Translations of poetry in another language are often our only option. They tell us, sometimes more and sometimes less precisely, what the original “meant”, but can’t fully replicate it with all its subtleties, allusions, deliberate or accidental ambiguities and aural effects. Translating poetry is rather like trying to bake an identical copy of an elaborate cake using only a random few of the same ingredients. But, with all the inevitable problems, the best translations can be marvelous. For me, no English translation of Virgil’s Aeneid that I know is as good as the German poet Friedrich von Schiller’s version of Books 2 and 4, covering Aeneas’s account of the fall of Troy and the story of his catastrophic love affair with Dido. It does not mimic the original in style or metre, but has pace and energy, telling the story powerfully while also giving full expression to its moments of great pathos. It is a pity that Schiller did not translate more than these two books. Here is a selection, with links that will take you for comparison to the original Latin. The Latin and the German are both recited in the original with an English translation.
The Scene is North Africa. Following the destruction of Troy by the Greeks, the Trojan prince Aeneas and his followers are wandering the Mediterranean in search of a new home. Bad weather has blown them here, where the Phoenician queen-in-exile, Dido, is founding the city of Carthage, and makes them welcome. We know something that neither Dido nor Aeneas does: in centuries to come, the Carthaginians and Aeneas’s Roman descendants will fight long and bitter wars in which their very survival is at stake. Sitting at table, and invited by Dido to tell his story, Aeneas is recalling the fall of Troy.
A Trojan, Laocoon, sacrificing as the priest of Neptune, hears that the besieging Greeks have gone, leaving a huge wooden horse which his countrymen are considering bringing into the city: a force of Greeks is hidden inside. He delivers Laocoon’s warning.
Laocoon’s warning is wise, but he is terribly punished for it by two monstrous serpents, which destroy him and his sons before disappearing into the temple of Minerva.
The Trojans bring the horse into the city, where, under cover of darkness, the Greeks emerge and the sack of the city begins. Aeneas is visited by the ghost of the greatest Trojan warrior, Hector, son of King Priam, who urges him to escape with the city’s sacred relics.
Achilles, the greatest Greek fighter, is now dead, but his son Pyrrhus finds and kills King Priam in the royal palace.
Captivated by Aeneas, Queen Dido falls in love. Matters come to a head on a day when she and her retinue accompany Aeneas and his Trojans on a magnificent hunt.
It looks as though Aeneas might stay with Dido in Carthage, but the Gods send a stern command to remember that he has a mission of his own to found a new home that will grow to become the great city of Rome. Before he has told Dido, she learns that he is preparing to sail away and leave her. She is devastated.
The Trojans’ preparations continue.
Distraught, Dido has a great pile made of the possessions that Aeneas has given her. The intention is supposedly to burn them, but they become her funeral pyre as she stabs herself with Aeneas’s sword. She dies a lingering death. The scene is set for the struggle centuries hence between Rome and Carthage.