This, coupled with the fact that the other day I read the generous write-up they gave him in the New York Times, made me want to check out this new translation (the product of ten years’ lucubrations, apparently). So, I pick up the book, flick through to the first line, and what do I read? ‘Wars and a man I sing’. ‘Wars and a man I sing’. ‘Wars and a man I sing.’ Nah, I don’t like that at all. It’s ‘Arms and the man I sing’, or it’s nothing. (At least Fagles didn’t feel the need to naturalize the word order too. I’ve seen translations that begin with ‘I sing of…’, which is surely nonsense. The first word must be ‘arms’, just as the first word of the Iliad must be ‘rage’.)
So anyway, I’m riffling through the pages, trying to get a general sense of what Fagles has done with (to?) Virgil, and it occurs to me to check out his rendering of that famously untranslatable line: line 462 of the first book. You know the one: sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Here’s what Fagles makes of it:
Even here, the world is a world of tears, / and the burdens of mortality touch the heart.Which, it seems to me, isn’t too bad, as vague approximations go. But wait, what’s this? A certain R. D. Williams, who wrote the commentary to the edition I have to hand, wishes to make the following point:
Line 462 is often detached from its context and quoted to summarise the note of pathos in the Aeneid; there is no harm in this provided that it is understood that the meaning is ‘people are sympathetic’, not ‘the world is full of sorrows, is a vale of tears’.Thanks for that, R. D. Like all good classicists, you do a nice line in superciliousness.
Here is the crib suggested by Williams:
here, too, there are tears for human happenings and mortal sufferings touch the hearthappenings for ‘res’? Better than ‘things’ I suppose.
Speaking of which:
[we find] tears in the nature of things, hearts touched by human transience
(C. Day Lewis)
[T]hey weep for things, their hearts are touched by the dying.Just what are these ‘things’ that keep cropping up? Who ever shed a tear for things? Things are not really for shedding tears over. But both of these versions are surpassed by Allen Mandelbaum, who sees fit to incorporate no less than two lots of ‘things’:
...and there are tears for passing things; here, too, / things mortal touch the mind.May the the Lord God Lucretius preserve us from ‘things’.
There are tears for suffering, and men’s hearts are touched by what man has to bear.Too wordy. As is this:
Here also there be tears for what men bear, and mortal creatures feel each other's sorrow.Sidgwick has much the same thing, but simplified:
(Theodore C. Williams)
There are tears for trouble, and human sorrows touch the heart.This version’s pretty economical too:
Here are the tears of the ages, and minds touched / By human suffering.As for this:
…there is pity for a world’s distress, and a sympathy for short-lived humanityA world’s distress? What world’s that then? And a ‘sympathy’ for humanity just sounds weak: Thinking of you, humanity. Get well soon. Kindest regards, Aeneas.
(W. F. Jackson Knight)
Speaking of dying relatives:
…here are tears over fortune and mortal estate touches the soul.Fortune? Estate? Sounds like the reading of a will. The will of a family member you never particularly liked, but there was a slight chance they might leave you some money, so you had to put on a show of grief when they kicked the bucket. That’s what it sounds like to me.
Earlier translators mostly read it along the lines of Williams’ ‘people are sympathetic’, and kept it specific to the context. So Annibal Caro: ‘ché ferità non regna / là 've umana miseria si compiagne.’ Dryden deflates it still more, and ends up with: ‘And Trojan griefs the Tyrians' pity claim.’
Anyway, if I’m reading my notes correctly, it seems Fagles (and a fair few of these others) have got the sense pretty much wrong. However. The problem with the Williams view, and what it misses, is that the meaning of the line is bound up with what it has come to mean. It’s all very well to insist that the context demands that Aeneas respond to a specific thing (being touched that the Carthaginians should be sympathetic to the plight of a people they had never met); but another context has its own demands, and that is the context formed by the accretion of readings and uses of the line over the centuries. Perhaps to some of Virgil’s first readers the line meant ‘[Carthaginian] people can be sympathetic too’, but does it mean the same thing to a Christian-era reader, one who has read Ecclesiastes, and fine-tuned his Romantic sensibilities, and who has heard and read that very line quoted again and again in certain contexts and with certain associations?
Well, perhaps it’s a bit much to expect a translator to cram all that into his version of one line of poetry. The awareness of this same problem of the specific versus the commonplace, the immediate context versus the literary-historical context, is what motivated my protest against Fagles’ version of the first line. It may well be the case that Virgil is not making a claim to be singing of the human condition, and so to speak of ‘a man’ is perfectly correct: he sings the story of one man. But Aeneas is not just ‘a man’; he is ‘the man’, he is ‘man’. Maybe Fagles thinks of Aeneas as merely ‘a man’ because he’d already called Odysseus ‘the man’ in the first line of his translation of that work…?
Anyway, here’s my favourite version of the line. Perhaps it’s not as economical as some of the others, but it combines the two contexts very well: it sticks to the specific (the sympathy of the Carthaginians), but also sounds that note of pathos, the lament for transience and the vanity of human concerns.
They weep here
For how the world goes, and our life that passes
Touches their hearts.