The Pitch: The Aeneid

Jason Guriel talks to a four-time Jeopardy! champion about his translation of Virgil

WELCOME TO THE Pitch, a recurring series on Partisan in which writers come clean about their works-in-progress—and share an exclusive excerpt. This week, Jason Guriel talks to Len Krisak about working on Virgil and the challenges of the translator.

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia, Jean-Baptiste Wicar. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia, Jean-Baptiste Wicar. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

JASON GURIEL
Tell me about your verse translation of the Aeneid.

LEN KRISAK
One might well ask, why bother with yet another translation of a Latin classic already translated hundreds of times (there must be ten different verse renditions in the last 15 years alone)? Aside from the usual suspects—noble ambition and the desire for fame and fortune—I think I would say that I've never seen a line-for-line hexameter rendering done in rhyme. Rhymed versions have been done, of course, and the un-rhymed ones are plentiful (though they're usually in free verse or blank verse—five-beat lines). I thought a new approach might offer more than just novelty to the reader—help him to see formal qualities inherent in the poem and often ignored by other versions—and since rhyme and meter mean poetry to me, . . . well, I think you see. Could I stand up against classicists like Fagles and Fitzgerald? And most importantly, could a rhymed hexameter version succeed as poetry? Only the reader can say.

GURIEL
What draws you to the Aeneid?

KRISAK
The nobility of the challenge. Whether one admires or excoriates Virgil's project, its foundational aspect of not just Augustan Rome, but of much of western literary culture seems to me indisputable.

And the challenges! Action, pathos, visual description, philosophic discourse—everything is in it and in complex and challenging ways. I was eager to see if I could succeed in as many aspects of the poem as possible.

GURIEL
I love that idea—"the nobility of the challenge." What are some of the practical challenges translators face in our culture today? And do you ever feel anachronistic?

KRISAK
A terrific question—especially the anachronistic part. I think it might be truer to say that most
poets, let alone translators of poetry, feel left behind in today's culture. I can stop a conversation or clear a room faster by answering "poet" to someone's question about what I do than with any other response. And working with classical Latin, as I mostly do, does tend to compound the difficulty.

A long, and fractious way around to say, "Yes. Often."

As to the particular challenges I and my confreres face, they mostly flow from my first answer. Many literary journals, quarterlies, and so forth, simply don't accept translations. A handful actually specialize in them, but not many. I once sent some fairly innocuous renderings of some French sonnets to a well-respected university—that's university—journal and was told by the editor, a Ph.D. in English Literature, that they didn't have the "resources" to judge the quality and/or accuracy of a rendering of a French poem! I mean, I'm no scholar, but is Baudelaire really all that hard?

We are entering on parlous times!

Excerpt from Len Krisak’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid

I.1-756

My poem sings a man forced out of Troy by war.
Fate harried him to find a home on Latium’s shore—
On some Lavinian littoral. By land and sea,
Driven by loss, by gods who would not let him be,
By unrelenting Juno’s lack of any pity,                                                              5         
He found his gods a home at last, founding the city
Of ancient Alba, then . . . the battlements of Rome.

Speak, Muse. What wounded numen did Juno’s rage come
From? Tell me why the queen of heaven drove this man
So marked by righteousness through all those labors. Can                              10
Such savage indignation grip a deity?

There was a time-worn city, far from Italy
And Tiber’s mouth, called Carthage. Colonized by Tyre,
It was resourceful, rich, and storied in war’s dire
Arts. They say that Juno loved it even more                                                     15
Than Samos. Here was her armor (she set such store
By Carthage); here, her chariot. Even now, she aimed,
If fate allowed, to make this city feared and famed,
Ruling the world. But she had heard Troy’s progeny
Would one day topple Punic towers. Supremacy                                             20
World-wide would come from this, a war-proud people winning
Libya’s ruin (that’s how the Parcae planned their spinning).

Anxious, and mindful of the war she once had waged
For her belovèd Argos, Juno—still enraged
By what began that war, and bitter to the soul                                                 25
Still; nursing hate at just the thought of Paris’ role
In judging her, and of her beauty meanly spurned,
And of that race, and stolen Ganymede’s unearned
Honors—burned hotter still, and shook the storm-whipped main
Of men the Greeks and cruel Achilles had not slain.                                        30
She kept them out of Latium for so long that they
Despaired the fates would ever let them find their way.
Such giant effort: that’s what founding Rome entailed.


JASON GURIEL is the co-editor of Partisan. His recent writing appears in The New Republic.

LEN KRISAK’S books include Afterimage (original poetry), The Carmina of Catullus, Ovid's Erotic Poems, Virgil's Eclogues, the Odes of Horace, and Rilke's New Poems (all translations). His work has appeared in The Hudson Review, Sewanee Review, PN Review, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Frost Prizes, and a four-time champion on Jeopardy!


WHAT TO READ NEXT: "A moment’s reflection on Aeneas’ slaughter of the Italians calls to mind countless other crimes committed in the building of great civilizations—and countless questions: Why do these crimes seem to be so ubiquitous, even necessary?"