Hadbawnik on Translating Virgil: ‘An Exercise in Failure’

In News by Dennis Abrams

‘A blurring of lines between the acts of invention and translation’ is part of the experience for the translator who grapples with Virgil.
Virgil tomb inscription (Image: Schoen at English Wikipedia)

Virgil tomb inscription (Image: Schoen at English Wikipedia)

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘Virgil’s Alive in the Poem’
AAsymptote, Daniel Remein interviews poet, translator and scholar David Hadbawnik, whose “study of pre-modern language and literature and interest in 20th-century avant-garde poetics yields an enviable literary intelligence.”

Hadbawnik is based in San Marcos, Texas, and is pursuing an MFA in poetry. He’s publisher at Habenicht Press, which states as its mission, “to publish work by young poets who haven’t yet had a full-length book out,” along with more established writers’ small works that need publication.

Hadbawniks’ new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (Shearsman, 2015), which, Remein says, “pushes the discussion of his interrelated practices of translation, poetics, and scholarship into contemporary debates in each of these fields.”

In his comments to Remein, Hadbawnik says, “I feel the poetry I’m working on is alive; Virgil’s alive in the poem. I want to treat it like it’s a living thing and be in conversation with it, and with lots of other poems too, all the poems it has touched and influenced and which have touched and influenced me.”

Here are some highlights of Hadbawnik’s email correspondence with Remein, which begins with Remein asking if the translator might feel less adventurous working on a less iconic text.

David Hadbawnik

David Hadbawnik

“Translating the Aeneid is an exercise in failure, and I want to fail in new and interesting ways. What I mean by that is there’s no way to get it ‘right.’ You’re not going to translate a poem of this magnitude once and for all. Having encountered it in the Latin as a medievalist, and alongside Medieval Latin texts, as you suggest, put Virgil in that context for me; certainly the poem looms over everything about the medieval world that we study, from the cultural heritage to the epic structure to the language and legends that make up the poetry.

“In that way, the Aeneid is almost a medieval text; or at least, I feel as though I can use my medievalist training as a cat’s paw to pull it closer than it would be if I were viewing it as a strictly ‘classical’ poem…

“Would I be less adventurous translating a relatively obscure Medieval Latin text? Yes, I would probably feel more of a burden to preserve whatever of the author’s intention I could discern, and stick closer to the form and structure.”

Remein asks about “the mechanics of your process in experimenting with ‘whatever keeps things moving.'” Says Hadbawnik:

aeneid-cover-lined“Nabokov would hate my Virgil and probably Meyer’s Beowulf and many of the other translation-adaptations that tend to take liberties with the source text, too. In his description of translating Pushkin, he analyzes the rhyme and meter and carefully determines what would be permissible to do or not do in English; he rejects polysyllabic rhyme, for example, since, ‘if in Russian and French, the feminine rhyme is a glamorous lady friend, her English counterpart is either an old maid or a drunken hussy from Limerick,’ meaning in English polysyllabic rhyme is only used for bawdy or comic effect. He points out that Russian poets of the period were influenced by English poets, but filtered through French; thus, the translator,’while seeking an idiom in the Gallic diction of Pope and Byron, or in the romantic vocabulary of Keats, must constantly refer to the French poets.’ And so on.

“What becomes clear is that Nabokov wants translators to be all that the original poet was, and more. He wants translators to be fluent in the source language and idiom, the cultural references and other poets in other languages that influenced the verse, and wants them to know how to render all that as accurately as possible in the target language. …In other words, he wants them to be Nabokov.”

The full interview is here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.