November 09, 2006

Thou majestic in thy sadness at the doubtful doom of human kind

Idly browsing in the bookshop today I chanced upon a copy of the new Robert Fagles Aeneid translation (in truth it was pretty hard to miss: there was a great big stack of ‘em on the shelf; and it’s a pretty bulky hardback tome, printed as it is in the same format as his Homer translations, that is to say, making free and easy with the line breaks (what is with that? y’know, inserting a line-break every ten-or-so-words don’t make it poetry), with not much ink covering a lot of paper, and generally taking a devil-may-care rape-the-rainforests approach to paper conservation). Now, it just so happens that I really like the Homer translations he did: they’re robust, readable, they don’t sound too much like translations, and occasionally they even sound quite poetic – perhaps they don’t quite attain unto the sublime, but we can forgive them that.

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 heart
happenings 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.
(Edward McCrorie)
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.
(D. West)
Too wordy. As is this:
Here also there be tears for what men bear, and mortal creatures feel each other's sorrow.
(Theodore C. Williams)
Sidgwick has much the same thing, but simplified:
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.
(Stanley Lombardo)
As for this:
…there is pity for a world’s distress, and a sympathy for short-lived humanity
(W. F. Jackson Knight)
A 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.

Speaking of dying relatives:
…here are tears over fortune and mortal estate touches the soul.
(J.W. Mackail)
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.
(R. Fitzgerald)


Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, that first line is terrible, what was he thinking?

I agree with your point about the cultural accretions of the line, and I think in general that the heteroglossic richnesses potential in lines like this are overlooked. Some oddly loose pre-Dryden renderings:

"Here is a sight for man to mourne, and sample take in mynde."

-- Phaer, 1562.

"Soom tears this monument and soom compassion asketh."

-- Stanyhurst, 1583. (Soom, which I think is 'some', is presumably playing on 'sunt'. This translation was widely derided by his contemporaries.)

"These are materiall teares, crosses come neare."

-- Vicars, 1632.

Uke Xensen said...

Fitzgerald's version is lovely.

John Cowan said...

I'm not crazy about either "arms" or "wars". "Arma", that's "war", most centrally ("cedant arma togae" and all that), and this is a poem that's all about war, though not (unlike the Iliad) about a war. And in English we don't sing things unless they are songs; we sing about things. ("Things.")

But unscrambling the order into English prose sense for a moment (only for a moment), it's "I sing about war and a man"; saying "the man" may be traditional, but I hear Harold Ross growling in the background: "What man? Hasn't been properly identified." (He was actually talking about "the woman taken in adultery", which is why the line is remembered.)

Reconstructing, then, we get "Of war and a man I sing who first from the shores of Troy" etc. etc. etc.

But as for the other line, I quite agree that Fitzgerald got it right.

John B. said...

I'm no classicist by any means (I'm much worse off than Shakespeare, having had very little Latin and no Greek at all), but at my previous school the one-year Freshman Comp sequence required students to read and write papers about the Homeric poems, the Aeneid, and Paradise Lost, so I have some experience in teaching translations of these poems, if nothing else. We'll set aside for the moment the inevitable questions of the pedagogical efficacy of that and move on to this: During my last year there, we adopted the Fagels Iliad, kept the Lattimore Odyssey over Fagels', and used the Fitzgerald Aeneid. The thing I felt about Fagels' work with Homer was that while it is certainly readable, it just sounded flat when read aloud, almost prose-y, even in the opening fight between Agamemnon and Achilles. The Lattimore . . . I have no idea as to its faithfulness to Homer, but did it ever sound grand when read aloud. The same, by the way, with Fitzgerald's Aeneid.
But that raises an interesting question with regard to Virgil's language: Though I know the Aeneid didn't have an oral existence, do you get the sense that it was written with the intention (or the hope) that it would be performed as Homer's poems were? I might be wrong about this, but my sense of Fagels is that, in the case of Homer, he went for a silent readability over a capturing of those poems' read-aloud qualities; so I'm wondering if in Virgil there's a less-performative aspect to the language that affects Fagels' language.

Andrew Simone said...

What you say, John B., about Fagel's silent readability is certainly the conventional (and correct!) understanding of Fagel's philosophy of translation. Although, I am sure Groby would have more to say on the subject than I.

What strikes me as odd is that he would dramatically change a line that is indelible marked in the cultural consciousness (I sing, etc.).

And Ramingrobis when you write '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.'

I thought immediately of my work in seminary. This is precisely what the good theologian does with his Scripture translation. I do believe it is difficult (as you suggest) but certainly not to much to expect a translator.

But, then, I am not the fellow doing the bulk of the work.

Raminagrobis said...

Thanks for all the comments, a veritable torrent this time, veluti cum rapidus montano flumine torrens / sternit agros, etc.

John C., I don’t think we’re going to agree on this point:

And in English we don't sing things unless they are songs; we sing about things. ("Things.")

What about Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (‘One’s self I sing…The Modern Man I sing’) lines obviously modelled on Virgil’s curtain-opener, and owing more to that line’s syntax as we know it in English than to the natural syntax of our language? Quite apart from the problem posed by making the first (programmatic) word of the epic into a preposition, translating ‘Of war and a man’ pulls the rug out from under a whole teetering edifice of subsequent literary allusion and cultural memory. What does the title of Shaw’s play Arms and the Man mean in this context?

Also, I personally think that making ‘sing’ take a direct object in this way elevates the tone. Arms and the man I sing: this is the poet in his hieratic role, the poet as vates.

John B. – as for the silent readability aspect: when I was in the bookshop I flicked through the translator’s note written by Fagles, and (if I remember correctly) he makes a different point: quoting Pope’s ‘Homer makes us hearers, but Virgil leaves us readers’, he says that he had to take a different approach to the Aeneid, putting less, or rather a more subtle emphasis on the sound of it (than he had with Homer). But it isn’t true that the Aeneid didn’t have an oral existence; and it certainly was written to be recited. As Fagles points out in his introduction, Virgil was quite renowned as a performer of his poetry. There’s that story of his performance of book 6 before Augustus: his reading of the part where Marcellus turns up in the parade of heroes is said to have been so powerful that it caused Octavia to faint.

John B. said...

Regarding the Aeneid's composition, I know that there were certain Roman stories regarding Aeneas, but I had thought that Virgil was more author than transcriber. And I'm glad to know that he not only intended for the poem to be performed but also was a good reader.
Reading this blog is like being back in school. I feel embarrassingly unlearned when I come here; asochist that I am, though, I keep coming back.

Raminagrobis said...

Oh, I misunderstood you: when I said the Aeneid had an oral existence, I didn't mean in the sense that it was around before Virgil came along; just that it was read aloud in public readings as well as read privately. Sorry for misleading.

John Cowan said...

'Grobis, it seems to me that on that basis there is no point in making a modern translation: we might as well stick with Pope. And even if you think that's too extreme, it's not as if newer translations abolish older ones in any way. They are an attempt to do something different, to be "true to the facts of our time", as the Igor Tale says.

Claire said...

Definitely author, at an average of 2.5 lines per day.

Just on the translation of res, 'stuff' often works pretty well, although it's hard to get the register right. Think in terms of 'stuff that dreams are made on'. That translation works very well when I was looking at Cicero's letters to Atticus, for example.

Noetica said...

Things is really quite accurate, since by origin it meant something rather abstract, like affairs. It still can quite happily and naturally bear that sense. Or indeed, affairs will do. Try this:

“…And Priam, see? It moved them even here!

All things – even walls – might shed a tear:

Affairs of mortals mortal hearts affect.

Courage, though! We Trojans, now abject,

Will strive once more and see our fortunes rise!”

So he spoke, and through his weeping eyes

Devoured the empty pictures’ dismal fare:

Greeks in flight as brazen Trojans dare,

Then Troy’s retreat as Greek troops re-engage –

Spirits pricked by bold Achilles’ rage.

Anonymous said...

It is, of course, impossible to translate the exact nuance of a word, but _res_ obviously meant more than just 'thing' since 'public thing' is obviously not a good translation of _res publica_ ...

Noetica said...

_res_ obviously meant more than just 'thing'

The reason you offer for this is insufficient. The fact that res in res publica is not idiomatically translated as public thing does not entail that thing may never idiomatically translate res.

Anonymous said...

Um ... I believe what I was trying to say was that 'thing' was not always a good translation of res. I didn't say 'thing' was never a good idiomatic translation of res. But sometimes it looks like a good translation would be 'concerns' ...

Noetica said...

O, OK, Anonymous. You had written:

but _res_ obviously meant more than just 'thing'

I took this to have two meanings:

1. A contextual one: you meant res in Aeneid I.

2. A general one: you meant res in Latin.

In either case, it is well to bear in mind the many meanings that English thing might have. In fact, they correspond nicely with the meanings of res. SOED uses twenty headings or subheadings to deal with thing.

But sometimes it looks like a good translation would be 'concerns'

Hmmm. And where concerns is a good translation, often things would be also. :)

Conrad said...

Yes, I've always thought it interesting that both 'thing' and 'res' had the sense of 'assembly issue', e.g. the Icelandic Althing, and the sense development of causa-->chose.

phaneronoemikon said...

I was just poking around on
wikipedia and discovered
Hendrik van Veldeke who wote
an epic poem called the Eneide
based on the story of Aeneas.
Does anyone know if there's a trans.? or if it's an interesting
piece? I just have to identify
with someone born in the county of Loon. Great reading! thx.

Noetica said...

Quite so, Conrad. Striking parallels.

Anyway, here is a revision:

“…And Priam, see? It moves them even here.
The whole world sees, and can’t hold back a tear:
Affairs of mortals mortal hearts affect.
Courage, then! We Trojans, now abject,
Will strive once more, and see our fortunes rise!”
So he spoke, and through his streaming eyes
Devoured the dismal pictures’ empty fare:
Greeks in flight as brazen Trojans dare,
Then Troy’s retreat as Greek troops re-engage –
Spirits pricked by bold Achilles’ rage.

Andrew said...

I just found this article regarding the Aeneid which might interest the lot of you.

Anonymous said...

traditore traduttore

fearful_syzygy said...

Here's another thing on the Fagles translation in the NYT. Judging by the date I assumed it wasn't the one you'd already mentioned, but I might be wrong.

K said...

You know, Bob Fagles is my godfather, so it's often hard to read criticism of his translations on the web, especially when I know the incredibly extraordinary personal struggle he endured to make this translation happen...but I appreciate your comments and your insights, and wanted to let you know I think you've done very well.
It's definitely his weakest work...but after the Iliad there was a distinct decline in his health, an interruption, if you will, in the clarity that translating ancient Greek demands. Or Latin for that matter. Forgive his distraction. Know that he lived, really and truly KEPT himself alive, to publish the Aeneid. And to provoke the debates you indulge in on your website.

Anonymous said...

It may be interesting to read Sri Aurobindo’s remarks:

«If I had to select the line in European poetry which most suggests an almost direct descent from the Overmind consciousness there might come first Virgil’s line about “the touch of tears in mortal things”:

Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.»

«The context of Virgil’s line

Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt

has nothing to do with and cannot detract from its greatness and its overhead character. If we limit its meaning so as to unify it with what goes before, if we want Virgil to say in it only, “Oh yes, even in Carthage, so distant a place, these foreigners too can sympathise and weep over what has happened in Troy and get touched by human nisfortune,” then the line will lose all its value and we would only have to admire the strong turn and recherché suggestiveness of its expression. Virgil certainly did not mean it like that; he starts indeed by stressind the generality of the fame of Troy and the interest taken everywhere in her misfortunes but then he asses from the particularity of this idea and suddenly rises from it to a feeling of the universality of mortal sorroz and suffering and of the chord of human sympathy and participation which responds to it from all who share that mortality. He rises indeed much higher than that and goes much deeper: he has felt a brooding cosmic sense of these things, gone into the depth of the soul which answers to them and drawn from it the inspired and inevitable language and rhythm which came down to it from above to give this pathetic perception an immortla body. Lines like these seldom depend upon their context, they rise from it as if a single Himalayan peak from a range of low hills or even from a flat plain. They have to be looked at by themselves, valued for their own sake, felt in their own independent greatness.»

John Cowan said...

Quite right, Anonymous. (Why don't you Anonymouses just make up names? On one of my postings -- an atypical one, to be sure -- I have some thirty of you commenting away. Posting under the name of John Jones or Norrin Radd would leave you no more or less anonymous than before.)

In any case, it's quite true that many "great lines" are now best interpreted out of the original context and in the context of repeated quotation. "More honored in the breach than in the observance" originally meant "more often honored" but is now usually employed to mean "more fitly honored"; similarly, the original "still small voice" of conscience merely reassures Elijah that he need not think of himself as a failure, for the Ba'al-worshippers that he has not yet murdered will be taken care of by others!

Priyadarshan said...

Thank you for the very nice article.

My sensitivity likes these lines from Sri Aurobindo's Savitri very much. I find they translate impeccably Virgilio's line:

"But joy cannot endure until the end:
There is a darkness in terrestrial things
That will not suffer long too glad a note."

-- Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, pp. 16-17

(That shows also how Latin is able of much more density than English.)

Ken said...

Let's first consider what we really want "sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt" to mean.

We want it to mean, "The experiences of life are influenced by the tears of being mortal."

So where does that leave us when trying to craft a translation that, if not literal, is at least faithful to Virgil?


"The experiences of life are influenced by the tears of being mortal"

I say we get:

"They are the tears of experiences and they cloud human reason"

Or, as Hamlet said it a few years later,
all wrapped in iambic pentameter instead of heroic hexameter

"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought"

passiflora said...

Browsing through Ingrid Rowland's From Heaven to Arcadia, I came upon her rendition of the "famously untranslatable line". Perplexed, I went poking and found this excellent site. So now, to complete your collection, I offer Ms. Rowland's version,
"There are tears in things and mortality moves the mind".

Tyler O'Neil said...

Yes, Williams seems to be most correct, taking into context the fact that, even here in Barbarian Carthage, the sufferings of Troy have their effect. Having translated this line in my class, I abhor the inaccuracy of the translation on wikipedia. Someone needs to change it and include notes on the context of the line.

Peter Brodie said...

The only good translation of "sunt lacrimae rerum" is "Alas, poor Yorick."

Viagra Cialis Levitra said...

I like Aeneid very much. However, I have found so bad translations that doesn't let one to enjoy this amazing work very much. I would like to buy a really good translation.