Jennifer Howard’s discussion in The Chronicle of Higher Education of the new translation of the Aeneid by Sarah Ruden (found via Avva) is thought-provoking on the fact that so few women have tried translating the classic epics; at least from the snippet from Book 2 she chooses for comparison, Ruden’s version is head and shoulders above other recent attempts, with its combination of concision and poetic force. Here is Vergil’s Latin:

        …dextrae se parvus Iulus
implicuit sequiturque patrem non passibus aequis;
pone subit coniunx. ferimur per opaca locorum,
et me, quem dudum non ulla iniecta movebant
tela neque adverso glomerati ex agmine Grai,
nunc omnes terrent aurae, sonus excitat omnis
suspensum et pariter comitique onerique timentem.

The translations are below the fold.

Little Iülus held my hand and kept up,
Although his stride could not match his father’s,
And my wife followed behind.
                        We kept
To the shadows, and I, undisturbed before
By any number of weapons thrust my way
And whole platoons of Greeks, now was frightened
By every breeze and startled by every sound,
Afraid for my companion and my burden.
— translated by Stanley Lombardo (2005)

Little Iulus, clutching
my right hand, keeps pace with tripping steps.
My wife trails on behind. And so we make our way
along the pitch-dark paths, and I who had never flinched
at the hurtling spears or swarming Greek assaults —
now every stir of wind, every whisper of sound
alarms me, anxious both for the child beside me
and burden on my back.
— translated by Robert Fagles (2006)

Still the small boy, takes my right hand and holds it with intertwined fingers,
And, since his stride’s not long, lags behind, trailing after his father.
Further back comes my wife. On we go through the darkest of places.
I, who, just moments ago, didn’t flinch at a volley of javelins
Or at contingents of Greeks falling out from their march to attack us,
Cowered whenever a breeze blew now, so tense that the slightest
Sound made me twitch out of equal fear for my comrade and burden.
— translated by Frederick Ahl (2007)

My little Iulus’ fingers
Were twined in mine; he trotted by my long steps.
Behind me came my wife. We went our dark way.
Before I hadn’t minded the Greeks’ spears
Hurled at me, or the Greeks in crowds, attacking.
Now every gust and rustle panicked me
Because of whom I led and whom I carried.
— translated by Sarah Ruden (2008)


  1. The excerpts on Amazon’s preview of the book are just as good. Her clear and simple style is similar to Ian Johnston’s translations of Homer, which I have always preferred.

  2. It’s amazing that so many translations of the Aeneid are published when it is the ugly stepchild and lowest-selling of the classical epics.

  3. Fifty years ago we read and translated all twelve books of the Aeneid in my fourth year Latin class. Although I little remember the text, Sarah Ruden’s translation reads very well. Poetry has become the red-headed stepchild of American English teaching and, generally, the ability to understand, let alone appreciate, the poetic form is, sadly withering.

  4. but “whole platoons of Greeks” was not that bad.

  5. michael farris says

    I’m not sure I can endorese ‘whom’.
    “Because of who I led and who I carried,” is completely unambiguous and sounds more natural and generally …. better.
    For me, whom has been fatally tainted not by it’s own archaicness and stiltedness but by misuse and over-correction of those eager to conform to prescriptive standards that they don’t understand. The result (for me) has been that now it always sounds wrong even when (by the standards of traditional grammar) it’s correct.

  6. michael,
    not even if you read it out loud? “whom I led and whom I carried” sounds much better to me. Without that ‘m’, you have a vowel followed by a vowel which somehow doesn’t feel right to these Slavic ears.

  7. Ruden’s version is head and shoulders above other recent attempts, with its combination of concision and poetic force
    One example: “My little Iulus”. What a difference a possessive pronoun makes!

  8. Yes, I’m not ordinarily a “whom” fan, but to me it works here. Maybe because it’s an epic, and a little formality seems warranted.

  9. Ruden’s version has poetic force, very much so, but I don’t think it’s a good translation. Vergil’s Latin in this passage is long measures that rush along, whereas Ruden’s version is short lines sonically different from the Latin. The closest she comes is suggesting the consonants that are clustered in the fourth line (adversus glomerati ex agmine Grai)–but she repeats the term “Greeks” where the text uses it only once. And that “my” which bulbul likes isn’t in the Latin (my Latin isn’t very good, but I think it can parse it enough to be sure of that).
    So if this passage is a good indicator, it’s good English poetry, but achieves that at the cost of not replicating the great Latin poetry of the work.

  10. Young Iulus clasped in my right hand,
    Followeth me fast, with unegal pace;
    And at my back my wife. Thus did we pass
    By places shadowed most with the night,
    And me, whom late the dart which enemies threw,
    Nor press of Argive routs could make amaz’d,
    Each whisp’ring wind hath power now to fray,
    And every sound to move my doubtful mind:
    So much I dread my burden and my fere.
    — translated by Henry Howard (1517-1547)
    (Let’s say that Caxton and Douglas don’t really count as English translations.)

  11. We used the Allen Mandelbaum translation to help us translate some of the more difficult passages of the Aeneid, but this definitely has a sort of grace to it. I agree that “whom I led and whom I carried” has more of an accusative connotation to it, which is not the case here (ha, a pun!). However, it’s softer than saying “my companion and my burden,” so I must say that I like it.

  12. michael farris says

    “Without that ‘m’, you have a vowel followed by a vowel which somehow doesn’t feel right to these Slavic ears.”
    Au contraire, vowels connected by glides sound wonderful to these American ears (though I can imagine they’re unbeautiful to lots of other ears, not only Slavic ones).

  13. Does anyone have Mandelbaum’s translation for comparison?

  14. “the ugly stepchild and lowest-selling of the classical epics.”
    What? As opposed to Silius Italicus’ evergreen blockbuster “Punica” or Tryphiodorus’ “Capture of Troy” (available at every airport bookshop)?

  15. “the ugly stepchild and lowest-selling of the classical epics”
    What a bizarre statement! The Aeneid has historically been the most popular work of Latin literature, let alone Latin epic. Only the Metamorphoses (in Latin) challenges it now–and that’s an epic only in meter. True, Homer has had a higher prestige: but that makes Vergil #2 in the classical world.

  16. Ruden’s version has poetic force, very much so, but I don’t think it’s a good translation. Vergil’s Latin in this passage is long measures that rush along, whereas Ruden’s version is short lines sonically different from the Latin.
    I guess we differ on what “a good translation” is. On the scale from Nabokov’s ideal of “who cares how bad it sounds, the important thing is that every word of the original be accurately rendered” to the Robert Lowell “imitation,” I lean comfortably towards the latter. Obviously, other things being equal, more accuracy is better than less, but the sine qua non (in my opinion) is that the translation be attractive as a poem in its own right. That’s why I love Christopher Logue’s wildly divergent versions of Homer so much: they are supremely readable poetry in English, and convey the “feel” of Homer in a way that more decorous/traditional versions don’t. I can respect the other snippets above, and admire things about them, but Ruden’s is the only one that makes me want to read the entire 300 pages, and surely that’s what Vergil would have wanted.
    (And of course it’s “sonically different from the Latin”; it’s a different language, with entirely different poetic resources! While I respect the ideal of trying to carry over something of the feel of the original, if you go overboard in that direction you wind up with this kind of thing, which may be admirable in its way but can never be more than a curiosity.)

  17. Well, I like decorous traditional versions.
    Young Iulus held me, fingers interlaced –
    He could not match a man’s full stride, but paced
    His faltering best; my wife some distance back.
    All timid now, we chose the shadowed track;
    Yes, even I, who held the Greeks’ advance
    A trifling thing – I quailed at every lance
    Of twigs that rustled in the breeze, in fear
    For this my burden, this my son so dear.

  18. While on my better hand Ascanius hung,
    And with unequal paces tript along.
    Creüsa kept behind: by choice we stray
    Through ev’ry dark and ev’ry devious way.
    I, who so bold and dauntless, just before,
    The Grecian darts and shock of lances bore,
    At ev’ry shadow now am seis’d with fear,
    Not for myself, but for the charge I bear;
    — translated by John Dryden (1697)
    (And so arguably past its freshness date.)

  19. I’ve always liked Dryden’s translation. If you want something a bit more, um, experimental then try Richard Stanyhurst’s version from 1582:
    …my yoong lad Iulus
    I lead with right hand, tripping with pit pat unequal;
    My wife cooms after, through cross blind alley we jumble.
    And I that in forenight was with no weapon agasted,
    And little esteemed thee swarms of Grekish asemblye,
    Now shiver at shadows, each pifling puf doth amaze me,
    For yong companion, for bedred burden abashed.

  20. Jonathan Mayhew says

    The fun is in having lots of translations to compare. There are things I like in almost all of these passages (except for Ahl!) Stan Lombardo is a friend of mine, but “any number of weapons thrust my way” is unfortunate. “Greeks in crowds” from Ruden also. The Henry Howard and the Dryden seem superior to any contemporary version.

  21. Jonathan! Nice to see you around here again, and I agree about the fun of comparing translations.

  22. parvomagnus says

    Wow, I really like that Henry Howard translation (and linguistically, it’s interesting that cutting ‘power’ down to one syllable hadn’t become too stylish yet).
    Dryden’s translation does have a certain elegance to it, but the heroic couplet has always seem so very unheroic to me – much better suited to mock-epic than to epic. It’s just too refined and predictable a form, for me, to sustain epic, and, in translation, it forces the poet to alternatingly expand and contract the source to fit his measure. The example that’s always stuck in my mind is these two lines at the beginning of book 12:
    haud secus adcenso gliscit violentia Turno.
    Tum sic adfatur regem atque ita turbidus infit:
    Which Dryden renders:
    So Turnus fares; his eyeballs flash with fire,
    Thro’ his wide nostrils clouds of smoke expire.
    Trembling with rage, around the court he ran,
    At length approach’d the king, and thus began:
    The whole scene is cartoonishly exaggerated (though perhaps it seemed less so in an age before cartoons), and rather gives the lie to Turnus’s coming claim that there’s no delay in him, if he takes a couple laps each time he gets angry (though Dryden does change this to “No more excuses or delays”).

  23. “but the heroic couplet has always seem so very unheroic to me – much better suited to mock-epic than to epic.” I’d disagree about that. Anyway, here’s an example of Dryden at his best:
    There Charon stands, who rules the dreary coast-
    A sordid god: down from his hoary chin
    A length of beard descends, uncomb’d, unclean;
    His eyes, like hollow furnaces on fire;
    A girdle, foul with grease, binds his obscene attire.
    He spreads his canvas; with his pole he steers;
    The freights of flitting ghosts in his thin bottom bears.
    He look’d in years; yet in his years were seen
    A youthful vigor and autumnal green.
    An airy crowd came rushing where he stood,
    Which fill’d the margin of the fatal flood:
    Husbands and wives, boys and unmarried maids,
    And mighty heroes’ more majestic shades,
    And youths, intomb’d before their fathers’ eyes,
    With hollow groans, and shrieks, and feeble cries.
    Thick as the leaves in autumn strow the woods,
    Or fowls, by winter forc’d, forsake the floods,
    And wing their hasty flight to happier lands;
    Such, and so thick, the shiv’ring army stands,
    And press for passage with extended hands.
    Now these, now those, the surly boatman bore:
    The rest he drove to distance from the shore.

  24. Another Elizabethan experiment in metre and rhyme:
    …, my childe my right hand kept
    Iule, and after mee, with pace vnlike in length, he ſtept.
    My wife enſued, through lanes and crokes and darknes moſt we paſt.
    And mee, that late no ſhoutes, nor cries, nor noyſe, nor wepons caſt
    Could feare, nor cluſters great of Greeks in throngs agaſt could make:
    Now euery winde and puffe doth moue, at euery ſound I quake,
    Not for my ſelfe, but for my mate, and for my burdens ſake,
    — translated by Thomas Phaer (1558)
    From the Victorian Renaissance Man (and another “my Iulus”):
    …: my young Iulus by my side,
    Holding my hand, goes tripping short unto his father’s stride;
    My wife comes after: on we fare amidst a mirky world.
    And I, erewhile as nothing moved by storm of weapons hurled,
    I, who the gathering of the Greeks against me nothing feared,
    Now tremble at each breath of wind, by every sound am stirred,
    Sore troubled for my fellows both, and burden that I bore.
    — translated by William Morris (1875)

  25. parvomagnus says

    Ah! And there an older meaning of ‘surly’!

  26. parvomagnus says

    Phaer’s Aeneid, then, was done just under a decade before Arthur Golding’s Metamorphoses. I guess that was the golden age of the fourteener couplet?

  27. Ah! And there an older meaning of ‘surly’!
    Good catch! (The reference is to the penultimate line of JCass’s last Dryden excerpt: “Now these, now those, the surly boatman bore.”)
    For some reason, I have a great fondness for fourteeners, and I like “My wife enſued, through lanes and crokes and darknes moſt we paſt” a lot.

  28. Curious that churlish and surly converge in meaning, though the first has to do with low status (churl) and the second with high status (sir). SOED connects them explicitly:
    [Surly:] 2 Bad-tempered and unfriendly, morose, churlish. L16.

  29. Jonathan Mayhew says

    I like fourteeners of that period too. Chapman’s Homer is in fourteeners? I think it is.

  30. John McIntyre says

    It seems only fair to include Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, which I like for its clarity and dignity:
    Then little Iulus put his hand in mine
    And came with shorter steps beside his father.
    My wife fell behind. Through shadowed places
    On we went, and I, lately unmoved
    By any spears thrown, any squads of Greeks,
    Felt terror now at every eddy of wind,
    Alarm at every sound, alert and worried
    Alike for my companion and my burden.

  31. Yes, I’m a fan of Fitzgerald’s too (I was lucky enough to meet him, and surprised him by praising his own, non-translated work); I ran out and bought his Aeneid as soon as it came out.

  32. OUP allows enough of a GB preview of their modern (= post-Hopkins) version. I imagine this or Penguin is what you get if you just go to the bookstore to buy Aeneid Englished.
    …: Ascanius twined his fingers
    In mine, hurrying to keep up with his father’s longer stride.
    My wife came on behind. We fared on, hugging the shadows.
    I, who just now had faced the enemy volleys, the Greeks’
    Concentrated attack, without turning a hair — I was scared by
    Every breeze, alarmed by every sound, so strung up
    Was I with anxiety for my burden and my companion.
    — translated by Cecil Day-Lewis (1952)
    (Apparently this translation was commissioned by the BBC for broadcast. I have not been able to find a free audio of it online, though. YouTube does have several AP Latin classes doing dramatizations: there’s your 21st Century interpretation.)

  33. Boy, is that Day-Lewis version post-WWII or what? “Hugging the shadows,” “faced the enemy volleys, the Greeks’/ Concentrated attack, without turning a hair”… you can practically hear the Murrow-style narration over black-and-white footage.

  34. David Marjanović says

    cluſters great of Greeks in throngs

    This is by far the best rendering of “glomerati […] Grai”! About half of the translations quoted above shamefully sweep the “glomerati” part under the carpet altogether.
    Apart from this, I prefer the versions with “my”. Languages differ a lot in whether they use possessive pronouns when the context would make them unnecessary — I don’t think I’ve ever encountered amicus meus in Latin, only amicus; to translate that as “the friend” would simply be wrong.
    You don’t like vowel clusters, bulbul? I’ve seen Koreja and, I kid you not, VIJAGRA in a Croatian newspaper. To my Germanophone ears vowel clusters are just fine, and avoiding them makes English sound deliberately archaic as in “mine eyes”.
    In this case breaking them up would invite missegmentation: *who my led and who my carried — I bet it would take many people three seconds to figure out what’s going on here.
    That said, some people do insert [j] into words like science.

  35. David Marjanović says

    To my Germanophone ears vowel clusters are just fine

    Actually… I was really only talking about my subdialect here…

  36. C P Cranch (1872):
    ……………………………..At my side
    Little Iulus links his hand in mine,
    Following his father with unequal steps.
    Behind us steps my wife. Through paths obscure
    We wend; and I, who but a moment since
    Dreaded no flying weapons of the Greeks,
    Nor dense battalions of the adverse hosts,
    Now start in terror at each rustling breeze,
    And every common sound, held in suspense
    With equal fears for those attending me,
    And for the burthen that I bore along.

  37. Indi a la destra il fanciulletto Iulo
    mi s’aggavigna e non con moto eguale
    ei segue i passi miei, Creúsa l’orme.
    Andiam per luoghi solitari e bui:
    e me, cui dianzi intrepido e sicuro
    vider de l’arme i nembi e de gli armati
    le folte schiere, or ogni suono, ogni aura
    empie di téma: sí geloso fammi
    e la s0ma e ‘l compagno.
    – Annibal Caro – (1540s?)
    …Le petit Iule, à droite de son père,
    a mis sa main dans la sienne et le suit de ses pas inégaux.
    Derrière marche mon épouse. Nous traversons des endroits obscurs
    et moi, qui naguère ne m’émouvais ni pour une pluie de traits,
    ni pour un groupe de Grecs surgissant d’un bataillon hostile,
    maintenant, un souffle me terrifie, un bruit me tient en éveil, m’angoisse,
    et j’ai peur tant pour mon compagnon que pour mon fardeau.
    Anne-Marie Boxus et Jacques Poucet (1998)

  38. A Victorian sort-of hexameter:
    …. The little Iulus has twined
    Fingers in mine, and follows with childish paces behind;
    After him hastens Creusa; and through dark places we fare.
    I, whose pulses stirred not at javelins showered in the fray,
    I, who had looked unmoved on the Argives’ serried array,
    Tremble at each light breath, watch each faint sound of the air,
    Fear for the child I lead and the aged burden I bear.
    — translated by Charles Bowen (1887)
    Since we’ve moved outside [Standard] English and since Scots has come up in another post, I’ll lift my earlier qualification:
    Lytill Iulus grippis me by the hand,
    With vnmeir pais his fader faſt followand:
    Nere at my bak Crevſa my ſpous enſewis,
    We pas by quiet wentis and ſecrete rewis.
    And me, quham laitlie na wappin nor dartis caſt
    Nor preis of Grekis routis maid agaſt,
    Ilk ſowch of wynd, and euery quhiſpir now,
    And alkin ſterage affrayit, and cauſit grow,
    Both for my birdin and my litill mait.
    — translated by Gawin Douglas (c. 1525)
    (Alternate text.)

  39. Oops. vnmeit.

  40. johnshade says

    It would be fun to hear Day-Lewis’ son read his translation!

  41. And here I keep reading “little lulus”, though she is canonically singular (my mother’s favorite comic strip, as it happens).

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