirit. I have tried to be utterly faithful to everything I see and hear in the Latin, the rhetoric, nuances, colour, tone, pace, passion, even the peerless music of Virgil's verse, which Tennyson thought 'the stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man'. This, of course, is impossible, as Neruda well realizes:

Now it is clear that this couldn't be done -
that in this net it's not just the strings that count
but also the air that escapes through the meshes
Pablo Neruda, 'Isla Negra', trs. Alastair Reid

My second aim has been to write readable English which does honour to the richness and sublimity of Virgil's language - ebullient, for example in the utterances of Aeneas at the games in Book Five, charged with grief for the death of Marcellus at the end of Book Six and ringing with the courage and cruelty of war in the four great last books. Another impossible task. But if it is to be attempted, the translator must be ready to jettison the idiom of Latin and search for the English words that will carry as much as possible of the spirit of the Latin.

By this creed there are two great sins: to fall short of Virgil through sloth or ineptitude or self-love; and to write what is dull. If it is dull, it is not a translation of Virgil. This version admits defeatin every line, but where it seems to abandon some feature of the Latin, I hope it is always in an attempt to respond in living English to the poetic eloquence of its great original.

Loyalty to the spirit and the letter is good advice for anyone attempting a translation of the Aeneid, or indeed any other Latin text. It's a hard balance to strike (impossible even), but nonetheless something worth striving for.

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1 comment:

virgilfan said...

maybe it's muscle mass [10kg] sir?