Making Lightning: An Exercise in Translating Latin

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

– Mark Twain (attributed in George Bainton’s 1890 The Art of Authorship…)

I guarantee that any definition of translation you look up in any dictionary will not be accurate. Or at least it will prove to be incomplete. (*No offense to Merriam-Webster or the OED; dictionaries are, after all, a translator’s right hand tool.) Most likely, any definition you come across will include an explanation of the word’s etymology, from the Latin translatum, meaning “brought over,” indicating that translation is the act of bringing one thing — a symbol, word, or entire idiom — across some imagined bridge from one language over into the world of another. Yet this definition doesn’t seem to delve fully into the urgency or the electricity involved in the process of translating — of reading and interpreting, of narrowing-down and decision-making — necessitated in the transportation of such delicate nuances and senses.

Poetry provides a unique medium for meaning-laden words that, when translated, open up vast networks of interpretation.

1480 Fresco titled "Saint Jerome in his Study" by Domenico Ghirlandaio (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

1480 fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio depicting Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translators, librarians, and encyclopedists | Source: Wikimedia Commons

My first exposure to the trying task of translating was not in college courses, sitting around a table next to the other tensely raised shoulders of my fellow Classics majors, anxious to show our translating prowess. Rather, it was as a young kid sitting under my mom’s desk, surrounded by the musty, oft-referenced pages of books; blobs of bleeding ink from ball pens that had been used to scribble notes on varicolored post-it notes; and the soft, lilting sound of my mom muttering to herself the koine Greek words from the New Testament, her finger moving across the pages peppered with accents and breathing marks and dashes of punctuation. The ritual she was enacting was partly an act of listening: to the words, to their fluidity, to their natural cadence and intonation on a human tongue. But, as I later came to realize the more I translated myself, it was also in part a necessary process of repetition that further etched the words into her memory with each iteration, as if compounded assimilation might bring her unavoidably westernized, modernized mind closer to those of the ancient writers of the text. It was from my mom, the first real translator I ever knew, that I learned three cardinal guidelines for translating:

  1. Translation is like scrubbing away at a foggy, dirty old window: with each attempt, you get closer and closer to clearing away the debris and getting a transparent view to what’s on the other side. And those key words, those strikes of lightning that Twain talks about (that, in this context, can also double as Zeus’ — the original “Greece” lightning, you might say) are what help illuminate the view to the other side. The right word is as powerful and important as the persistence it takes to find it.
  2. Translating a line of text is a multi-layered process. You start with the definitions and parsings of the words to figure out their meanings and their roles in the sentence’s syntax. Then, you begin the first layer of interpretation, the one that starts by thinking up all the possible nuances of the individual words and their combinations with other words in the sentence. And then, finally, you take all those possibilities — grammatical and interpretive — and make decisions that begin to mold the sentence into a coherent string of words and ideas that flow from the preceding one into the next. This process never gets syncopated or cut short; you cannot translate without a basic understanding of the language’s words, its building blocks, and the language’s grammar, its guidelines for how those blocks fit together. Translations often evolve and grow as the translator herself comes back to the text time and time again after rereading the text and others related to it.
  3. Perfection is not the goal, nor is it even a possibility when translating. Each translation has its own limits and purposes inherent to the act of translation. One translation could be “literal,” an attempt at preserving the original meaning of the text by keeping the translated words as close to the their original counterparts. Another translation could be “idiomatic,” a different attempt to prioritize the colloquial nuance of the original text over a strict adherence to its original verbiage. Just as the original piece of writing reflects the mind of its author, a translation reflects as much about its translator as it does the text’s original penman.

While my mom’s language of choice was Greek, I defiantly — or at least in an attempt to be controversial — chose Latin. Turned out not to be as big of a leap as I thought it was, but it did the trick in igniting the joy of translating in myself. The text that taught me how to translate was the one that is widely considered the longtime heavyweight champion of Latin literature: Vergil’s Aeneid. Vergil’s importance as a poet cannot be overstated, although such a task often gets numbed, misguided, and even blurred by the posthumous popularization and repurposing of his words (by everyone from Fascist leaders to U.S. memorials). Vergil’s Aeneid is like a landmine of verbal lightning strikes that illuminate a complex system of literary codes, the key to which unlocks a world of interpretation unto itself.

Why should you read Virgil’s “Aeneid”? – Mark Robinson | Source: © TED-Ed/YouTube

With those guidelines in mind, let’s get to translating some Vergil. The Aeneid begins:

[1] Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs

“I sing of weapons and a man, who first from the shores of Troy…”

There are three words that virtually any Latin student or average New York Times crossword puzzle-doer knows: arma virumque cano. These three words act as starter fuel for one of the world’s most famous epic tales, imbuing it with literary resonance and echoes. These words begin a story about everything from generational ties to what we consider a “homeland;” from acts of romance to acts of war (justified and unjustified); from problematic faves to unbearably pious heroes — all tied up in one grand narrative of how Rome came to be Rome.

The connector -que that ties together the two first words of the poem and the subject of the narrator’s cano — “I sing” — invokes two seminal precedents for the epic and sets up a structural framework for the ensuing tale: arma can literally mean “weapons” or “arms,” but also carries the broader connotation of “warfare” — which invokes one of the two ancient epics that most influenced the Aeneid: Homer’s Iliad, the poem of all poems about the devastating, internecine consequences of war. Vergil’s second nod is to Homer’s other epic, the Odyssey, via virum — “man” — which is the central subject of the text: how one man navigates his trip home after enduring a decade of warfare, and attempts to reintegrate himself into domestic life. While the arma implicate the Iliad in a general, topical way, virum is a very linear, direct echo to its Homeric precedent since the Odyssey’s own first word is ἄνδρα, the Greek word for “man.”

1598 painting titled "Aeneas' Flight from Troy" by Federico Barocci (Source: Galleria Borghese/Wikimedia Commons)

1598 painting titled Aeneas’ Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci | Source: Galleria Borghese/Wikimedia Commons

To identify Aeneas as a vir is to do so in contrast to other types of identity: in gendered terms, he’s not a woman (a mulier or domina) — a key distinction to make, not simply because we’re reading this text in the 21st-century, where we filter for things like the Bechdel test and other feminist literary critical devices, but because a woman could not and would not, in an ancient mind, be tasked with carrying the weight of an entire epic on her own, with all its battles and death and hardship. In ontological terms, Aeneas is not classified a god (a deus (m.) or dea (f.)). Vir can, in the right contexts, carry the implication of “husband” or even “hero” — the word with a higher probability of being implied here, although Aeneas’ status as husband/widower/bachelor plays a key narrative role as well. It’s also important to note vir’s part as one-third of a triad of identities possible for a being in the ancient mindset: a man (mortal); a hero (who could attain divine status); and a god (immortal). A hero Aeneas may become, but only once he has endured the tasks awaiting for him from the gods — or rather, one specific, rage-driven goddess: Juno. Stay tuned for more on the gods and their antics.

The verb that activates those words, the rev of the engine, is quite possibly the brightest flash of lightning in the entire sentence: cano — “I sing.” Here, Vergil has inverted the Homeric paradigm: rather than calling on a Muse to inspire his song from the get-go, Vergil inserts himself with a bold first-person declaration: I sing. Notably he is singing, not speaking or talking. Song is the mode of the poetic narrator, a mode that takes its origins from the reconstructed genesis of epic tales, which go back as far as 9th-century B.C.E. in the dark ages of Greece, when tales of heroes, gods, and men were told and embellished orally, not recorded on paper. It also reminds us that the rhythm of a poem’s meter, in the case of the Aeneid dactylic hexameter, lends itself to a lilting sing-song voice.

The second half of the first sentence begins the process of further delineating this epic’s main subject: qui — “who…?” This begins what we call an indirect question, which answers implied queries, such as: Who is this person? Why do we care about him? What’s he been up to? What’s he going to do?Troiae qui primus ab oris — “who first from the shores of Troy” — tells us that Aeneas has already set out on his journey, and in good Homeric fashion, we are beginning our epic in medias res, in the middle of things. Furthermore, word order in poetry can serve as an interpretive mode. In poetry, form and content work together in a singularly potent combination since its meter provides both structure and limitations; where a word lies in a sentence, next to some words and apart from others, provides significance to their role in the sentence beyond syntax. With this in mind, Vergil has given prime placement to the fact that Aeneas is coming from Troy, and not only that but he is the first (primus) — a key detail that reassures us as readers (presumably contemporary Roman readers) that Aeneas is, in fact, the first and therefore rightful Trojan to escape Troy and continue the Trojan (and ensuing Roman) race.

c. 1507-1510 fresco titled "Flight of Aeneas from Troy" by Girolamo Genga (Source: Pinacoteca Nazionale/Wikimedia Commons)

c. 1507-1510 fresco titled Flight of Aeneas from Troy by Girolamo Genga | Source: Pinacoteca Nazionale/Wikimedia Commons

Who knew that eight words could conjure up such a world of meaning? This opening line is a great reminder of the first guideline: we’re starting the process of clearing away the cobwebs and peering into Vergil’s world of epic — filled with weaponry and exiles, heroes and men — one word at a time.

[2] Ītaliam, fātō profugus, Lāvīniaque vēnit

“…to Italy, exiled by fate, came to Lavinian….”

The second line clarifies Aeneas’ action and its motivation: Italiam at the start of the line intensifies and specifies that vector; we now have a point B to Aeneas’ journey that began on the shores of Troy (point A). Venit is an ambiguous form; it could either mean “he comes” in the present tense, or “he came” in the past. To make that decision, we have to reorient ourselves to the first line, which indicated that the narrator, the first-person voice behind cano, “I sing,” is both starting the story and situating us within it; as such, there’s a better chance that he is not describing Aeneas as he, at present, vividly, comes to Italy, but rather how, in this story, Aeneas came to Italy. It’s a slippery point of ambiguity, though, because Aeneas’ arrival in Italy has not happened by the time we join the story in real time, when we press play on the movie, and his journey is not without its own sidetracks and misdirections. It is, however, the ultimate goal. Spoiler: Aeneas does make it to Italy at, you guessed it, the exact midway point between the two halves of the epic, and Vergil imbues the transition between the two halves with rich nautical imagery of moving from one shore to another, a sure reference to this opening imagery. References like this both endow the moment with its own symbolism as well as reinforce and deepen our understanding of the symbol’s richness.

1766 painting titled "The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas" by Nathaniel Dance-Holland (Source: Tate Britain/Wikimedia Commons)

1766 painting titled The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Nathaniel Dance-Holland | Source: Tate Britain/Wikimedia Commons

Fatum, or “fate,” is one of the most complex words to translate in all of Latin, primarily because it is so philosophically-laden with questions. The word itself means “that which has been spoken,” but that definition itself begs further questions — primarily: Who spoke it? Who controls fate? Is it the gods? Is it the narrator, who, in crafting Aeneas’ myth (and by proxy the origins of Roman civilization), manipulates the truth for his own purposes? If all of this has been predestined, do any of the characters have free-will of their own to exercise? For all that we don’t know about what precisely fate could mean in this context, we do know that it is being defined here, grammatically, as the thing that drove Aeneas from Troy profugus — “exiled.” Profugus also further narrows Aeneas and his relationship to Troy for anyone who might be new to the myth, since the word is used especially to describe people who have fled their native country.

On its own, Laviniaque doesn’t have solid grammatical standing. It’s an adjective meaning “Lavinian” (as in the person Lavinia, Aeneas’ future wife and the person who gives her name to the town Lavinium, Aeneas’ ultimate landing spot — a great example of foreshadowing). But an adjective yearns for a noun to stabilize it, and in this line it doesn’t have any nouns that match it morphologically. That same connector -que, though, is doing us a big one here: it’s telling us to look ahead to the next line —  a technique called enjambment, which describes when authors delay expected words in later lines as a tactic to keep the reader intrigued, and to help bookend an entire thought bubble between the two related words. So if we keep going, we find…

[3] lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
[4] vī superum saevae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram;

“…shores, thrown around much on both land and sea
by the will of the gods, because of the unforgetting rage of cruel Juno;”

…litora, which gives us the matching pair to line 2’s Laviniaque. Remember how it was hinted earlier that Aeneas’ trip to Italy wouldn’t be as pleasant as a transatlantic flight on Alitalia? Iactatus hits right at that point. “Tossed around” is a gentle definition; it can mean “hurled about,” “tormented,” even “scattered” — helpful evocations when thinking about the realities of an exiled, diasporic population, or even one of its members’ trials. (Aeneas may be the primus, the “first,” from Troy, but he’s certainly not the only Trojan making a new home.) The et…et… “both…both…” that structure the second line is a ‘Homerism’: et…et… is a direct parallel to the Greek τε…τε… that fills countless lines of his earlier, influential epics. The word that is translated as “sea” does not technically or singularly mean that; literally, alto refers to a great height or depth. There is another very good word Vergil could have used for sea, mare, since that’s its entire range of possible meaning. And yet he has chosen to paint the poetic portrait of Aeneas’ itinerant turbulence: he is scattered not just on land but in the depths of the ocean too.

So what did Aeneas do to deserve this? The guy is an exile, and presumably the hero (TBD) of our story, so why is he being racketed between land and sea? We find our answer in vi superum: “by the will of the gods.” When I said earlier that fatum, “fate,” is one of the hardest words to translate in Latin, it’s accompanied in its slipperiness by vis (the word where we get vi from). Vis is a pain to translate because it covers a gamut of meanings: “visceral strength,” “force,” or even “power.” The wide array of options for vi are further qualified by being “of the gods,” the superum. Superum is a great example of metonymy: literally, it just means “the things that are up high” — as in, the people who hang out up above — as in, the gods.

Sculpture of Juno by William Henry Goodyear (Source: Brooklyn Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

Sculpture of Juno by William Henry Goodyear | Source: Brooklyn Museum/Wikimedia Commons

In a similar way to how Vergil previously described the sea with alto, which could fairly be translated just as “in the depths,” Vergil introduces the gods in abstract, poetic terms; he locates them in the distant sky and associates them with vis — power and force — both mental and physical. Their vis, their power, is unchecked and unmatched — and yet, as looming as that may sound, it’s not even the true reason for Aeneas’ trials. Vergil continues on to say that this is all saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram, “on account of the unforgetting rage of cruel Juno.” I’ve always loved the idea of rage being ‘unforgetting’ because it instigates rage’s natural counterpart: revenge. It also begs the question: what is Juno unable to forget? For the answer to that we have to go further back than Homer and his Iliad, to a now-lost text called the Cypria that detailed the judgment of Paris, a fellow Trojan, who declared that, of the three goddesses — Juno, Minerva, and Venus — Venus was the most beautiful. Juno, a goddess already dissed by her husband Zeus’ philandering habits, took great offense at this judgment, and as a result declared revenge on the entire Trojan race — whose survival currently depends solely on one Trojan man: Aeneas.

Just as the original piece of writing reflects the mind of its author, a translation reflects as much about its translator as it does the text’s original penman.

We’re only four lines into the poem’s 10,000 total, yet already Vergil has provided a veritable road map of Aeneas’ world and his pending journey has already taken shape and been given a backstory. While the translation itself is not, and cannot, be perfected, it evidences the process involved in its crafting. Engaging in the act of translating his epic reveals why Vergil chose to compose such an intricate and involved narrative in verse. Poetry provides a unique medium for meaning-laden words that, when translated, open up vast networks of interpretation. From seemingly straightforward words like vir to more slippery ones like fatum and vis, each illuminates the text with its own power, its own flash of lightning. Vergil famously labored over the text, asking it to be burned upon his death because he was still dissatisfied with its state. That care is reflected in each word that was painstakingly put into its place, and the fact that a translation of the Aeneid — even its opening few lines — introduces myriad strands of dialogue and interpretation that affect our reading of the rest of the poem does prove that Vergil did succeed in at least one critical, unique way: in crafting a text that teaches its readers the fine art of translating.

c. 1790-1793 painting titled "Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia" by Jean Baptiste-Wicar (Source: Art Institute of Chicago/Wikimedia Commons)

c. 1790-1793 painting titled Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean Baptiste-Wicar | Source: Art Institute of Chicago/Wikimedia Commons


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