Robert Fitzgerald, Virgil
Translated by Robert Fitzgerald Vintage Books , 1983.
Somewhat tangential to the thread of Modernizing Shakespeare, but theFitzgerald translation of Vergil's Aeneid I think proves that "modern"translations can be made to work very well. It's also a good exampleof how religious and cultural contexts largely foreign to us don't getin the way of a good story.
Vergil, The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Vintage Books,1983, 442 pages. Includes a postscript by the translator and aglossary.
Translated by Eugene Woodbury
Many an adolescent's curiosity in the "classics," starting with theBible, has been wrecked by the wrong translation being foisted uponhim. Now, I adore the language of the King James Bible, just as Iadore Shakespeare. But I must remind myself that Shakespeare'scharacters didn't sound Shakespearean to Shakespeare's audiences. Theyspoke the common tongue. Shakespeare, after all, had to fill the cheapseats to make a living. And the King James translators craftedlanguage that would be read aloud in churches to often illiterateaudiences. The author must always consider the audience, and so mustany publisher of a modern version.
The Fitzgerald translation of Vergil's Aeneid is such a case in point.
I never could abide the Dryden long enough to get past the first page.All that incessant rhyming. (This compunction to rhyme in translatedverse I don't understand -- haiku, for example -- since you areimposing a form on a form already distorted by translation.) TheRobert Fitzgerald translation (Vintage Books) may not be definitive(I'm in no position to speak authoritatively on the subject) but it'smore than good enough. The Theodore Williams version I think scansbetter, but the language and grammar can be hard going. Fitzgeraldachieves naturalness without sounding glib.
Granted, even with the hurdle of the narrative voice mostlysurmounted, there are still obstacles: lots and lots of names I haveno idea how to pronounce, bounteous references to historical incidentsand heroic characters I know too little about, portentousforeshadowings such as Hannibal crossing the Alps and Caesar crossingthe Rubicon which I missed completely until I read Fitzgerald'scommentary at the end.
Nevertheless, a good story is a good story, and this is a ripping goodyarn. A strong authorial voice (it helps to read it aloud in your headas you go along) and a narrative construction guaranteed to entertainthe plebeians while sneaking in enough high-brow commentary to keepthe patrician intellectuals tuned in. It convinces me that, indeed,Sam Raimi is the definitive modern interpreter of the Greco-Romandramatic tradition.
Of course, Shakespeare accomplished the same. And like Shakespeare,Vergil is a master of the concrete metaphor and the action verb, aswell being an astute observer of human behavior. His analysis of howsmall dust-ups can lead (or be lead) to all-out war resonates withtoday's geopolitical quagmires.
There's something for everybody. Today, it'd be called, Aeneas: theminiseries. Every element of modern dramatic style is touched upon atsome point: man against man, man against nature, man against god, managainst himself. You've got romance, adventure, political intrigue, awhole chapter just for sport enthusiasts, and lots of action scenes.With lots of explicit detail about who stabbed who and where the bloodand guts went. And this isn't depersonalized violence. Before somepoor piker gets his head whacked off, Vergil takes a few moments totell us who he is, where he came from, what he had for breakfast, andhow he loved his mom. It's a bit disturbing, frankly.
This all plays out under the gaze of the Roman pantheon, which is halfthe fun. Jupiter is trying very hard to be a good deist -- not gettinginvolved in these human squabbles except to answer pleas based onindividual merit -- except that Juno and Venus are running aroundgetting the rest of the gods involved in their knock-down, drag-out,proxy war.
Juno hates the Trojans with a white-hot passion. Aeneas, leader of theTrojans, is Venus's son by a mortal father (these gods areunapologetically polyandrous). Growing up with that Botticellian imagefixed firmly in my mind, Vergil's Venus was a pleasant surprise. Noneof this demure, floating in on the half-shell stuff. She's tough,feisty, cunning, loyal (that is, to Aeneas; when she snuggles up tohusband Vulcan to get him to crank out some quality armaments for theTrojans, he grouses, You know, I'd do it even if you didn't sleep withme).
There are a number of strong female characters. Camilla, for example,kicks Trojan butt all over the place, and Juturna, Turnus's nymphhalf-sister, does a lot of Juno's dirty work, mostly in order to keepher brother (the villain in the piece) from getting killed by Aeneas.Though in the ends-justify-being-mean department, Juno is way ahead ofall of them. Husband Jupiter finally pulls her aside and says, Enoughalready. In an ironic twist, Juno wins for losing: as part of thedeal, the Trojan identity and language is subsumed by that of theEtruscan Italians.
Fitzgerald comments on the curiosity of the Romans (way, way after thefact) identifying with the Trojans in their founding myth -- and thereis a fair amount of trashing of the Greek demigods (i.e., all theenemies of the Trojans) in the tale. I guess it was a way ofone-upping Greek civilization while stealing from it.
What impressed me the most overall what the extent to which The Aeneidfits into the modern, western, narrative tradition, both in style andsubject matter. And, additionally, how un-odd the religious contextis. Many scenes of sacrificing animals and beseeching the gods couldeasily be confused with Old Testament accounts. Consider as well theconcept of the hero being the child of a god and mortal parent. Andyou can imagine an easy transition from patron god to patron saint;Vergil I think would be at home with the melodramatics of Touched byan Angel. For example, like Juno and Venus, Camilla's patron god,Diana, is limited in the extent to which she can interfere with Fateand keep Camilla from harm once she decides to join forces withTurnus. Human free will seems to a great extent to rule the liberty ofthe gods.
It's the kind of thing that makes me believe that Rome never fell.Rather, in the same way that China absorbed its numerous invaders,instead of conquering Rome, Northern Europe became Rome, and sobrought to Britain and then to America that self-dramatizing view ofourselves in relationship to god and nature and the rest of theuniverse.
© 2003 Eugene Woodbury <