Ten Questions for Sarah Ruden
Ten Questions for Sarah Ruden
Last month Steve Donoghue reviewed Sarah Ruden’s new translation of The Aeneid by Vergil. This month Ruden answers ten of Open Letters’ questions about the poet and the daunting task of translating his epic.
Open Letters: Let’s start at the beginning: why the Aeneid?
Sarah Ruden: I wanted to translate a well-known work, with some assured sales and attention attached to its title. Translators are the interns of literature. We feel a lot more hopeful if we’re working for someone or something famous. Since I’m a Latinist, and the Aeneid is the most famous Latin poem, it was an obvious choice.
|OL: And having chosen the Aeneid, what then? Longfellow, commenting on translating Dante, said that the first thing he had to do every day was “overcome a certain amount of awe.” Did you have any similar inhibitions in tackling Dante’s patron saint?
SR: Yes, it’s like developing a relationship with God. You have to let yourself experience all of the natural feelings that go with that entity’s mystery and your relative powerlessness: fear, love, anger, annoyance, skepticism, and even some cynicism and indifference. What’s true about God is true about a great author: the best thing is to get used to relying on him, rather than to keep trying to make something out of yourself, because he won’t ever leave you. If only he would, you sometimes mutter to yourself.
OL: What about the actual work of translating? Did you set yourself a quota of lines per day, scenes per week, books per month, or the like? Did you have any of your fellow translators’ works within reach, or did you try to keep things between Vergil and yourself – or some combination of the two?
SR: I set daily, weekly and monthly quotas, but the assignments kept washing over, and I ended up extending my deadline for a preliminary draft by several months. I kept things between myself and Vergil as far as I could, which helped me to achieve that fine balance of being both spoiled and abused by greatness. My indestructible friends are the ones who still talk to me.
OL: In crafting a line-by-line metrical translation, you’ve produced a fairly svelte Aeneid! Dryden would have considered such a pairing-down process sheer torture; how painful was it for you?
SR: I spent a year in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, so I know the dictum: “Sacrifice your first-born child. If you’re especially attached to something, that’s what must go.” With Vergil translation, seventh- and eighth-born children have to go too. Eventually with each line or couplet, you recognize the self of yours that just writes stuff for the heck of it, and after that point you can produce a viable Vergilian-sounding English line that’s the right length. Unfortunately, the self is, as Vergil would put it, “long grown in, mysteriously ingrained” (6.738). The miracle, as he also indicates, is the human will to suffer for renewal. But I spent ten years in the new South Africa, which makes me embarrassed to cite this in connection to mere words.
OL: In your Translator’s Preface, when warning against the production of doggerel, you cite as an example a line from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” (the Bostonian on our staff naturally bridled at this!) – clearly hinting that doggerel is no bar to literary immortality. What are your thoughts on the wellsprings of Vergil’s own immortality? If all copies of the Aeneid had been destroyed, how much do you think we’d still be reading and talking about the author of the Georgics?
SR: Hmm. Horace writes very respectfully of the living Vergil: Vergil was well established before the Aeneid, a posthumous publication. And the end of the Georgics (just for example) is devastating in its beauty. It was for me the album that you play again and again when your heart’s been broken, and that you try to imitate via a garage band nobody will show up to practice for. Here’s one thing I did with the story of the singer Orpheus going down to Hades to bring back his dead wife:
The Dead Souls’ Account of Orpheus’ Visit
To hear his song, we rose again,
As images, as supple shades,
As many as the birds that hide
Beneath the cliffs, beneath the glades
From evening or the winter rain—
Extravagant, the throng of us
Brought by his song from Erebus—
A useless claque, a wan surprise:
The forms of mothers young as maids,
Of mangled warriors, bony slaves,
Of every child whose body fades
In flames before its parents’ eyes—
Extravagant, the throng of us
Brought by his song from Tartarus—
A fragile, unrepeated rite,
To match the fragile notes he played,
And make Eurydice despise
The fool who gave her this parade,
But not the cheap and earthly light—
Extravagant, the throng of us,
The ash-storm, toy of Orpheus.
Still, there’s a certain culmination in the Aeneid, no question. It’s not even as smoothly beautiful, because it’s not finished, but it deals with larger ideas.
OL: Among its many other distinguishing features, your Aeneid features dialogue that’s actually speakable! Did you read your work aloud during the stages of composition?
SR: When I got stuck, I would read aloud. It’s the closest I’ve come to babbling obsessively to myself.
OL: And speaking of speakable dialogue: what’s your theory as to why Hollywood has steered so conspicuously clear of the Aeneid, despite the huge Dido-enticement the stage world so obviously sees?
SR: I speculate that many scenes are, ironically, too stagy. You’d have to make them less rhetorical, less overtly emotional and didactic, to suit even our overblown film aesthetics. Vergil pulls them off through his poetry, which hardly any film viewers have direct access to. In any case, think of the status of poetry in our society and how little authority poetry has to pull anything off.
Homer’s got repetitious, formulaic language that takes up a lot less intellectual room. You can turn your back on it, substitute a lot of your own scenery and personalities and dialogue, retell the story your way. Just try excluding Vergil’s words, and see what’s left. I’d love it if some ambitious director tried to integrate poetry into an Aeneid film, but it’s not going to happen.
Anastasia Hille and Mark Bonnar in Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage,
staged at the National Theatre in London
OL: Critics have been commenting for centuries on the obvious sympathy Vergil has for his female characters, and your own publisher brings up the fact that you’re the first woman to publish a full translation of the epic. Did you feel any genuine correspondence there, or is your new Guinness Book status more of a distraction?
SR: It depends on what that status is supposed to mean. If it’s that I’m expected to rescue women characters in the Aeneid, or Roman women, or women in general, if it’s that I’m expected to shout, “No, this is just unfair, the world shouldn’t be like this!”—then it’s worse than a distraction.
On the other hand, I really believe women are good at translating classics. Near the end of Persuasion, Jane Austen has a character say that women, unlike men, love beyond hope: they can cherish a one-sided relationship, year after year. (This makes biological sense, with human children being physically dependent for so long.) Women may be more devoted to an author who’s basically unavailable. There’s hardly a white male deader than Vergil: we know so little about him, and he presents us with such alien sounds and ideas. But a translator has to fall for him hard and yet not get too frustrated. She shouldn’t stalk him, giving in to fantasies about how much the two of them have in common and how much she deserves from him. If Vergil knew me, he’d find me a waste of time. I had to square that realization with my devotion to him. Seems like a woman’s game to me.
OL: What other sympathies did you discover in Vergil, in the course of rendering his book into English? What were your major revelations, confirmations, surprises?
SR: I found that there are ways he harmonizes with English. We think of Latin and Italian as smooth. Maybe Italian is, and maybe ordinary Latin is, but Vergil’s Latin is crunchy, particularly in the enjambments and the conflict of accent and ictus (which means that the meter and the accented syllables don’t match).
But what keeps you awake at night is that he’s a real, honest-to-goodness genius. He’s not always good, and in commenting on this unfinished poem, scholars sometimes can’t restrain themselves from voicing the scholarly version of “This line is dippy.” But Vergil couldn’t have written an uninteresting, trite line if you’d tortured him to death. In a cerebral way, that’s how he appears to have died, in agony at the mere possibility that he could just write something in the blank spaces, finish up and forget about it, like other authors.
OL: A biographer of Henry VIII once said the price of living with his subject for so long was “I came to hate him, of course.” Does something similar happen in translating? Were there moments when, had the option been available, you’d have fired off an angry email to the august author?
SR: No, I never imagined that he was in enough control to merit anger—unlike Henry VIII, who could have kept that codpiece strapped in place had he felt like it.
Anyway, translating’s different in general. What you feel is more like guilt and pity about someone so much at your mercy, in a field that doesn’t recognize nearly as many “facts” as biography does.