C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid
Reviewed by Jason Fisher
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:5 (#346) in May 2011.]
One of my college professors used to warn us in class that a pretty translation is seldom accurate, and an accurate one is seldom pretty. This observation goes all the way back to the 17th-century, to Gilles Ménages and the metaphor of les belles infidèles — which is to suggest, translations are like women: the beautiful ones aren’t faithful, and the faithful ones aren’t beautiful. Speaking of translations, this is usually true. (The other side of the analogy is the dangerous one! Ergo silebo.) But in this nimble rendition of parts of Virgil’s Aeneid, C.S. Lewis has managed to achieve both fidelity and beauty to a remarkable degree — better than just about anyone I can think of. I have attempted this kind of translation myself, and for anyone who has not, I assure you it’s harder than it looks. Lewis carries it off brilliantly, and so the publication of his fragmentary translation, almost fifty years belated, is a cause for celebration in two worlds: Narnia and Ancient Rome.
Lewis was ideally qualified to translate Virgil. In an era when all educated men and women still learned Latin, Lewis was primus inter pares. He not only read the language, he composed letters in it. We have a correspondence entirely in Latin between Lewis and an Italian priest who spoke no English. Lewis also saw Virgil through a Medieval rather than a Renaissance lens, putting him more in touch with the ancient author’s mindset than any translator since the 16th-century Scot, Gavin Douglas. And the Aeneid itself was singularly important to Lewis. It was a work he knew intimately and which he read and returned to again and again, perhaps second only to the Bible. For more elaboration on this, see my interview with A.T. Reyes, following.
The book opens with a foreword by Walter Hooper and a preface by one of the great authorities on the Aeneid, D.O. Ross. The latter is particularly valuable for venturing the first answer to an obvious question: why another translation of Virgil’s great poem? Is the present translation a mere curiosity, of interest only because penned by Lewis? No, says Ross, and he backs up his praise for Lewis’s translation with a concrete example. For a selected passage, Ross gives Virgil’s Latin, then Lewis’s English, to which he compares three other more recent translations — unfavorably. Lewis, Ross points out, “is less bound to reproduce every Latin word, but he hits off what is striking and important […]. In every aspect, we are much closer to Virgil” (xxiii).
Editor Reyes’s excellent introduction expands on this, buttressed by many insights and thorough, far-ranging references. I learned a great deal from it. Among other things, Reyes closely examines why Lewis’s translation is so satisfying. As I said above, a key reason is the fact that Lewis returns to a Medieval reading of Virgil, rejecting the Renaissance Humanism that, in essence, neutered the Virgil we usually read today. Even where Lewis diverges from “mere translation” (as Douglas also diverged some four hundred years earlier), he preserves the spirit of Virgil’s poetry far better than, say, John Dryden — let alone “modern” translators with their disproportionate emphasis on “acces-sibility”. Reyes’s 30-page introduction stands as a terrific preparatory essay on the Aeneid, on Lewis on Virgil, and on Lewis on translation.
The bulk of the book is Lewis’s translation itself, presented facing the Latin original, without editorial intrusion. Above all, this is just great reading. We have all of Book I, most of Book II, a large part of Book VI, and isolated passages and scattered lines from the other nine books of the Aeneid. The translation is full of wonderful words and clever turns of phrase, so many of them uniquely Lewisian: “Oh friends, not new to sorrow, we were worse bested / Ere now” (I.198f.). Some passages remind me of Homer, as this one, peppered with archaic vocabulary: “lay bare / The ribs and draw the numbles out and at the flame / Roast the yet quivering collops of the fatted game” (I.210ff.). Other passages strike an almost Shakespearean note: “her loosened hair / She gave in huntress’ fashion to the rippling air, / Girt ’neath the paps and kilted to the naked knee” (I.317–9). And there are innumerable delightful choices sprinkled throughout — of which my favorite is “double-tongued” for bilinguis (l. 657), an apt agnomen for Lewis himself.
Ross and Reyes each examine a passage of Lewis’s translation closely, as I have noted, but neither discusses the opening in any detail, so allow me to spare a few words on his auspicious beginning. Skipping the spurious four-line preamble (not penned by Virgil, but which Lewis does retain), the famous opening lines are:
Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam fato profugus Lavinaque venit
litora — multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum, saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram,
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem
inferretque deos Latio; genus unde Latinum
Albanique patres atque altae moenia Romae. (I.1–7)
Which Lewis renders:
Of arms and of the exile I must sing, of yore
Guided by fate from Troy to the Lavinian shore
And Italy. Much travailed upon land and sea
By powers in heaven for angry Juno’s sake was he,
And proved in war; still endeavouring in our soil to place
His gods and build a city, whence the Latin race
Comes, and the Alban fathers and the walls of Rome. (37)
I appreciate that Lewis preserves the word order of the Latin in the opening phrase, but he translates virumque not “and of the man”, but “and of the exile” — departing from the literal, but hitting the right note in Virgil’s great theme. And why does Lewis translate the simple present indicative cano “I sing” as something more jussive, “I must sing”? A cynical answer might be that he needed another syllable to fill out the line, but with Lewis, it must be more than that. Could it be a tacit admission that Lewis felt compelled to undertake the translation, haunted, like Dante, by the ghost of Virgil? Coming back to syllables, Lewis opts for rhyming twelve-syllable Alexandrines (like Gavin Douglas’s Middle Scots translation), which fit the original better than Robert Fitzgerald’s unrhymed, unscannable lines, or John Dryden’s rhyming iambic pentameter. As you can see from the extract above, the music of these verses is irresistible.
But despite the temptation to go on, let me end here. As I hope readers will perceive, there is abundant raw material in this new book for anyone interested in the art and science of translation, and I hope we will indeed begin seeing research along these lines (forgive the unintended pun). In addition, I hope Lewis’s lost Aeneid will inspire other translators to look backward, recalling their subjects’ original audiences, and not to mollycoddle their present ones quite so much. “There are, I know,” Lewis wrote, “those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions […]. I have no quarrel with people who approach the past in that spirit. I hope they will pick none with me. But I was writing for the other sort.” May I say, Professor Lewis, that “the other sort” are still reading, and still ravenous for more.
- Preface to The Discarded Image, p. x.