Trojan hero gets Hollywood spin in new Virgil translation

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Robert Fagles, a retired professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, feels he has come to know the poet Virgil as well as anyone in history after spending 10 years translating his epic, The Aeneid. His hope now - shared by his publisher - is that many of us will want to share that familiarity.

Judging by Fagles' past success with two of the other great tomes of ancient literature - The Iliad and then The Odyssey - he can be excused his optimism. Both translations became unexpected best-sellers, helped greatly by audio-book versions narrated respectively by Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen.

Due to hit American book-shops tomorrow, Fagles' rendering of The Aeneid, the sweeping story of the toils of the warrior Aeneas, who goes on to found the Roman Empire after the fall of Troy, is expected to make a similar impact, replacing fustier versions that go all the way back to John Dryden's 17th-century version. Once more an audio version is in the works, with Simon Callow enlivening the text.

First accolades are already coming in for a translation that, with luck, will make the reading of The Aeneid less of an exercise in torture for classics students. Who knows, it might even persuade some to experience the cadences of Virgil for the first time - and voluntarily, not because teacher says they must.

What Fagles, 73, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, has produced from his decade of labour, noted The New York Times this week, is a "work of surpassing beauty, feeling and even relevance, everything that teachers used to say it was". Because of his ill-health, he was never sure if he would finish the project. Virgil himself, according to some scholars, died before The Aeneid was completed.

Unlike earlier translators, Fagles has produced a version spoken in the present rather than past tense. Partly, it was a decision informed by his wish to give the work, which runs to 12 books and 12,000 lines of often dense poetry, a contemporary feel for today's readers. That even means thinking of Aeneas less as a 1,000BC soldier and more like a modern Hollywood star.

"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 told one interviewer. "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."

He also sees in the work some very modern political resonance pertaining to Iraq and - though he resists saying as much - American empire. "To begin with, it's a cautionary tale," Fagles told The New York Times, "about the terrible ills that attend empire - its war-making capacity, the loss of blood and treasure both. But it's all done in the name of the rule of law, which you'd have a hard time ascribing to what we're doing in the Middle East today."

That he managed to beat the clock of his own ill-health to finish the translation is something Fagles is clearly now relishing. He wasn't even sure he would make it through his previous two blockbuster works. "It's a question on anybody's mind when you take on a 10-year project."

But even Fagles is the first to admit that no translation is ever the final word and others will follow behind him, giving Virgil, Homer and the other ancient poets new perspectives and life.

"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."