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October 9, 2008

I wasn’t going to actually write about anything today; instead, I was going to share a passage from The Aeneid that I found especially enjoyable (lines 649-750 if you want to find them yourself). Naturally, I had no intention of typing up a hundred lines of poetry, so I turned to my friendly neighborhood search engine, aka The Google, to find an online copy. After a few frustrating minutes, I came to the conclusion that the most widely circulated version is a verse translation by John Dryden. Try as I might, I couldn’t get past the fact that the whole thing was written in rhyming couplets. Heroic couplets, to be precise, which means they’re in iambic pentameter. I don’t have anything against rhymes or meter in general, but after reading a free verse translation, the difference was unsettling to say the least.

Compare:

And Pyrrhus: ‘Carry off these tidings; go
and bring this message to my father, son
of Peleus; and remember, let him know
my sorry doings, how degenerate
is Neoptolemus. Now die.’ This said,
he dragged him to the very altar stone,
with Priam shuddering and slipping in
the blood that streamed from his own son. And Pyrrhus
with his left hand clutched tight the hair of Priam;
his right hand drew his glistening blade, and then
he buried it hilt-high in the king’s side.

And:

“Then Pyrrhus thus: ‘Go thou from me to fate,
And to my father my foul deeds relate.
Now die!’ With that he dragg’d the trembling sire,
Slidd’ring thro’ clotter’d blood and holy mire,
(The mingled paste his murder’d son had made,)
Haul’d from beneath the violated shade,
And on the sacred pile the royal victim laid.
His right hand held his bloody falchion bare,
His left he twisted in his hoary hair;
Then, with a speeding thrust, his heart he found:
The lukewarm blood came rushing thro’ the wound,
And sanguine streams distain’d the sacred ground.

The latter I find, as is probably the intent, to be much more melodramatic, but that makes it less believable somehow. There are a number of grammatical inversions for the sake of keeping with the rhyme scheme, and that distracts as well. What is meant to be a horrifying, violent murder is diluted somehow by the overtness of the craft. It’s the age-old “man behind the curtain” problem; if my attention is drawn to the machinery at work, the emotional effect is reduced.

And this, my friends, is why it is so vital to be selective about the translation one chooses to read. If I’d been chained to Dryden this whole time, I’d probably be hating The Aeneid, and quite wrongfully. It is a fantastic read so far, even if I am only in book II.

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