A new Aeneid translation channels Vergil’s ‘pure Latin’

Prof. Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer offers ‘a radically different reading experience’

It was 29 B.C., two years into the reign of the emperor Augustus, when the Roman poet Vergil began writing his great epic, the Aeneid. Unlike the Odyssey and the Iliad, Vergilʼs response to the Homeric epics is not just that of an individual hero. Itʼs also a national origin story, said Prof. Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer—“and that makes it a different kind of poem.”

In the poem, Aeneas leads his followers west from Troy, which the Greeks have sacked, in search of somewhere to start a new city. Along the way, the gods—especially Juno and Aeneasʼs mother, Venus—throw both obstacles and aids in his path. Finally, the Trojans land in Italy and found a city where Rome will later stand.

Many readers have seen Aeneas as a positive figure and one who would please Romeʼs leaders. Linked with the not-so-exciting virtue of piety, the hero is set up as an excellent ancestor for the emperor Augustus, who wanted to be seen as having similar virtues. “Heʼs not out for personal glory” like an Odysseus or Achilles, said Bartsch-Zimmer, and the Aeneidʼs newest translator.

The Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics and the Program in Gender Studies, Bartsch-Zimmer—who publishes as Shadi Bartsch—spent four years working on her translation of the epic. Before it was released in the United States this February by Random House, it was already warmly embraced by readers in the United Kingdom, where it was first published last fall and named a best book of 2020 by the Guardian.

Thereʼs no shortage of excellent English translations of the poem, Bartsch-Zimmer acknowledged. But, as a leading scholar and teacher of ancient Rome and its literature, she felt the absence of a translation that was closely faithful to Vergil. Her understanding of the poem, of its authorʼs intentions, and of why it continues to captivate readers two millennia after its writing also make meaningful departures from past scholarship.

Translating Vergil ‘literally’

Why a new Aeneid now? Many of the existing translations, Bartsch-Zimmer said, “are hailed as poems in their own right—thatʼs seen as the highest praise one can bestow.” She finds many of them valuable and beautiful, but she set out in the opposite direction: to make “an accurate translation of Vergil, because Vergil is powerful enough to supply the poetry. I can just be the medium through which Vergil flows.”

Of course the translator can never be fully invisible. “Thereʼs always an element of the personality and the angle of the translator embedded into the translation,” said Bartsch-Zimmer, “but I wanted to do my best to translate Vergil literally.” What that meant, for one thing, was staying true to how the poem sounds: to Vergilʼs distinctively quick pace and his everyday Latin.

Vergilʼs use of dactylic hexameter—a meter with six feet per line containing two or three syllables each—makes the Aeneid “very fast-moving, dense, exciting,” Bartsch-Zimmer explained. Itʼs a world apart from the authors sheʼd previously translated, such as Seneca, whose verse is stately and ornate.

But Vergil “is, bam, just pure Latin, and never-ending movement”—and his is a dense language to begin with. Latin, she writes in the translatorʼs note, “can say much in few words” compared to English. This poses a challenge that past translators have solved either by using more words and beats per line, or by using additional lines, to catch all the meaning. Both approaches create poetry that feels nothing like the Aeneid in Latin. And the latter, throwing off the line numbers between original and translation, hinders study of the poem in its original Latin.

So Bartsch-Zimmer set out to write her translation in no more than six feet per line, like Vergil, without adding lines or leaving any meaning out. “That was really, really, hard,” she said, “like boiling down the English into compact nuggets.” The result, however, offers “a radically different reading experience” than what has been available to English speakers, she writes in her translatorʼs note.

Read side by side with previous translations, the difference is clear. Take one popular and acclaimed translation, published by Robert Fagles in 2006. Fagles gives the epicʼs opening this way, making three lines into four:

Wars and a man I sing—an exile driven on by Fate,
he was the first to flee the coast of Troy,
destined to reach Lavinian shores and Italian soil,
yet many blows he took on land and sea from the gods above

In contrast, Bartschʼs translation tracks with the lines of the original, and reads with a decided punch:

My song is of war and a man: a refugee by fate,
the first from Troy to Italyʼs Lavinian shores,
battered much on land and sea by blows from gods

For readers without Latin, this is as close as we can get to reading the original. (Bartsch-Zimmer estimated two years of language classes as the minimum requirement to even haltingly read the original Aeneid.) For those with a little Latin, her translation will make it easier to move between the Latin and the English. And overall, Bartsch-Zimmerʼs painstaking work to compress the English, packing each line with meaning while approximating Vergilʼs rhythm—“the beating heart of the poem,” she calls it in her translatorʼs note—makes for an approachable and gripping work. (Read an excerpt of the translation.)

Issued by a major commercial publishing house, the book’s accessibility has potential to put the Aeneid on nonscholarsʼ reading lists. A broad new audience for the epic would be a welcome turn of events, as it was with Emily Wilsonʼs translation of the Odyssey, published by W. W. Norton in 2017.

An enduring classic

The Aeneid has spoken in distinct ways to each era and culture for which it has had meaning. “A classic is a work that seems to echo the values of every society that needs it,” Bartsch-Zimmer said. “Thatʼs why it stays classic.”

For Vergilʼs fellow Romans, the epic praised Augustus and the empire, and provided an origin story. Christian readers in the Middle Ages took it to be an allegory of Christʼs life. Nineteenth-century Americans found the account of Aeneasʼs westward voyage and conquering of native peoples resonant with manifest destiny, while Americans of the Vietnam War era saw in the epic a dramatization of the costs of empire. Mussolini commandeered the Aeneid to buttress a vision of his Italy as “the true fulfillment of the great Rome,” Bartsch-Zimmer said.

Her own reading is embedded in its time and place and culture too. “Now Iʼm reading it as a sort of propaganda that lets you see it as such, that points to itself and says, you can accept me, maybe Iʼll be useful for you in making the nation cohere better by giving it a foundation story. But every foundation story also has a cost.”

From our 21st-century perch, weʼre well placed to see what that cost entails: “Weeding out things that donʼt fit in the foundation story, whether itʼs womenʼs voices, or indigenous voices, or the voices of the people who resist it. Other voices have to be silenced for this voice to exist.”

Bartsch-Zimmer sums up the poemʼs contemporary political resonance in her introduction. “In an age of refugees seeking to escape their war-torn homelands,” she writes, “an age of rising nationalism across the globe; an age in which many in Europe and the United States are suspicious of ‘the Eastʼ and its religious differences—in our age, that is—the Aeneid has more to say to us than ever, especially about the costs (and to be fair, benefits) of national ideologies and the way that myths of origins and heroes are created.”

Now, she looks back on the project with a certain wistfulness, and a sense of her life having changed. Four years in such close quarters with a great work of art have left their mark. “No matter what happens to me on a daily basis, now I see it through the lens of the language of the epic,” she said. “Itʼs a very strange feeling when lines will bubble up that seem to express the situation perfectly.”

Bartsch-Zimmer leaves her mark on the classic in turn, giving an account of Vergilʼs purposes and his poemʼs meanings that is new and powerful—and a brisk-reading translation that shortens the distance between his language and ours. “I feel like after 2,000 years,” she said, “Iʼm helping people read the poem differently—not as pro-empire or against empire, but as a story about how political literature comes to be.”

—This story was excerpted and adapted from the University of Chicago Magazine. Visit their website to read more about Bartsch-Zimmer’s analysis of Vergil, or to read an excerpt from her translation.