Here as I Am: The Aeneid   by Virgil, translated by David Ferry (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Drew Swinger

“Reasonably close.” Twelve years in the making, and this is how National Book Award-winning poet David Ferry rates his translation, out this September, of Virgil’s Aeneid. The Aeneid—that 10,000-line, 2,000-year-old epic poem in twelve books singing imperial Rome’s mythic origins in the travails and triumph of one man, Aeneas, Trojan hero second only to Hector; that touchstone of Western culture T. S. Eliot once called “the classic of all Europe”; that capstone of high school Latin. Even if you have never read it, you probably know of the Trojan Horse and to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. For many, poets and scholars alike, translating the Aeneid represents a culmination of effort and height of achievement. Ferry himself, who has already translated to much acclaim Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, has now completely traced the arc of Virgil’s career from writer of lyrics and didactic verse to epic poet in the mode of Virgil’s great predecessor, Homer.

With so many English translations of the Aeneid crowding search results on Amazon these days (including Sarah Ruden’s, Robert Fitzgerald’s, Robert Fagles’, Stanley Lombardo’s, Frederick Ahl’s, and Allen Mandelbaum’s among verse renditions), Ferry’s publisher may have wished Ferry had been more boastful. But as it happens, “reasonably close” is more than an expression of modesty. It’s a choice of method. Dryden is helpful here. In his Preface to Ovid’s Epistles, he outlines three types of translation. At one extreme, there’s Metaphrase, or word-for-word, line-by-line translation. At the other, there’s Imitation, a version so freely departing from the words and sense of the original that it can hardly be called translation. In the just-right middle, there’s Paraphrase, “Translation with Latitude,” Dryden elaborates, “where the Author is kept in view by the Translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense.”

Ferry’s translation is very much paraphrase: close, but not too close, with Virgil always in view. At times Ferry is exceedingly close, dropping English cognates into his lines of verse like seed corn from the Latin harvest. Ululating is a favorite. (There is much wailing and lament in the Aeneid.)

At other times, Ferry reaches further afield. Take a line from the opening action of the story, where the wrathful goddess Juno attempts to sink Aeneas’s ships and drown him and his fellow Trojan exiles in a great storm. Gales from all directions are unleashed at her bidding,

            And vast tsunami roll toward helpless shores.

This is just one of many instances of Ferry’s iambic pentameter’s unobtrusively conveying the subtlety and “sovereign rhythm,” as he calls it in his “Note on Meter,” of the dactylic hexameter of Virgil’s original (“et vastos volvunt ad litora fluctus,” omitting a foot that is enjambed with the line preceding it). But translating the vast waves of vastos fluctus as tsunami—a 19th-century borrowing from Japanese whose usage in English greatly increased after the devastation witnessed in 2004 in Indonesia and again in 2011 in Tōhoku, Japan (and vast tsunami at that)—brings home the epic scale of the danger faced and the collateral damage done.

Another latitude Ferry allows himself is borrowing from the greats of English poetry, the way Virgil borrowed from and alluded to forerunners such as Homer and Apollonius of Rhodes in Greek and Catullus in Latin. “Miseris mortalibus,” for example, becomes in Ferry’s version “sad mortality” via Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65. Likewise, Christopher Marlowe’s famous lines about Helen of Troy (“Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium”) make a well-cast cameo appearance in Book Two. Aeneas encounters Helen alone and is about to slay her in vengeance for her role in Troy’s destruction when the goddess Venus, Aeneas’s mother, appears and reasons him down from his rage:

                                  “‘It is the gods who bring
            This wealth and power down and burn the topless
            Towers of Ilium.’”

The surprise of hearing Marlowe’s line here (though the effect is not unprecedented—Lombardo’s 2005 translation makes the same allusion) is nicely akin to the surprise of Aeneas on encountering Helen. There is even a distant echo of W. B. Yeats’s “No Second Troy” (“Was there another Troy for her to burn?”) when Juno, appalled by Aeneas’s initial success in Italy, calls Aeneas “‘another Paris, / Who’ll be the torch who burns down a second Troy.’”

Drew Swinger‘s poems have appeared in Poetry and AGNI. He is a graduate of Boston University’s Creative Writing Program and currently manages analytics for a global higher education company headquartered in Chicago. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.