ON his deathbed, the Roman poet Virgil asked that the manuscript of his greatest work, "The Aeneid," be destroyed. It was, after a decade of writing, still flawed. And perhaps, as some have suggested, this gentle man, who knew much of human suffering and pain, struggled with his glorification of empire and the reigning Roman imperial house.
These themes of empire and death, of human tragedy, of the pain of duty and the loss of love and the horror of war, have consumed one Virgil translator, Dr. Robert Fagles, for nearly as long as it took Virgil to write the epic poem. Dr. Fagles has worked day after day, month after month, and now, year after year since beginning his work in 1997, in a window-lined room in his house on a back road here.
He struggles to take the highly inflected Latin and render it in English, to make sure Virgil's deep pessimism, his doubts, disappointments and understanding of our incompleteness are passed on to a new generation of readers.
His translation, nearly complete, follows his versions of Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey," "The Three Theban Plays" by Sophocles and "The Oresteia" by Aeschylus, all published by Penguin Books. These translations of ancient Greek classics have sold some two million copies.
"There are many readers who hunger for substance," Dr. Fagles said. "I do not despair. I know they are out there, and I hear from them often."
On his desk was an open copy of Virgil in Latin, sheets of paper and Dr. Fagles's printed manuscript. He works about four or five hours a day.
" 'The Aeneid' is a cautionary tale," he said. "It is one we need to read today. It speaks of the terrible price of victory in war, for Virgil knew that victory is finally impossible, that it always lies out of reach. He saw the unforeseen aftermath, the way war could all go wrong whether from poor planning or because of the gods on high. He knew the sheer accumulation of death, the destruction, the pain we inflict when we use force to create empire."
Every age needs classics translated into the idiom of the moment. It gives the works new vitality, new meaning. It offers to the living a connection with those who went before, the accumulated wisdom of the past, a protection from a dangerous provincialism. [more]