Virgil : Eclogue IV, 18 - 20 (Flowers everywhere!)
Horace : Satires II 6, 80 - 81 (Town Mouse and Country Mouse)
Horace Odes I.v. 1 - 3 (Pyrrha)
Catullus 64, 112 - 115 (Theseus leaving the labyrinth)
Wooden Horse and Sea Serpents!
. . . . . ..but before the Trojans had time to follow his lead, their attention was drawn to the sea . . . . . . . .
Aeneid Book Two, lines 203-211
I hope that this approach will be useful for anyone who is trying to evaluate what it means to read some Latin poetry in translation. I have tried to show what effects Virgil has created in his poem : exploiting the special nature of Latin (an 'inflected' language) which does not rely on the order of words to convey meaning in the same way that English does. Words can be placed where they will be most effective in terms of sound patterms, creating suspense and building up a visual image in gradual steps.
I have also written a Word document which you can download to see several translations of this passage with some questions which are designed to provoke discussion on literary criticism.
Virgil begins the section with the words 'ecce autem' which mean '- but look!' so he is asking us to visualise a dramatic scene. The scene builds up before our eyes, with Virgil introducing new details in the order he wants us to imagine them. English does not have the same flexibility of word-order as Latin, so it is interesting to see how various translators have tried to create similar effects in English. Click here to download a sheet of different translations which can help you to decide which translation you would like to use yourself if you want to read the rest of the Aeneid.
- ecce autem - but look! (- what at? Scroll down to investigate: comments are underneath each illustration.)
- gemini - twin - (so there are two things?)
- a Tenedo - from the island of Tenedos
- tranquilla per alta - across the peaceful deep (we are looking at a lovely peaceful scene across the sea towards the island of Tenedos)
- horresco referens - I shudder as I remember! - (so is this not a happy memory after all?)
- immensis orbibus - with huge coils
- angues - snakes - (now at last we know what the twin things are : Virgil has kept us in suspense until the end of the second line, an effect which is impossible to recreate in an English translation because the word 'snakes' needs to come after its adjective 'twin'.)
- incumbunt pelago pariterque ad litora tendunt - they are lying heavily on the sea and heading towards the shore together (the first three syllables are really heavy, reflecting the meaning of 'incumbunt'.)
- pectora quorum inter fluctus arrecta - their chests reared up among the waves
- iubaeque sanguineae superant undas - and their blood-red crests are towering over the waves- (notice the sibilant 's' sounds which might make us think of snakes hissing or waves splashing)
- pars cetera pontum pone legit - the rest of them skims the sea behind- ('p-p-p' sounds like the splashing of the sea)
- sinuatque immensa volumine terga. - and they writhe their huge backs in a coil
- fit sonitus spumante salo. - a sound is made as the salt sea surges- (more strong 's' sounds, adding to the tension as the serpents arrive on the beach!)
This is a really graphic description of a terrifying scene. It is all the more powerful because of the gradual build-up from what at first seems to be a pleasant view, because we don't know the 'twins' are sea-serpents until the end of the second line, and because of the onomatopoeic sound effects. It is a great challenge for any translator to convey both the meaning and the atmosphere of this passage and most of them do in fact try to create at least the sound-effects.
How could anyone resist reading on from here?
What are the sea-serpents going to do? Are the Trojans safe? What happened next inspired one of the greatest Greek sculptures ever created, a Roman copy of which can be seen in the Vatican museum - and when it became apparent to the Trojans that the serpents had been sent by the goddess Minerva perhaps we should not be surprised that they decided to take the wooden horse into their city after all.
If you enjoyed looking at this section of poetry, do try the other pages in this section of the website!