Translated by David Hadbawnik
I stood frozen in shock.
Everything seized up in my mind and words caught up in my throat –
The Aeneid is the classic epic poem by Vergil about the fall of Troy as retold by one of the heroes, Aeneas, who goes on to become the founder of Italy. The poem was written centuries ago and well known so I’m assuming there’s no need for me to write a CliffNote for you about it.
Hadbawnik takes an interesting approach to translating Vergil, rather than doing the Robert Fagles and translating it “faithfully” he takes some creative license. He still stays faithful to the text and story but instead of translating it into dactylic hexameter and using ornate language he makes it more…human I would say. You can feel Dido’s despair in Hadbawnik’s translation when he has her swearing aggressively at Aeneas than when Fagles has her saying “curse you” for instance.
The translation is not a CliffNotes or a Aeneid for fools or some sort of dumbing down of the epic for the modern reader, no. And I for one am very old school and sadly elitist in the sense that I’m against modernized translations of classical texts but I was fully engrossed in this translation. At the same time I would argue that you can’t truly appreciate Hadbawnik’s translation unless you’ve read the original Latin or Fagles’ translation because he does things with the story or the translation to bring for the nature of the characters in a fascinating way. By stripping away the grandeur of the epic tradition he presents the characters in a raw, human way that was incredible.He is able to capture something of the epic that is lost in “classic” or “faithful” translations.
It’s also a revival of an interesting Medieval and Early Modern tradition where the lines between translation, adaptation, and interpretation are blurred if not nonexistent. He plays with the form of the poem even in the way of positioning it on the page, at first look it seems like there are random short lines of poetry scattered on the page but looking closer you find that he is in fact playing with the negative spaces. I still haven’t fully cracked this one yet but it’s an interesting feature of his book. Another way he plays with it is by having these beautiful grayscale illustrations throughout the book that reading it becomes almost like a multi-leveled puzzle, you’re working with the text, the textual images, the actual images, the negative space, the positions of the lines, all at once.
Go ahead and read it whether you’re a fan of Vergil or not, and evil if you’ve never read the Aeneid before, this will be a gateway drug to classical epics.
*Full disclosure: I’m friends with Hadbawnik, however that did not affect my review of his translation.