How to give a 21st century reader a sense of the landscape, rural Italian and literary, and of the melodious feel of Virgil’s Latin texts, while keeping these poetic texts intact as texts?
Translating Virgil’s Eclogues as poems, as self-standing literary works in their own right, poses the question of how much explanation of that context to provide. My translation practice strives not to be so much scholarly and historically oriented (an approach of many uses but one that often calls for accommodations not always in the service of poetic production) as to represent the texture and contours of Virgil’s Latin in an early twenty-first century American idiom and via a landscape analogous to the ancient Mediterranean pastoral setting of sheep and goats and cattle and their keepers envisioned in the Eclogues. Said landscape is a rural countryside of fields and trees and sputtering creeks under blazing summer sunlight in Northern California known as the Delta, a region formed by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. It is dusty, silty, brutally hot in summer, bone-boring gelid in winter; it is farm country, crop lands, vineyards, horses in front yards and cattle grazing on hillsides, sheep and goats chomping yellow brown weeds and dead grass.
The Eclogues’ themes of pastoral and its winsome voice for a lost beloved and appeal to the natural — albeit an idealized — world parallel the loss of the environment in the Delta today in the face of climate change and human development encroaching on nature. Exile from lands long held in the face of confiscation by a stranger from far away is a point of contention in Eclogue 1 in the soldier who, after serving in the emperor Augustus’ campaigns, was given land that had belonged to long-time residents like Meliboeus, as is speculated to have occurred to Virgil’s own family holdings in Mantova in Cisalpine Gaul. This theme resonates for today’s California Delta, where the construction of tunnels to transport the region’s water to Southern California portends the flooding of farmland and evokes questions of “whose water, whose land, is this?”. The fourth Eclogue alike channels themes of loss and recuperation though rather from the perspective of rebirth, with the heralding of a miraculous child that is to usher in a new golden age.
The Eclogues‘ origins stem from a poetic and rarified context. An eclogue is literally something “selected” (from the Greek eklogē, “excerpt”) from something larger. Virgil’s Eclogues were also known as bucolics, from the Greek boukolika, “things pertaining to cows (and so cowherds and other herdsmen).” They are the first work of Latin literature that we know of made up of separate pieces. “Bucolics” itself is a term referring to the Idylls of the Hellenistic poet Theocritus, the model for Virgil’s Eclogues, and referring to pastoral poetry presenting the rustic country life of shepherds as one of composing verses and competing over them, often while being in love (requited or not). A line varying between four to six beats suits the conversational exchange between Eclogue 1’s two speakers and is put to use for the prophetic tones of Eclogue 4.
These two Eclogues are a select two out of Virgil’s collection of ten and representative of the concerns of his “excerpts” in their self-contained poetic utterance of loss — of something, of someone loved — in a natural landscape that is a little more artificial than at first meets the eye.