"The muses love the morning," said Robert Fagles, a recently retired comparative literature professor who rises at five every morning to work on his current project, a translation of Virgil's "Aeneid." He drew his muse quote from Benjamin Franklin, appropriate for a man who looks for inspiration in human voices past and present as he crafts living speech from words of a dead tongue. Wherever he goes, Fagles said, the work of translation is "always in my mind."
As a translator of classical texts whose translations have won him critical praise and honors such as the National Book Award nomination and an Academy Award in Literature, Fagles is often asked about the contemporary value of his work and especially how his material relates to current events. As Fagles sees it, "The Aeneid's" contemporary value does not lie in specific scenes and events but in the broader situation of the protagonist and his world.
"I was asked by a reporter, 'Is there a Rumsfeld in the "Iliad"?' I said, 'I don't think so, but isn't one enough?' " Fagles said. "He laughed and didn't print it."
On a political level, "The Aeneid" is "a story about the price of empire" and how a superpower nation struggles to mediate globally scaled interests and responsibilities.
"Aeneas' whole career is an effort to reconcile his public mission with his personal desires," Fagles said. "If he succeeds, he can become a full, seasoned human. He can, in effect, create his own destiny."
Aeanes, a Trojan soldier who escapes with a band of neighbors from the burning walls of Troy, is initially guided by gods on his quest for a new home. But in Book Ten, the god Jove abandons humanity, leaving Aeneas shouldering a sudden burden of free will in an indifferent universe, a state that seems existential to the modern eye and that prompted critic Matthew Wyser to call Aeneas "the loneliest man in literature."
"I don't mean to make him contemporary, but Aeneas has a very modern predicament, very timely," Fagles said.
To fuse the modern and the ancient, the translator must regard the field of literature as divided into "two books," Fagles said.
"One is the ancient book, for which you have all the normal sourcesphilology, lexicography, commentaries," he said. "The other book is the book of modern speech, of writing. There is 2,700 years' difference between the two . . . The task before me is to bring those two books together."
To do so, Fagles said, he is always "on the prowl for modern voices of the heroic," combing books, television broadcasts and conversational speech to see how language is created and used and to provide fuel for his efforts to achieve emotional as well as literal fidelity to Virgil's original text.
While the magic of Virgil's Latin words may forever elude a complete leap into English syntax, Fagles is determined to search for analogues to Virgil's greater emotion in the modern vernacular.
"There are many things in our modern language that [embody] the heroic," he said, praising Ken Burns' PBS series on the Civil War as an example of "19th-century American oratory in many voices high and low."
Fagles hopes to bring Virgil "from literature into song." Fagles has a special interest in the voices of great poetic singers, from classical and Romantic writers to modern poets such as Robert Lowell and C. K. Williams.
"Yeats is always the most useful," Fagles said, recalling his translation of an episode in "The Odyssey" where the gathered Greek legions gaze up at Helen on the walls of Troy. In his translation, Fagles chose the words "terrible beauty" to describe Helen's aura at that moment. "We all know where that's from, 'Easter 1916,' " he said, citing a famous poem by William Butler Yeats.
Writing from within a mighty empire at a time of rebellion, Yeats once said, "A civilization is a struggle to keep self-control." Yeats' voice combines political and mythological sensibilities, which suits sagas of theology and war. Both Homer's cosmic battles and Virgil's genesis tale, written when his own civilization reached its peak, carry a weight of struggle and power that would be familiar to the modern reader.
Fagles also turns to other poets, such as Derek Walcott, to portray Virgil's distinct brand of heroism. "Virgil also has introspective moments, for which T. S. Eliot helps," he said, adding that Homer's humbler moments remind him of Robert Frost's voice.
"These are great poets. That's why one clings to them and burrows into them," Fagles said.
Many scholars would place Fagles himself among our culture's foremost literary voices. Comparative literature department chair Sandra Bermann said Fagles has been an important inspiration for students in the department he helped create in 1975.
"He's a wonderful human being and a great scholar," Bermann said. "Robert Fagles' connection with translating and the creative arts has been very inspirational for our students. His continuing work in translation has made a big difference in the department."
When he started translating "The Aeneid," Fagles focused on two of the epic's passages, which he felt he had some emotional bearing: Aeneas' narrative of the fall of Troy, whose destruction Fagles had already seen through the eyes of the Greek hero Odysseus, and the scene where the reader first encounters Dido, a moment that recalled for Fagles other tragic heroines ("Clytemnestra, Medea, a potential Persephone").
Fagles said his hardest challenge as a translator is "trying to find a place to sit that will help me understand the full [expressive] meaning of each word, from the very small to the very large."
"If you set your hopes too high as a translator of these great things, one may get one's hopes dashed," he added.
But even a project that initially seems overwhelming and distant can become a personal, even intimate, presence for a translator, who must spend weeks and years sifting closely through text.
"I've come to care for Aeneas," Fagles said. "I didn't at first."
In "The Aeneid's" first half, he said, Aeneas is principally a "hero of self-effacement," muting his own spirit in the service of a higher power. This Aeneas "didn't seize my imagination," said Fagles, who is drawn to strong characters such as Achilles and Odysseus. But Fagles warmed to Aeneas in the book's second half, in which the hero "begins to assert himself" and becomes "an Odyssean hero with a difference."
While the initial draft of Fagles' translation is complete, the final work's publication is still "a few years away," he said.
"There's a lot of apparatus fore and aft [that needs to be added]. Introduction, glossary, bibliography — a lot of hardware," he explained.
Yet from within all this hardware, Fagles hopes a voice will form that will carry Virgil's original meaning from the shrouds of history, even if it is a "thin wisp" compared to the original.
Classics department chair Denis Feeney, who has read parts of the "Aeneid" manuscript, called the work "phenomenal."
"Fagles is a great translator of tragedy, and I think it's the tragic moments in Homer and Virgil that [Fagles] responds to," he said. "It's striking how he's been faithful to the style and idiom of the two poets, but at the same time it's still him."
The ideas and styles of our predecessors shape our own — a pregnant thought for a man writing about an exile seeking a new sense of home and for a modern-day scholar seeking to transcribe the great stories of an age that haunts us still. Since Rome we have seen many empires and republics rise and fall, and with each great change we have learned a new way of seeing, acquired a new voice. Yet as Fagles shows us by drawing us back through these transformations to literature's beginning, an essential human voice can be gleaned from beneath the notes of vastly disparate and differing songs.
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