Thursday, April 26, 2012

Words Are Mere Grains

I am at the entrance of an experience, the reading of Virgil’s Aeneid. Having read one introduction, to C.S. Lewis’ translation of part of that work (Lost Aeneid), I’ve read Book I to the point where the verse presented here appears. Aeneid, the man, heading from conquered Troy to the future site of Rome, is storm-wrecked and blown to Libya, making landfall at a point near Carthage. There he and his company encounter the Goddess Venus and have an exchange. That exchange ends in the verse as Venus says her last and turns away. I thought I’d comment because the introduction brings several translations, to which I’ve also added Fitzgerald’s. The “literal” translations are the result of my diligent turning of dictionary pages. So herewith the texts:

What Virgil (70-19 BC) wrote:
Dixit et avertens rosea cervice refulsit,
ambrosiaeque comae divinum vertice odorem
spiravere; pedes vestis defluxit ad imos,
et vera incessu patuit dea.

In literal translation:
Spoke and turning pink neck flashed,
ambrosial hair’s divine crown odor
wafted; feet robe’s flowed to deepest,
and true gait revealed goddess.

The literal translation cleaned up a touch:
Said she and, turning, her pink nape shone,
the crown of her ambrosial hair wafted divine odor;
the edges of her robe drooped low,
and her gait revealed the true goddess.
C.S. Lewis’ (1898-1963) translation:
She turned, and at her turning came a fragrant air
Of godhead, and her robe grew long; ambrosial hair
Flashed, and a rosy brightness on her neck, and all
The goddess in her going was revealed.

Robert Fitzgerald’s (1910-1985) translation:
On this she turned away. Rose-pink and fair
Her nape shone, her ambrosial hair exhaled
Divine perfume, her gown rippled full length,
And by her stride she showed herself a goddess.
Gavin Douglas’(1474-1522) translation into Scots:
Thus said sche and turnand incontinent,
Hir neck schane lyke onto the roys in May,
Hyr hevynly haris glitterand brycht and gay,
Kest from hir forhed a smell gloryus and sweit,
Hir habit fell down covering to hir feit,
And in hir passage a verray god dyd hir kyth.

John Dryden’s (1631-1700) translation:
Thus having said, she turn’d, and made appear
Her Neck refulgent, and dishevel’d Hair;
Which flowing from her Shoulders, reach’d the Ground,
And by her graceful Walk, the Queen of Love is known.

It struck me, having worked a little myself, that words are mere grains, mere seeds. They promise meaning but the meaning’s really supplied by the reader’s mind.  The reader links the words and produces the relationships between them—which is palpable when one is looking at a literal translation—because the linkages don’t happen quite so fast, quite so habitually, spontaneously.  Reading that literal rendition, I was reminded of Chinese characters that, even if their meaning is familiar to us, appear to stand alone, solidly rooted in the ground, like stone figures. The habit of rapidly, instantly relating them one to the other to get a meaning is not present until we’ve mastered the script, the sequences, the freedoms and restrictions of a particular semantics.

Here the issues of translations are to the fore. What is true translation? That subject exercised C.S. Lewis—and the reason why he did his own. He much disliked Dryden’s formalism, as he saw it. Indeed, comparing my hewn-rock literal to Dryden’s version, one has a sense of seeing on the one hand something chthonic and original, on the other something ex cathedra with the hint of a simper.

Lewis died before he managed to do the whole job, but then Virgil himself never finished the Aeneid.

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