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Aeneid Books VI -XII by Virgil translated by David Hadbawnik (Shearsman Books)

Aeneid Books VI -XII by Virgil translated by David Hadbawnik (Shearsman Books)

To Virgil, the second half of his epic of Roman imperial destiny and its human cost was the maius opus (‘greater work’). The long voyaging from fallen Troy is over. Aeneas has accepted his ineluctabile fatum, arrived in an Italy already thickly settled with both migrated and autochthonous peoples, and wants land to settle and found his city. There are moments of respite: feasting, aetiological storytelling, divine portents and the extended ekphrasis of Aeneas’ God-made shield. But mostly it’s war: siege, raid, council, treaty, mass funerals and constant one-on-one combat. 

The emotional power of this, the Aeneid’s Iliadic half, accumulates iteratively. The relentless and grisly scenes in which, over and over, a character is given a mini-biog only to ‘vomit thick gore’ or have ‘his face […] covered in hot brains’ a few lines later, becomes sickening as well as pitiable. The pity is reinforced by scenes of grieving loved ones wishing for death themselves, even while each killing inspires yet more vengeful bloodbaths. The poem famously ends with a maddened Aeneas’ refusal of mercy, and its last image of battlefield murder sends us back to the real world without consolation or excuse. 

This interesting new translation gives us an Aeneid that’s Americanized (‘mom’, ‘my ass’, ‘pledge allegiance to the flag’, &c.), film-friendly (‘Zoom in on Lavinia’), humorously anachronistic, hyper-dramatized (‘“Drop what you’re doing!” screams Vulcan.’) and considerably abridged. It bypasses several whole scenes and a massive chunk of Book VII, besides countless smaller details. Many battlefield deaths, notably, become mere name-lists, soft-pedalling the horror that’s the flipside of the epic concept of glory. 

The style is richly and sometimes brilliantly idiomatic. ‘Cum tandem tempore capto/ […] Arruns’ (lit: ‘when finally, having seized the moment, Arruns…’), for instance, becomes ‘This is the break Arruns has been waiting for.’ Indents, spacing and typography stand in for the elaborate soundplay, caesurae and positional emphases of the Latin hexameters:

          When he thinks        the enemy’s
                       close enough PALLAS
                                     moves first     hoping
                        for anything that might            improve
                        the odds […]

The word virtus (bravery, manliness) gets left untranslated, along with occasional other source terms, either to flag significance or for atmospherics. Classical buffs might miss the gratifications of Roman oratory: the most frequent rhetorical device here is cacamphaton (‘What the/   actual/    fuck,’ says Juno). ‘Tough’ is the favourite translation word – the warrior queen Camilla, for instance, is a ‘tough babe’.  

The colloquial parlance co-exists nonetheless with a traditional high-flown register (‘Why/ does fate urge you to unknown war’ &c.), which generates abrupt tonal changes. When Tarchon addresses his men: ‘Now O chosen guys’, the registral discord reaches parodic levels, and when we’re told Evander ‘spews forth’ his poignant farewell to his son, and then ‘blacks out’, it’s patently self-conscious flippancy rather than tonal lapse. This translator, recasting the Aeneid as part-comedy, part-Hollywood blockbuster, is propounding that we (or he) can’t take heroic epic seriously nowadays, and is willing to burlesque the horror and pity in order to subvert its martial vanities, while transposing it to genres more accessible to a contemporary audience. It’s undoubtedly a valid approach. The result feels like it was fun to write, is certainly more fun to read than twenty po-faced translations, and adds an innovative new ribbon to the rich braid of Virgilian studies. Just maybe don’t make it the only Aeneid you read.

Guy Russell 22nd November 2022

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