It’s been roughly five centuries since the Aeneid was first translated into English—but there’s no sign of the work getting stale. Classics professor Shadi Bartsch’s new translation is evidence enough.
Bartsch, who has taught at the University of Chicago for over 20 years, studies imperial Roman literature as well as Roman rhetoric and philosophy. In conversation with Anastasia Klimchynskaya of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, hosted by the Seminary Co-op, Bartsch explained what led her to translate the Aeneid, why she translated it the way she did, and what the work still has to teach us today.
A mythological account of Rome’s foundation, the Aeneid follows the hero Aeneas, who flees the ransacked Troy and eventually winds up in Italy, where he and the other Trojans make war upon the native peoples. In the meantime, however, Aeneas adventures across the Mediterranean, falls into a brief—and ultimately tragic—romance with Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and even descends into Hell. Perhaps the single most famous literary work of the Roman Empire, the Aeneid was left incomplete by the time of Vergil’s death in 19 B.C.E., with the poet requesting on his deathbed that the work be burned (this, of course, did not happen).
“There are many beautiful translations of the Aeneid out there,” Bartsch said, “but what I felt what they lacked was a sort of immediacy that is characteristic to Vergil.” Instead of overly poeticizing or lengthening the poem, Bartsch sought to imitate Vergil’s own language as much as possible. “I wanted to get as close to Vergil as I could,” she said, adding that “Vergil’s language is fascinating, metrical, and almost like reading a novel or something that pulls you along.” This led to her making the entire text metrical (Vergil wrote in dactylic hexameter, the meter most often popularly associated with Classical epics, such as Homer’s Iliad), with no more than six beats per line, ultimately leading to a very dense but readable text—a “good match for what Vergil was doing.”
Besides its being a fresh translation, Bartsch’s Aeneid also pays close attention to the cultural milieu in which Vergil was writing in order to help the reader better understand the work. The translation contains an extensive set of notes which help explain particularities, etymological context, and other noteworthy aspects of the poem which might be overlooked by or obscure to a modern audience.
Bartsch also touched on the relevance that the Aeneid still holds and the fact that it addresses issues which we still grapple with today—the relationship between origin stories and nationalism, colonization and its impact, and cultural prejudice. “These questions are fundamental, and the epic is very much concerned with them,” Bartsch adds. It is for this reason that the Aeneid can still be read as refreshingly modern. And in a time when Classical studies, philosophy, and imagery are increasingly co-opted—and corrupted—by the far right, it’s more important than ever to reclaim these texts.
“Whether we like it or not, at least up to the very recent past, the Classics have come with a certain sort of weight,” Bartsch said. “If we accept that they have had weight, we need to treat them as, in a sense, texts which we should use for their weight because other people are using them for their weight.”