For the past decade, Professor Emeritus Robert Fagles has kept a Barrington's Atlas on the desk in his study, open to pages showing the Greek isles, the Italian coast and the surrounding Mediterranean, a region sailed in history by many and in legend by the Trojan warrior Aeneas.
You could fill a shelf with translations of The Aeneid, from John Dryden's edition in the 17th century, to modern volumes by Robert Fitzgerald and Allen Mandelbaum. But if Fagles' long-awaited version sells like his editions of The Iliad and The Odyssey, it will eventually be known to hundreds of thousands of readers, by choice and by assignment.
"His diction is lofty, yet without seeming archaic or stilted," says Dr. Robin Mitchell-Boyask, chair of the department of Greek, Hebrew and Roman Classics at Temple University.
The 73-year-old Fagles, thin and slightly stooped in appearance, but rhythmic and precise in speech - the kind of scholar who calls a reporter to apologise for misquoting Tennyson - was interviewed recently on a rainy afternoon, in a winding, 1950s-era house he shares with his wife, Lynne.
Fagles says that Virgil's epic of the founding of Rome was a natural successor to his work on The Iliad and The Odyssey, just as The Aeneid was Virgil's sequel to Homer's narratives about the Trojan war. The Aeneid took around the same time to complete as Fagles' previous translations, but proved the greater challenge, not only because of age but because of language. Fagles' speciality is Greek, and for The Aeneid, he had to refresh himself on the Latin he learned in college, using grammar books, and the works of Catullus, Horace and other Roman writers. "Homer is not a literary language, Homer's is a composer language, as if he were recording a musical event," says Fagles, who taught comparative literature at Princeton University until retiring in 2002.
"Virgil is a writer, a literary writer, and that lent itself to a certain amount of complexity. The Aeneid is one of the saddest poems I know of in any language. It is hard, heroic, heartbreaking."
|Aeneas leaves burning Troy carrying his father Anchises, with his son beside him|
Translation has always been an art and a science, the strenuous embrace of literal meaning and creative truth, updating the text for the present without losing the spirit of the past. Fagles, whose editions of classical works date back to the early 1960s, finds it the ideal combination of scholarship and creativity, a "discipline that takes me closer to a text than any other way of approaching it."
"I really feel like you get to know your author," he says. "Virgil is often seen as stately, imperial, propagandist, even. I came across those realities, or some of them, but I also came across a remarkably personal and personable poet who utilised the whole arsenal of the effects of Latin. No one can compete with him."
The challenge of translation is illustrated by Virgil's most famous words from The Aeneid. The first line, "Arma virumque cano," was immortalized in the 17th century by Dryden as "Of Arms and the Man I Sing," a title George Bernard Shaw lifted for his anti-war comedy, Arms and the Man.
But the line, and meaning, changes with every translator. For Dryden, and for some of Virgil's contemporaries, "Arms and the Man" was Virgil's boast that he would combine the qualities of Homer's two works (The Iliad being a story of arms, The Odyssey of a man, the warrior Odysseus) into a single story. Fagles' interpretation, "Wars and a man I sing," is more sombre, emphasising the contrast between the plurality of battles (wars) and the singularity of Aeneas (a man).
"I wanted to convey something about the modern understanding of war, and then about a man, an exile, a common soldier left terribly alone in the field of battle," he says.
"Aeneas is like Clint Eastwood, like Gary Cooper, a warrior and a worrier. He changes into the heroic tragic man, duty and endure, endure and duty." Fagles makes other changes. While other translators have told The Aeneid in the past tense, Fagles uses the present, believing that the story demanded immediacy and tension, a mythic quality suggesting that the life of Aeneas is renewed with each reading.
For countless students, The Aeneid has been one of those dusty, required texts to get through, with its old-world story of gods and fate and empire. But Fagles says that the book is not only a lively read - an Eastwood Western "with better language" - but that its subject has never been more timely.
"I think it's a poem about heroism and empire, about the glory of imperial hopes and the pain of having imperial hopes dashed," he says.
Born in Philadelphia and himself a published poet, Fagles came to classical literature and translation relatively late, or late for his chosen field. He was a junior at Amherst College when he read The Iliad and The Odyssey and longed to learn them in their original language.
His first published translation, of lyric poet Bacchilydes, came out in 1961, around the same time he joined the Princeton faculty. He has translated several Greek tragedies, including works by Aeschylus and Sophocles, and took on The Iliad in the 1970s, the first of his decade-long projects.
"I was younger then," Fagles says with a laugh, "younger and more foolish.
"It was a question of going back to the source - where did the tragedies come from? One of the great surprises and pleasures in translating The Iliad is that so much of it was dramatic discourse, people talking to other people," he says. "It was quite dramatic, not all that far from the plays I worked on."
He has received all the awards for which a translator could wish, including a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for lifetime achievement. His editions have been staged all over the world and the audio-books have attracted such acclaimed actors as Derek Jacobi, who narrates The Iliad, and Simon Callow for The Aeneid. One fan even wrote to Fagles, saying he wanted to name his cat after him. "I suggested 'Bob-Cat,'" Fagles recalls.
He feels grateful just to see The Aeneid published. Virgil, who lived in the first century B.C., worked on his masterpiece near the end of his life and died without completing it, urging that the text be destroyed. Fagles, too, wondered if he would finish his work. Years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer, and in 2005, as he was completing The Aeneid, he learned he had Parkinson's disease.
"I know that even when I started on The Iliad, I thought I was pressing my luck. I didn't know if I would live through it; it's a question on anybody's mind when you take on a 10-year project," he says.
"In a sense, all translations are unfinished. One thing I have learned is that no one will have the final say, that each generation needs its own translation. Some translators, like Dryden, hoped that their work would last longer than a generation. That may be a vain hope."