Politics & Policy

Not Dead Yet

How Virgil guided one Quaker through the hell of war.

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. NROs 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 cant.

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.”

#ad#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. 



MILLER: Are you saying that as much as you abhor war, the Aeneid helped you realize that sometimes it’s an unavoidable necessity?

RUDEN: Well, it’s not nearly as direct as Virgil persuading me that, in any particular instance, the Romans had to fight, or had to fight the way they did. He’s a persuasive author, but nobody’s that persuasive.

The Roman Empire was brutal, in many self-defeating ways. I’m editing a volume of Julius Caesar’s commentaries on his campaigns in Gaul, and that text shows that the Roman army in new territory was systematically rounding up as many of the inhabitants as it could catch and torturing them until their stories matched. It was a brilliantly efficient way of gathering information in the short term, but you can imagine how the resistance and violence escalated over time. More than a hundred years later, another historian, Tacitus, has a rebel leader shouting to his followers, “They create a desert, and they call it peace!”

#ad#But that very kind of passage (and you find the same kind even in Caesar, who’s supposed to be “propagandistic,” as well as in the Aeneid, which I hope is getting over accusations of being little better) encapsulates the brilliance of Greco-Roman literature in showing other points of view and, ultimately, other possibilities. It was this rhetorical, flexible thinking that allowed Paul of Tarsus to attack the worst of Greco-Roman culture from the inside — getting people to look at pederasty from the point of view of boys, slaves, and male prostitutes, for example.

It’s about imagination, and this is why it was Virgil especially who helped me. Once you’ve confronted,  through an author like him, the tragedy, the full horror or human nature, you cry for a while, but then you cheer up and wonder what you can do with what you understand. And for a pacifist, it works both ways. There are usually many, many solutions besides killing someone. But you have to be prepared to confront your own orthodoxy, too. A friend of mine in Cape Town, shortly before she resigned as a Quaker, fretted that we weren’t allowed to be rude about Robert Mugabe. Quakers in Africa had been excusing violence by Africans for decades — now they were full of compunction and sanctimony, and horrified at any “verbal violence,” when their own pacifist connections, Africans dedicated to uplifting Africa, were being raped and enslaved, and tortured, and killed? It was idiotic. 

MILLER: Would the Aeneid be better if Virgil had finished it?

RUDEN: It’s hard to imagine how a finished work would have been better. The remaining twelve books, according to later sources, were going to be about the war ending and the Julian dynasty becoming established. But this existing story is cool for ending where it does. An essential thing about a classic is that it is just handed to us to struggle with, like life. It serves our freedom and dignity by allowing us to make up our minds about most of the meaning. 

The most esteemed Greek tragedies end almost this way, right after the climax. You might get a summary of what has happened, but you don’t get everything tidied up. Critics from Aristotle onward have disliked an author barging in as a fixer. The deus ex machina is the oldest manifestation of this attitude: It declares, “I, the author, am telling you what fate is like and what the gods are like, and assuring you that virtue and suffering will always be rewarded, in spite of what the myth and your own experience tell you.”

It’s not clear that Virgil would have produced a Roman version of this, but I bet it would have been tempting to give the second half more ideological force than the first half had. This is the endemic disease of sequels, which I first noticed in reading Little Men by Louisa May Alcott. Little Women was interesting: tragic, full of disappointment and stupidity and compromise; it was believable. In the sequel, a lot of mawkish puppets were acting out Alcott’s father’s educational theories. It’s not just a phenomenon of the movies, but goes clear from the later Euripides to the later Tarzan episodes, where Jane and Boy create a mid-fifties suburban jungle treehouse. 



MILLER: Why should people even bother with Virgil today? Isn’t he just a dead white male?

RUDEN: Well, I have an intense and intimate relationship with literature. I look in an author for some of the things I look for in a friend or a lover. Most of the authors I choose are dead and white, which makes sense. They are privileged. Their own grievance is small enough to be put aside, so that they can take in what’s happening around them. Who wants to live with somebody who can’t do this?

Put more bluntly, why would I live with someone who treats me like a moron, as if I can be entertained and instructed, and asked to give something meaningful in return, by someone with nothing in her brain but the mean things done to her or her ancestors? 

#ad#Virgil would have been stumped to be told that someday a woman would translate him, but he respected me much more than race-gender-class authors do, by respecting the complexity of the world, which is a respect for all possibility. Worrying about him being dead, white, and male is like worrying about the gender, color, and mortality of the Labrador who pulls me out of a lake and saves my life. For me, having something to think about is life. 


MILLER: What’s the point of learning a dead language such as Latin? Isn’t it more useful to study Spanish or Chinese?

RUDEN: I picture the peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who squeaks, “But I’m not dead yet!” and “I’m feeling better!” and “I think I’ll go for a walk now!” to keep from getting loaded onto the cart with all the actual corpses. Only a deliberate whap on the head kills him. 

Who says this language is dead? Is literature dead? Is the West dead? Check in early next year, when my book on Paul of Tarsus comes out, and see how reading the “dead” language of Koinē Greek can challenge what is actually dead in us.

I would never claim, however, that the modern languages and modern world literature aren’t important, and that we should study Latin and Greek in any exclusive way. I spent a whole year on Serbo-Croatian and Modern Greek, and I visited Yugoslavia twice when it still existed. I did almost nothing with African languages, just picked up a little Dutch Afrikaans, because through German that’s easy; but not learning Xhosa or Zulu is my biggest regret from that time.


A huge mistake the Romans made was that Greek was the only foreign language they studied: They were interested only in their own and a closely related culture. After the era when classical Greek and Alexandrian literature were new to them, Romans didn’t get any cross-fertilization, with the result that by the late Empire, they had nothing interesting to say, and all of the good authors were from Spain or North Africa or elsewhere on the edges. We can do better than that. When I talk about “politically correct” literature, I mean the phony American multiculturalism that asserts, “Because I’m an oppressed American, oppressed by whatever funky standards I care to apply, my point of view is from the center of the galaxy and reaches 360 degrees.” 


#ad#MILLER: Let’s let Virgil have the last word, via Ruden. Would you care to share a favorite passage? 

RUDEN: I like the Book 5 ship race, or as I call it, “Studs in Boats”: 

The young men of the crews wore poplar garlands.

Their shoulders glistened with the oil rubbed on.   135

They sat and took a tight grip on the oars,

Keen for the signal; throbbing trepidation

And greed for praise clutched at their leaping hearts.

The trumpet blared, and instantly they sprang

Over the line. Their shouting struck the sky.    140

Their arms drew back, they whipped the sea to foam.

The ships cut trenches in a row. The surface

Split with the force of oars and trident beaks.

Never at such a breakneck pace have chariots

Poured from the gates and torn along the course,   145

Their drivers shaking free the waving reins

And bending forward to apply the whip.

Then the whole forest roared with the applause

Of partisans. The deep-set bay sent voices

Rolling, and shouts sprang off the stricken hills.   150

First Gyas slipped ahead across the waves,

Beyond the crowded clatter. Then Cloanthus

Pursued him, but the heavy pine hull hampered

His better crew. The Centaur and the Whale,

An equal space behind, struggled for third place.   155

Now the Whale has it, now the giant Centaur

Passes him, now the two prows shoot in tandem,

With long salt furrows trailing from the hulls.

Now they approached the rock, their turning post.

Gyas was leading still, the halfway victor.    160

He shouted to Menoetes at the helm:

“Why are you headed so far right? Turn this way!

Keep to the shore. Your oars should graze the rocks.

The rest can sail the sea.” But still Menoetes

Feared hidden rocks and swerved out to the deep.   165

“Where are you going? Toward the rocks, I said!”

Yelled Gyas. Looking back, he saw Cloanthus

Gaining–and circling closer to the shore,

Between his own ship and the sounding cliffs.

He scraped his way through, quickly passed the leader–  170

Beyond the turning post he reached safe waters.

Fury flamed in the other captain’s young bones.

Tears on his cheeks, forgetting dignity

And safety, he threw circumspect Menoetes

Out of the lofty stern into the sea.     175

He himself took the helm now, as the pilot,

Urged on the men and swung the rudder shoreward.

Menoetes (in a while) escaped the sea floor,

Old as he was and hampered by his wet clothes.

He climbed the rock and settled on a dry ledge.    180

Trojans had laughed to see him fall and swim,

And now they laughed to see him spewing brine.

Sergestus and Mnestheus, who were last,

Were thrilled–they might pass Gyas as he lingered.

Sergestus pulled ahead–but it was only     185

By half a length–as he approached the rock.

Alongside skimmed the Whale’s competing prow.

Menesthus paced amidship, rallying

His crew. “Heave! Throw your whole strength into it!

Comrades of Hector, allies whom I chose     190

In Troy’s last crisis: show the strength and courage

That served you on the sandbanks of the Syrtes,

The Ionian seas, and savage Malean waves.

I don’t demand the glory of first place.

(And yet–no, Neptune, you must choose the winner.)   195

But last–! Humiliation! That at least

We must avoid.” They made a flat-out effort.

The bronze-beaked ship was trembling with the blows.

The surface slipped away, their panting shook

Arms, legs, and dry mouths. Sweat flowed down in streams.  200

It was mere chance that brought the men their triumph.

Sergestus in his fervor drove his prow

Close to the rock–an inside, risky passage–

And caught disastrously on jutting outcrops.

His oars struck those rough edges with a crunch.   205

The prow was rammed and hung above the water.

With shouts, the crew sprang up and steadied her,

And took out pointed rods and poles enforced

With iron to fish back their broken oars.

Mnestheus, even keener in his good luck,     210

With a swift sweep of oars and prayers to the winds,

Sped to the shore across the open water,

Like a dove startled from her darling nestlings

Hidden among the crannies of the cave

That is her home. She bursts out with a clatter    215

And makes for the fields. But soon she glides through air

That’s calm and clear, and stills her rapid wings.

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