VIRGIL AND HIS TRANSLATORS

Edited by Susanna Braund and Zara Martirosova Torlone

OUP (2018) h/b 544pp £110 (ISBN 9780198810810)

Translation studies are becoming an increasingly important and respected discipline in understanding the classics and their reception. At their best, translations become literature in their own right. They also illuminate the works of the original authors, and relate them to the values of later periods, places and people. English translations of Virgil that have transformed classical awareness include Cecil Day-Lewis’s Georgics (1940), and the Aeneid by John Dryden (1697), Robert Fitzgerald (1984) and Sarah Ruden (2008). 

Virgil and his Translators is one of OUP’s ‘Classical Presences’ series. It contains twenty-nine essays that originated in workshops and conferences in Canada, France and Italy. The editors come from different backgrounds. B. (British Columbia) is a published translator of silver Latin, and author of Virgil Translated, soon to be published by CUP. T. (Miami) began her academic career as a classical philologist, with degrees at Moscow University and Columbia, and her interest is classical reception in Russia and Eastern Europe. 

The book is divided into two sections, with some conceptual overlap. Part 1 examines Virgilian translation as ‘cultural and ideological capital’. Part 2 considers poets as translators of Virgil with regard to ‘cultural competition, appropriation and identification’. 

The reviews in part 1 include English translations of Aeneid 7 from Caxton to today by Alison Keith (Toronto), and of Aeneid 4 to 1700 by Gordon Braden (Virginia). There is a chapter on Virgil after Vietnam by B. comparing the approaches of Mendelbaum (1971), Fitzgerald, Lombardo (2005), Fagles (2006), and Ruden. Essays on translations into Spanish, Esperanto, Norwegian, Slovenian, Turkish, ancient Greek and modern Chinese, add to the collection, giving a wide and fascinating range of perspectives. 

Part 2 continues with a series of case studies. Stephen Scully (Boston), explains how John Dryden’s Aeneis was not just a great poetic achievement but was influenced by the English civil wars. Philip Hardie focuses on Wordsworth’s largely forgotten translations of Aeneid 1–3. Giampiero Scafoglio (Sophia Antipolis) explores with reference to Giacomo Leopardi (1817) the argument that only poets can translate true poetry. Jacqueline Fabre-Serris (Lille) compares the French verse translations of Paul Valéry (1997) and Marcel Pagnol (1956/8). Other chapters on French translations of Virgil include Du Bellay’s sixteenth-century L’Énéide (books 4 and 6) and Jacques Delille’s Géorgiques de Virgile (1770). There are essays on translations into Russian, German, and Brazilian Portuguese. In the chapters dealing with unfamiliar languages, there are helpful interlinear English translations of the translation. 

In a book of such wide scope, there are bound to be contentious passages and omissions, but this does not invalidate the thrust of the relevant chapters. Braden’s analysis of Dido ignores contemporary parallels with Cleopatra, the fatale monstrum of Horace Odes 1.37. Jinyu Liu (DePaux University) has not illuminated her account with translations in Chinese characters or pinyin. 

 The general editors of the series are fearful of ‘appropriating the past in order to authenticate the present’. They comment on the dust-cover that they hope to lay down a ‘theoretical and comparative framework’ of Virgilian translation followed by ‘in-depth contextualization and theoretical background’. The Introduction by B. and T. pursues a similar tone: translation theory has worked in binaries, with dichotomies between ‘literal and free’, ‘formalist and functionalist’, ‘domesticating and foreignizing’ and ‘instrumental and hermeneutic’, that are now being displaced by the concept of ‘third space’ advocated by Homi Bhabha: ‘Whether such a postcolonial sociolinguistic theory will be productive for the study of the Urtext of European colonialism remains to be seen’. This sort of analogy is not helpful or informative. Bhabha was a Cambridge-educated nuclear physicist and Nobel prize-winner who lost his life in the Air India air-crash in 1966. 

Virgil and his Translators needs no conceptual justification. It is a hugely rewarding collection of essays, full of analysis, perception and insights into the translation of Virgil over the ages. At its Kindle price of £72, it costs less per chapter than a regular caffe latte and is at least as stimulating. The editors are to be congratulated, and B.’s forthcoming Virgil Translated is eagerly awaited.

Stuart Lyons

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