This is my fourth semester studying Latin in the advanced class at George Mason University, starting today(it was supposed to start last Thursday, but classes were cancelled due to snow). My first semester we translated the second book of the Aeneid, and now, having gone through Suetonius Life of Caligula and Catullus, we come back to translate the first book(insert going backwards joke here).
I’m going to be honest; I don’t like the Aeneid. For one thing, it’s a pain to translate, because Virgil likes to make things fancy. I had a positively traumatic run-in with the first book the summer before my high school senior year(they should not use that material on the AP; kids just aren’t ready for it at that age). Even revisiting the first time as an adult, there was one point when, on running into a certain Latin word that translate to “just as” and typically points to an upcoming metaphor, my only thought was, “Not another one!”(It turned out not to lead to a metaphor, oddly enough). I’m sure if I was at the point where I could read Latin and automatically know what it means most of the time, I would find the poetry very beautiful, but I’m terribly sorry, but I’m not that sophisticated.
Then there’s the poem itself. I’m heard the whole “propaganda on the surface, subversive underneath” argument, and it’s got two problems with it. For one thing, it’s still propaganda on the surface. For another, that leaves a story weakened by it’s main themes, whatever those are supposed to be, undercut by the presence of exact opposite ideas. Is Aeneas a hero or not? And even when he’s supposed to be one, or at least a more capable leader than, say, Odysseus(hardly a difficult task!), I don’t know. After translating the second book I reread the account of the fall of Troy in Olivia Coolidge’s YA novelization of the entire Trojan War, and I find it very telling Aeneas comes off as a more capable leader there than in the original poem!
Still, I can appreciate some of Virgil’s talent as a writer, now that I’ve begun the translation process again. So break out the arms and the man, here we go again. Perhaps I’ll write more on the subject this semester, perhaps not.
But let us remember that quote from Patrick O’Brian:
“To Ithaca itself, upon my word of honour. But would any amount of pleading on my part or on the part of all the literate members of the ship’s company induce that animal to bear away for the sacred spot? It would not. Certainly he had heard of Homer, and had indeed looked into Mr. Pope’s version of his tale; but for aught he could make out, the fellow was no seaman. Admittedly Ulysses had not chronometer, and probably no sextant neither; but with no more than a log, lead and lookout an officer-like commander would have found his way home from Troy a d-d sight quicker than that. Hanging about in port and philandering, that was what it amounted to, the vice of navies from the time of Noah to that of Nelson. And as for that tale of all his foremast hands being turned into swine, so that he could not win his anchor nor make sail, why, he might tell that to the marines. Besides, he behaved like a very mere scrub to Queen Dido-though on second thought perhaps that was that other cove, the pious Anchises. But it was all one: they were six of one and half a dozen of the other, neither seamen nor gentlemen, and both of them God d-d bores into the bargain. For his part he preferred what Mowett and Rowan wrote; that was poetry a man could get his teeth into, and it was sound seamanship too; in any case he was here to conduct his convoy into Santa Maura, not to gape at curiousities.”