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New translation of 'Aeneid' restores Virgil's wordplay and original meter

The Roman poet Virgil spent the last 11 years of his life writing the "Aeneid," an epic poem of a hero's journey from Troy to Italy, styled on Homer's "Odyssey" and "Iliad."

Frederick Ahl, Cornell professor of classics and comparative literature, has published a new translation for Oxford University Press, in an effort of labor that rivals Virgil's.

"It took me longer, actually -- I wasn't being supported by the emperor," Ahl said. "I just love the work and have ever since I was a child. But it's taken me most of my life to understand it."

What distinguishes this "Aeneid" is Ahl's use of Virgil's original meter and his line-by-line restoration of the poet's wordplay, an element often lost in translation.

"The Romans loved puns and anagrams, which translators tend not to translate," Ahl said. "In our thinking, if something is funny it cannot in any way be serious. But the ancients found that humor and earnestness went side by side. Almost all life contains the elements of the humorous and the pathetic and the touching -- and an epic poem certainly does."

Virgil created something like a symphony, Ahl said, except with "all the music notes for a score on one line."

"The wordplay, the puns and anagrams, are the pivotal chords that enable the poet to change register and to set up multiple resonances simultaneously. And if we ignore these multiple resonances then we are doing something akin to playing Beethoven on a tin whistle."

Ahl was committed to do justice to Virgil and his literary masterpiece.

"The most unforgivable thing about a translation is to be boring, and anyone who makes a great work boring is doing it a disservice," he said. "The 'Aeneid' is a very complicated study of power [and] a tremendously vibrant study of ambition, the madness of human dreams and the beauty of life, set within the craziness and the forces of nature that humans generate about them."

Virgil's epic, Ahl said, "is faceted like a diamond. What one sees is dependent on the light you hold it under. His lines aren't words that simply tumble out in a sort of psychedelic freefall. The writing of the 'Aeneid' was done with minute precision by Virgil."

Ahl's use of Virgil's dactylic or "heroic" hexameter in English has aroused some puzzling comment, he said.

"I've been assured by several professorial colleagues that one can't write hexameters in English. Perhaps this is simply a rude way of saying that they do not like the hexameters I have written, since I've written thousands of hexameters in the course of translating the 'Aeneid.' The hexameter is a very good meter for reading aloud," Ahl said, mentioning the oft-recited poetry of Rudyard Kipling, Robert W. Service and Eric Ormsby.

Ahl said he tried "to create a translation that was as literal as possible," staying close to the original Latin and still providing a good read in English.

"It's very important that translations of ancient poetry should be written so that they can be recited aloud," Ahl said. Students frequently "don't get a sense of what the original rhythm and the sound of the original are until they get at least some practice in reading the text aloud," he said.

Ahl has also written new theatrical versions of the "Oedipus" tragedies by both Seneca and Sophocles, which were staged at Risley Theater. He is writing a book on Gilbert and Sullivan, "mostly on Gilbert and the genius of his writing," he said. "Gilbert writes the same way that Virgil and Sophocles write. The common thread is that everything is logically interconnected."

A paperback edition of Ahl's "Aeneid" comes out in July, and Ahl plans to record a reading of it for compact disc. But this is hardly the last word on Virgil's classic, he said.

"There is much more yet to be found out about it, because its circuiting and design are so intricate," Ahl said. "I've been able to make some progress, but I feel there is still much more to be done with it."

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