Friday, 22 April 2011

CS Lewis' Lost Aeneid

I had meant to get hold of another Jesus film to review for Easter, but I didn't get around to it - still, a book by/about CS Lewis, one of the twentieth-century's most famous lay theologians, seems vaguely relevant anyway! On a more strictly Easter-y theme, last year's post on The Passion of the Christ is here and an article including some thoughts about the Latin in that film here.

I realise translations of the Aeneid are not exactly popular culture, but I wanted to review this as a new work of CS Lewis (not many of those around!) that all fans of his work may enjoy, whether or not they're familiar with Virgil or Roman poetry. This was a review copy of the book, organised for me by Hasan Niyazi over at Three Pipe Problem, sent by the distributor Inbooks and supplied by the publisher, Yale University Press. The book is edited by AT Reyes and has a forward by Walter Hooper (CS Lewis' secretary) and preface by DO Ross.

Since I'm interested in this as a book for general audiences who are fans of Lewis, I won't say too much about the translation itself, which is so incomplete as to be little use to those just wanting to read the Aeneid anyway (The book contains all of Book 1, a substantial proportion of Book 2 and a section from Book 6. Any other sections Lewis had translated before he died were burned when his brother was clearing out the house after his death - the book's introduction explains how Walter Hooper rescued what we have from the fire. This edition also includes various other lines and fragments Lewis had translated or mentioned in his other works, and summaries of the missing nine books and the missing material from Books 2 and 6). There are many different ways to translate from one language to another, but generaly speaking there are two broad approaches; you can try to translate the specific vocabulary of the original text as closely as possible, or you can produce a text which conveys the feeling and sense of the original without necessarily transferring specific vocabulary. When translating poetry, translators also have to decide whether to write their version in plain prose, to stick as closely as possible to the vocabulary of the original but lose the rhythm and feel of it, or a freer style of poetry, keeping the verse but losing the precise rhythm, or to try to ape the original metre as closely as possible.

Lewis, being a poet and English Literature professor, chose a metre which he felt was as close to Virgil as possible (Virgil used dactylic hexameter; Lewis used short alexandrine lines with six beats). His translation is of the kind that tries to convey the sense and feeling of the poem without sticking slavishly to the ancient vocabulary (though for the most part he's pretty close). Because Lewis felt so strongly that literature had lost something since the arrival of machines in the nineteenth century, he translated the poem into pseudo-medieval English - using a medieval style, but not actually writing in Middle English.

The upshot of this is that the poem reads beatifully, but probably shouldn't be used by undergraduates studying Virgil in translation, as it's not quite literal enough. Whether you'll enjoy reading it really depends on your taste - if you enjoy Shakespeare, especially his rhyming couplets, you'll probably enjoy this.

The book has been beautifully put together. Hooper's forward is personal and touching, Ross' preface effectively explains Lewis' attitude and approach to the poem and Reyes' introduction explains the process of translation and of putting together the manuscript clearly and simply. For those who don't read Latin, the introduction explains the differences between Lewis' translation and others and how Lewis' translation compares to the Latin, and provides a thorough introduction to the text. There are also a few prints of Lewis' manuscript, which is lovely to see (he had really neat handwriting!) I would imagine any fan of CS Lewis who isn't familiar with Classics will thoroughly enjoy this.

The translation is, of course, unfinished so you're not getting the whole of the Aeneid - unfortuantely, only a tiny fraction of it has been translated and preserved. No one needs to worry about not knowing the story, though, as Reyes provides summaries for the rest of the poem - these are very, very brief but they will fill readers in on the essential details. Luckily, the surviving material includes some of the most interesting sections from Book 6 (the journey through the underworld), which Lewis seems to have translated first - his language is slightly different in this section (thees and thous instead of you) so presumably he'd done this before he started the whole thing from the beginning. Unluckily, the translation of Book 2 runs out just as it gets to the really exciting bit - I'd recommend printing out the First Player's speech from Shakespeare's Hamlet about Priam and Hecuba and sticking it in the book right below the end of the translation of Book 2, so you can at least finish off the scene!

Reyes has made one decision I didn't agree with. He's included the Latin text opposite Lewis', which is brilliant and for which I'm very grateful, as it's so much easier to compare translation with Latin that way. However, he's used the most recent edition of the Latin, not the older edition Lewis used. Since this incomplete, medievalist translation is going to be of far more interest to Lewis fans and scholars than people needing a translation of the Aeneid, it would seem to make more sense to me to use the edition Lewis translated from, so his translation can be directly compared with the source material. Reyes has also not included any footnotes. He has a 'Notes' section, but no indication in the text itself of which parts of the translation come with notes. This is supposed to prevent the reader from being distracted and allow them to enjoy the poem artistically - unfortunately, it renders the Notes section somewhat difficult to use, as much flipping is required to work out which Notes refer to which bits of text.

That said, this has been really nicely put together and is a must-buy for rabid Lewis fans like me. Perhaps it's true that you get more out of it if you know the Aeneid, but I think Reyes has provided more than enough guidance for anyone who doesn't and Lewis really was a lyrical poet. Lewis' own love for Virgil comes through clearly, and every line aims to be, basically, as beautiful as possible. Just make sure you slip in that bit of Shakespeare, so you're not left hanging in the middle of Book 2!


  1. Super review Juliette!

    I loved the discussion about the decisions translators need to make regarding meter. Have any English translations of The Aeneid attempted to capture the dactylic hexameter? I imagine it would sound quite disjointed.

    The only extra thing I would have loved for you to add was a sample of a section that you feel 'reads beautifully'. Very intrigued now!

    Kind Regards

  2. Very interesting review! I'm a fan of Lewis' books, but I wasn't even aware that of this publication. Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. Although I'm not familiar enough with Latin to tell different versions apart, I'll definitely keep your comments in mind when I look at this book!

    Alberti's Window

  3. @M Thanks! I don't know that the difference between editions is that great, but it bothered me in principle that this wasn't the text Lewis was working with!

    @H I don't know of any English dactylic hexameter translations, but I'm sure someone somewhere has done one! As for the way it reads, I think Lewis' prose as a whole just has a really nice flow to it - it's an impression I get from the whole thing as a piece, though I suppose
    And now they slept. But Jupiter from heaven on high
    Turned downward to the sail-besprinkled seas his eye,
    The seas, the coasts, the countries, and the nations vast,
    And fixed his gaze upon the Libyan reign at last. a particularly nice bit!

  4. Cheers Juliette - very much reminds me of the Dryden version, which is a beautiful work of poetry in itself. For those interested - it can be viewed in its entirety via this page at MIT:

    Kind Regards

  5. Ah, I didn't even know he was working on the Aeneid translation. I will always think of him as the first book series (Narnia) that my kids devoured when they were younger.

  6. I loved the Narnia series so much as a child - if I have kids and they don't like it I'll be heartbroken!

  7. @Juliette - you always need to be prepared for such an eventuality!

    A friend of mine is still demoralised after his youngster told him 'Star Wars is boring' - that was 6 years ago! The kid is 19 now, studying overseas, his dad is still moping about it!



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