Daniel Remein reviews David Hadbawnik's translation of Publius Vergilius Maro’s Aeneid

Translated from the Latin by David Hadbawnik, with illustrations by Carrie Kaser (Shearsman, 2015)

In much of the history of western-European, medieval thought, the story of the Aeneid—in which a man packs up his goods and carries them across the sea to found an empire—is itself a trope of translation par excellence. That the Latinate etymology of the Present Day English term translation shows it to be merely a tricky little trope is, to translators and theorists, as much of a commonplace as any (the Latin translatio literally means “to carry across,” and the Romans used this word to translate the Greek term for metaphor). Yet in medieval vernacular literatures, the story of Aeneas was also the story of why translation, as a trope, always exceeded its function as a linguistic transaction, why translation was so often understood as translatio imperii et studii, or the transfer of Empire and Learning.

By translating the learning of the ancients into, say, English, vernacular literary production could carry the glory and authority of empire over to England. That is, translating Latin texts could relocate worldly power and authority by establishing a continuity with the glory of the ancient world and legitimizing a given language as an instrument of that authority in the construction of a national identity. Translation was a trope whereby a language like English, or French, could re-enact Virgil’s story of translatio for itself. In English poetics in particular, this meant re-troping the story of Aeneas on explicitly domestic terms. For example, drawing on a basic line of historiographical propaganda that had been around since the Normans, the well-loved Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins, to the confusion of many English majors, not with an image of King Arthur and his Knights, but with an account of how Felix Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, went to Britain, where he subdued a race of giants and became the first king of the island. Here is a paradigmatic Middle English translation of the story of the Aeneid as the trope of translation itself—determined as nothing short of a relocation of the very center of the world.

Poet and translator David Hadbawnik is also a scholar of medieval English literature and an assistant professor of English at the American University of Kuwait—so it is no surprise that his translation of the Aeneid: Books I-VI comprehends not only a certain Latin text, but also its histories as a trope of translation in English poetics. Hadbawnik’s translation thus also enacts what Ezra Pound famously called “criticism by translation,” and so too operates a precious inheritance from Modernist poetics that reconfigures the very parameters of translation and that remains far too neglected in mainstream poetics. As such, some number of readers will probably want to dismiss this book as “merely” adaption, or as “creative translation.” But Hadbawnik’s verse is as sensitive to the Latin text as it is adventurous in its contemporary poetics and deliberately unconventional in its translative operations.

Take this passage, in which Aeneas is reporting how he and his party took again to sea after a failed attempt to found Troy anew in Crete (since Aeneas must leave Troy behind to go and found Rome):

                           frozen to spine         
I awake  
                           make offering         
wild words  
                           father remembers:         

Cassandra         made mention of                              
               Italy     but                                 
               who’d believe her?               
               let us yield             
                            to this new prophecy                             
               everyone cheering                          we                     
                            set keel to breakers          
                                            once more.                 (72)

Hadbawnik renders about nineteen of Virgil’s full lines into these fifteen sparse fragments. A caesura that progressively breaks down into lines that partially overlap as they alternate sides tempts us to read the text as if it is hung around an absent, or partially crumbled column. The deliberate positioning of type to pace this translation of verse, whose original relies on a metrical regularity that just won’t really “go” in Present Day English, recalls the translation of Beowulf by poet Thomas Meyer that Hadbawnik shepherded to publication (Punctum Books, 2012). This apparent sparse or terse quality will not surprise previous readers of Hadbawnik’s poetry, which includes Translations from Creeley (Sardines Press, 2008), Ovid in Exile (Interbirth, 2007), SF Spleen (Skanky Possum, 2006), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Habenicht, 2011), and his previous full-length collection, Field Work: Notes, Songs, Poems 1997-2010 (BlazeVOX, 2011)—much of which is heavily indebted to the spare but tricky idioms of Robert Creeley and Jack Spicer.

The final lines of this passage, “we/ set keel to breakers/ once more,” borrow that famous phrase, “set keel to breakers,” from Pound, suggesting, perhaps, that if there is a kind of “high” poetic idiom or epic formula acceptable in today’s verse, it would have to reckon with the account Pound gives of Ulysses leaving Circe’s house in the first of his Cantos. Fairclough’s side-by-side prose translation in the Loeb Classical Library edition of the Aeneid I-VI renders these lines diplomatically as “This home, too, we quit and, leaving some behind, spread out sails and speed in the hollow keels over the waste sea.” At first glance it might seem that Hadbawnik’s condensation of all of this into Pound’s “set keel to breakers” omits certain key details: Aeneas’s reference to leaving people behind, and his sense of departing from a place where they had attempted to make a new home. But, in the context of its canto, Pound’s line recalls a story in which Ulysses had lost men at Circe’s, how they had stayed overlong, and were almost swayed from their appointed course. Moreover, Pound’s famous “set keel to breakers” line enacts a metaphorical setting-keel-to-breakers in working to “break the pentameter” and adapting an Old English style prosody for the canto, setting off towards a new poetics meant to be unhomely, if still destined. Hadbawnik therefore marks his translation as continuous with Pound’s own projects of venturesome translation meant to launch contemporary poetics on new courses while at the same time following a less certain, less pompous course than Pound (and with very different politics). For a translation of the Aeneid now to chart a new, compelling course yet not succumb to serving some new translatio imperii, as Hadbawnik’s citation of Pound ironically suggests, it must continually set keel to breakers and re-trope the history of translation again and again.

Thus, noticeably condensing this passage, Hadbawnik renders translation not as a carrying across of all the words and their ostensible meanings, but as a re-crystallization around a central cord. Consider the speech by Aeneas’s father that begins partway through the above quotation from Hadbawnik’s translation; the Latin text opens thus:

. . . “nate, Iliascis exercite fatis,
sola mihi talis casus Cassandra canebat.
nunc repeto haec generi portendere debita nostro,
et saepe Hesperiam, saepe Itala regna vocare.
sed quis as Hesperiae venturos litora Teucros
crederet? aut quem tum vates Cassandra moveret?

[ . . . “son, agitated by the fate of Illium,
only Cassandra declared to me such a fortune.
Now I recall her prophesying this as due to our people,
frequently naming Hesperia, frequently naming Italy.
But who would believe Teucrians would come to the shores of                    Hesperia?
and who then did the prophecies of Cassandra stir?] (III.183-187, my diplomatic translation.)

Hadbawnik does not miss anything from the Latin. Aeneas has told his father, Anchises, about a dream he has just woken from in fearful and pious awe, which reminds his father of something that suddenly seems important. He recalls that Cassandra (who was cursed by the gods such that no one would believe her prophecies) made a prophecy under extreme duress during the siege. This much is elegantly there in the clause Anchises uses to describe Cassandra when she uttered the prophecy: “Iliascus exercite fatis” – she was “agitated,” “driven,” “vexed,” or “disturbed” (as the verb exerceo suggests) by the fate of Ilium. The situation was weird and illegible, as when one does not remember something immediately because only in hindsight can it be translated into some recognizable narrative.

It is also worth noting that this is a particularly tough passage to translate. Virgil’s syntax and enjambment here is witty, but difficult to manage in Present Day English. Hadbawnik’s “Cassandra had made mention of” comprehends these densities that come across in my diplomatic translation above only after further exposition. And the venerable Robert Fitzgerald manages to render the lines with characteristic monumentalizing elegance only by switching around the narrative so that it is Aeneas who is vexed and so that both Anchises’s slow memory and Cassandra’s condition at the time of the prophecy are elided: “Son (pitted as you are/ Against the fated of Illium) Cassandra/ Alone made such a prophecy to me.”

Virgil is playing with a subtle irony that a Roman audience might enjoy, knowing how things are to work out on the very scale of empire, the Old Man struggling to believe what a discredited oracle said as the whole city of Troy was losing its mind. Anchises is just on the edge of putting things together. But where can that irony go when translating a text that is itself such an over-determined trope of translation, and translating it for the umpteenth time? In calibrating a contemporary idiom to both arrive at that irony and disrupt the exact location of Virgil in an English poetics that takes him for granted, Hadbawnik here introduces scale as a key axis for the domestic codes in which one inevitably inscribes the foreign text: “ . . . had made mention . . . but/ who’d believe her?”

Here, the understated touch of italicizing her translates the irony of Anchises’s previous dismissal of Cassandra’s prophecy. So Hadbawnik does allude to the classical understanding that a self-satisfied imperial audience might smile at Anchises and rest knowingly in the irony, taking it as a confirmation that the inevitability of history lies in the translation of empire: Anchises may not have understood Cassandra earlier on, but fate had its way and Aeneas inevitably set off for Italy. But by setting all this off by italicizing a single word, Hadbawnik also re-scales the irony as a critique of this classical reading and perhaps of Virgil himself. The colloquial dismissiveness of “who’d believe her?” exposes the misogyny on which the classical irony is predicated—that which disbelieves a woman distraught by violence and that would have been previously required to codify Cassandra’s reputation as a lousy seer even if the gods were initially responsible. But in scaling down—as if to hold to the Latin text with only a light thread—Hadbawnik also reframes and doubles this irony. Rather than reassuring the reader of the inevitability of the translation of empire, it now serves to expose its contingency; and it is all the more ironic that it is this fundamental misogyny that fails to recognize a prophecy of empire and renders the founding of Rome all the more fragile. So, by condensing these densities into a brief quip, Hadbawnik also exposes the irony and uncertainty of the processes of translation, and opens a space to interrogate or disrupt the smooth assimilation of Aeneid-translation in the legitimizing of empire.

Images scattered throughout the text that Hadbawnik commissioned by the artist Carrie Kaser further underscore the ambivalence about the text-to-be translated in this book. They are mostly representational, but occasionally verge on pure abstraction, and vary in subject matter from close-ups of plants, to birds, to sketches of Greek temple-ruins that recall nineteenth-century aristocratic tourism. They are always ghostly and ominous shapes, lurking, in dialogue with, rather than illustrating, the verse.

The translation is, as suggested, philologically sensitive, historically critical, and often sparse in its idiom, but it is not hesitant, not beholden to the decorum of a so-called “great book”; and Hadbawnik does not shy away from a potentially scandalous move: he omits entirely that prerequisite for epic, the invocation of the muse. Rather than add yet another superfluous rendition of the famous Arma virumque cano [I sing of “arms” and the man] to English literary history, Hadbawnik skips it. Chris Piuma, another medievalist and poet, explains this move in his teasingly brief preface to the translation:

Does our Aeneid require a statement of purpose? Our custom is to put our statements of purpose on the back of our books. Does it require an invocation of the muse? That . . . what? Who does that? I guess some poets still do that. Would Virgil be that kind of poet? This translation argues: No.        (7)

Hadbawnik, it seems, understands that this sort of compositional throat-clearing might all too easily spread throughout the poem, leaving the whole translation a stuffy technocrat hemming and hawing around the intractability of the thing’s history. Accordingly, the verse may feel terse at times; but there is no flinching here, no unwillingness to admit that Virgil was willing to relish violence as spectacle. Here, Aeneas tells Dido about the rape of the King of Troy himself:

They brought Priam out in a dress
fucked him bent over the altar in front of
his wife and kids who ran in slipping on the gore
and died simply and awfully as numen and simulacra
watched . . .             (45)

Hadbawnik’s line-breaks render the “wife and kids”—such a vernacular formula of middle-class America—ghosts even in advance of their deaths, and before we realize that ghosts were already watching. Is that what the Aeneid does to its readers, turns us into ghostly gawkers? We almost pity Virgil, are almost embarrassed for him and his world that would be so invested in such a display, until the idiom of Aeneas’ report, heightened only just past the tone of an AP reporter’s interview, renders it all too contemporary.

Piuma’s preface speaks of what Hadbawnik is doing here in terms of a “turning up” or “turning down.” Noting in his preface that, “David Bellos has pointed out that other cultures use other metaphors to talk about translation [instead of carry across], such as ‘turning’,” Piuma explains:

This translation argues: We do not need to nervously hold onto every word of the original text as if it were a lifeline. There are other translations of this poem for the nervous. There is something in the original text that can only be reached by turning it. Turn the syntax of a phrase, turn the layout of a line, turn up or down the register of a speech. Turn some scenes into images . . . let the reader turn to the image, to rest and reconsider.           (7)

In this light, it is especially worth noting that Hadbawnik’s facility for medieval and classical languages includes Old English—precisely one of those languages that use a verb for turning to talk about translation: wendan, which still survives with a similar sense in the archaic to wend. Wendan means to turn as in to turn over, or to turn around, but also to turn in the sense of simply “to change.”

Hadbawnik extends his turning up and down sometimes to the point of turning a corner in a way that does, thankfully, change things, as in Hadbawnik’s translation of the funeral games (passages so often held to be boring in contemporary translations that an undergraduate professor of mine once told me to skip over them). Here is a selection from the foot race:

they’re off—bursting forth
             like startled deer

tears ahead of the others
             faster than wind and wings and lightning
             followed five heartbeats later by
                          then EURYALUS
             hot on his heels

Soon those weary runners
             draw close to the finish
             an unlucky Nisus
             already so certain of victory he’s
             raising his arms
             on some blood left over
             from bulls slaughtered in sacrifice
             sliding through the gore covers
             himself in entrails and shit.
 But he doesn’t forget his buddy
             Euryalus—leaning up
             he sends Salius sprawling
             into the thick sand and so
             Euryalus flashes home
             with everyone roaring
                        applause             (137)

As the runners turn their course, we hear the language turn into the patterns of a full-throated, quick-talking sportscaster—probably a radio announcer, given the puzzlingly swift exactitude. Even the line-breaks reinforce the subtle hesitations of the reporter whose mind is at once taking in the action and giving report with as short a delay as possible. The capitalized proper names are handholds in the rush of language and the speed of the race, as are the last names or nicknames of athletes in a radio commentary. Hadbawnik uses such capitalization throughout the text—sometimes with common nouns, using the type like blocks of composition. Sometimes this has the effect of turning up the volume, but sometimes it reminds us of the materiality of type as part of what is translating Virgil and the messy materiality of his narrative. Note how Nisus suddenly “SLIPS” and this game-changing fall takes on the quality of a physical object that skids across the line towards the right margin of the poem. This SLIP too is the inevitable slip of translation that Hadbawnik is not too nervous to ride along with.

Since the great translation experiments of Modernism (of H.D., Pound, and Zukofsky), and another round of slippery translations in Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, and Robin Blaser’s translations of Nerval’s Les Chimères (about which he argued that he needed to translate the “heat” of the process that led to the poems rather than produce a “word-for-word crib”), it has perhaps become the habit of many mainstream poets to be rather nervous about translation, and especially about the function and timing of taking on translations of so-called “great books,” where the text itself is an over-determined trope for translation. As translation scholar Steven G. Yao argues, rather than taking on the translation of such texts as apprenticeships in poetry, or slipping along for the sheer joy of it, many contemporary mainstream poets wait until late-career to translate so-called “great books,” as if as a gift to their readerships and “a privilege and expression of established reputation.”

Thus it was only four years before he received his Nobel prize that Irish poet Seamus Heaney translated an excerpt from the Aeneid as a kind of exergue to his book Seeing Things—a famous passage of ridiculously over-determined importance to twentieth-century, especially Modernist, poetics: the scene in which the Sibyl at Cumae instructs Aeneas that he will need to obtain the Golden Bough to descend into the underworld if he wants to come back up again. Heaney’s translation makes a few moves of interest but it comes out, I think, subdued, privileged—as if an easy victory lap—and yet still, somehow, nervous:

         . . . No one is ever permitted
To go down to earth’s hidden places unless he has first
Plucked this golden-fledged growth out of its tree
And handed it over to fair Proserpina, to whom it belongs
by Decree, her own special gift. And when it is plucked
A second one always grows in its place, golden again,
And the foliage growing on it has the same metal sheen.
Therefore look up and search deep and when you have found it
Take hold of it boldly and duly. If fate has called you,
The bough will come away easily, of its own accord.
Otherwise, no matter how much strength you muster, you never will  
Manage to quell it or cut it down with the toughest of blades.       (5)

Heaney’s lines here are not undistinguished. At times they are heavily indebted to Old English prosody like the lines of Pound’s first canto, but instead of ringing the alarm that we are about to “set keel to breakers,” this prosody serves as a mark of tradition and authority, troping translation as a wreath of laurels for the book even before we’ve read it. Take, by comparison, Hadbawnik’s translation of the same passage:

But if you’re so hot to cross
the Stygian marsh twice, twice
glimpse dark Hell
and indulge in this crazy scheme
           do this first:
go deep into the gloom of the grove
and find the Golden Bough
sacred to Juno—snap off a branch
for lovely Proserpina who demands
           such offering

If you’re fated to find it
luck will lead you there, otherwise
no strength or sharp blade
will tear it loose                Also:

You’ve got a pal who
unbeknownst to you
lies dead and unburied
defiling the whole fleet . . .                 (177-178)

I’ve included a few extra few lines from Hadbawnik’s translation because Heaney tellingly chooses to cut off his own excerpt before the “Also”—the terrible afterthought that Hadbawnik’s translation drops like a bomb on Aeneas. This chatty vates, as Hadbawnik refers to the Sibyl (177), a word for seer that Virgil reclaimed as a word for poet, delivers not instructions on self-coronation (whether it’s left up to the fates or not), but news, sometimes with chilling indifference.

Hadbawnik’s Aeneid performs a take-down of translation as a privilege, as “great,” or for the “established.” And this is, of course, still only a translation of Books I-VI. Yet, while we might be impatient for the rest of the poem, it is in a way nice to have it serialized like this—to get to read a translation that is still in process, not worked out as a whole cloth. Hadbawnik gives us an Aeneid that is once again disestablished, dislocated from Troy, from Empire, exposed in its embarrassments as having underwritten empire for so long, and that lives again as the site for other struggles.

Click here to read an interview with David Hadbawnik.