Sarah Ruden may appear an unlikely candidate to translate the Aeneid: She is the epic’s first female translator, a Quaker pacifist, and one who admits that she finds Virgil “difficult.” Building from these differences, her translation has earned critical acclaim. NRO’s John J. Miller talks with her about translating Virgil, grappling with the moral choices of war, and understanding how dead white men still have the power to speak to us in a way that intentionally “multicultural” literature can’t.
JOHN J. MILLER: Your translation of the Aeneid is widely praised — in The New Criterion, Richard Garner called it “excellent” and “often strikingly beautiful.” Yet in the preface, you write: “I find [Virgil] difficult just to read.” Really?
SARAH RUDEN: Virgil is hard. The first line of his first published work, the pastoral Eclogues, has got a colloquial word for “blanket” in it that was obtrusive enough for a Roman critic to make fun of. Yet the Eclogues, including that line, are wonderful. There are some hallucinatory lines I’ve woken up with at 3:00 a.m., as if I were feverish from a drug addiction. How else could they have launched his very prestigious career and impressed so many generations? He’s one of those authors who don’t get the response, “Whoopee! This is beautiful!” but instead, “How is he getting away with this? Why is it so beautiful? We’d like to deny that it is, but we can’t. Darn.”
MILLER: How hard was it to translate?
RUDEN: I had to sweat blood to make my way far enough inside this text to dare translate it; I could never assume that I knew what a familiar-looking word really meant or what effect a particular word order would have had to a Roman ear — though I’d already been studying Latin for a quarter century. I would go from a commentary to a big dictionary, and then, if I wasn’t satisfied that I understood, to a translation, and then maybe to another translation, and often I would do it all again.
I had to explore translating as clowning when I began work on the Aeneid in South Africa. I don’t drive, and I’m a Quaker, so I was going around on African public transport to do Quaker things. Try to handle an edition of the original Latin, three or four other books, and a notebook where it’s so crowded that if your lap is empty for a few minutes, somebody may sit on it. Maybe the only thought I ever shared with Virgil is, “Fine, people laugh at you, but it’s worth it.”
MILLER: You’re not exactly the first person to translate the Aeneid into English. What made you want to try?
RUDEN: I had to translate a major classic or find another career. Translating something less important than the Aeneid doesn’t help much with a livelihood. But I had divided feelings at first. At nineteen I had seized on Virgil’s Eclogues with a loopy teenage love. But I had a variety of distastes for the Aeneid. It’s a war poem, and I’m a Quaker pacifist. And a lot of the story is just hokey, and a lot of the tone bombastic or hysterical. These rhetorical faults, and killing as something well-intentioned people can do, only slowly came into perspective through a deeper experience of the exquisite language and the author’s superb balance of engagement and irony.
Working with the Aeneid did me a lot of good. I used to bear a cheap pacifist witness that is fairly typical — though not, I hasten to add, as typical among the Quakers and Mennonites with whom I hang out, and who should have been able to teach me better. But it took Virgil to persuade me that everything costs. If I want to be against war, I can’t just shoot off my mouth about it. I have to pay, as I do now: live in a small furnished apartment with a roommate, not own an appliance bigger than a humidifier that fits on a bookshelf, not even try to get a driver’s license but let roller-blades be my only thrill from wheels, not get married except to someone who’ll let me continue this sort of testimony.
Brand-new, politically correct literature is supposed to be liberating and empowering, but it’s the classics that allow someone marginal like me — a woman in a tiny religious sect, who spent ten years in Africa — to understand mainstream culture and take part in it, and to have a chance of influencing it in turn. The big classics wouldn’t last unless they persuaded a lot of different people of some set of realities, so I think anybody who wants to engage the world should engage seriously with these books. I just wish somebody had told me this, and told me when I was young. I spent way too much time in the ghetto of women’s Greek and Latin literature that people managed to build, containing merely love elegy and some brief etcetera.