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On Reading Virgil and Sophocles
I read Antigone and the Aeneid (well, the first half of it) in consecutive weeks as part of a learning journey. Here brief observations on translations, the joys of the canon, and hagiographies.
The first is the usual one on translations. What are we reading, really, when we read a translated work (whether that work is 3,000 years old, as these two are, or something more contemporary like Mahfouz)?
Jorge Luis Borges, who usually had a brilliantly relevant quote for just about anything, wrote that for readers such as us, “the original is unfaithful to the translation”. I think what he meant was that when we read a translation, we are in a sense reading a new original, an entirely new work that in its very nature cannot be a literal proxy for the source work. It is the original, then, that over time becomes a silhouette of a great translation.
Even if it were a word-for-word literal translation — if such a thing were even possible — it would be something novel, not-the-same as the original. And so we should celebrate our translators. In the words of Paul Auster: “Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.”
The second thought that came to me was the the narrative power and beauty of the poetry (with the caveat that this is as much the narrative power and beauty of a specific translation — and in the case of Antigone, I refer to the chorus, which sings in verse).
The canonical status of these works creates an obstacle to treating them as stories, to taking that first step of reading the first page and allowing oneself to be carried on the waves of words.
These are wonderful works of the imagination, not ossified artifacts of an obliterated culture, and I feel sorry that it is only now that I have found myself reading them. There is a good reason these are still being read thousands of years later.
Finally: this is establishment literature. Sophocles was a pillar of society. He trod the Athenian version of the cursus honorum, at various time serving as a general and as a commissioner for Athens. He did not intend to throw metaphorical grenades at the status quo. A modern audience might read Antigone as a feminist anthem — but in its own time, it was almost certainly a call to obey the laws and respect the goods.
As for Virgil: the Aeneid was actually commissioned by Augustus Caesar. It is astonishing to come upon these lines in Book VI about the underworld, with Anchises, Aeneas’ father, pointing out people in a small crowd those who are earmarked for future reincarnation (and will be Aeneas’ descendants):
This is the man, this one
Of whom so often you have heard the promise,
Caesar Augustus, son of the deified,
Who shall bring once again an Age of Gold
One can almost imagine Augustus instructing Virgil: “come up with something that links me to the Homeric heroes!” I was hard pressed to think of analogies in our own time; all I could think of was hagiographies in totalitarian states. Then again: imperial Rome was a totalitarian state!
The translations I read were these: