Translating Rumor (Vergil, Aeneid 4.173-197)

Virginia Hargraves (’27) discusses the Rumor passage in Book 4 of the Aeneid, examining the recent translations of Shadi Bartsch and Sarah Ruden, then offers an adaptation of her own, based on “Rumor Has It” by Adele.

Sculpture of bird like figure wearing a Venetian style mask
Lindsey M Dillon, “Venetian Rumor”

Extemplo Libyae magnas it Fama per urbes,
Fama, malum qua non aliud uelocius ullum:
mobilitate uiget uirisque adquirit eundo,                                       175
parua metu primo, mox sese attollit in auras
ingrediturque solo et caput inter nubila condit.
illam Terra parens ira inritata deorum
extremam, ut perhibent, Coeo Enceladoque sororem
progenuit pedibus celerem et pernicibus alis,                              180
monstrum horrendum, ingens, cui quot sunt corpore plumae,
tot uigiles oculi subter (mirabile dictu),
tot linguae, totidem ora sonant, tot subrigit auris.
nocte uolat caeli medio terraeque per umbram
stridens, nec dulci declinat lumina somno;                                  185
luce sedet custos aut summi culmine tecti
turribus aut altis, et magnas territat urbes,
tam ficti prauique tenax quam nuntia ueri.
haec tum multiplici populos sermone replebat
gaudens, et pariter facta atque infecta canebat:                        190
uenisse Aenean Troiano sanguine cretum,
cui se pulchra uiro dignetur iungere Dido;
nunc hiemem inter se luxu, quam longa, fouere
regnorum immemores turpique cupidine captos.
haec passim dea foeda uirum diffundit in ora.                         195
protinus ad regem cursus detorquet Iarban
incenditque animum dictis atque aggerat iras.

“Immediately Rumor goes through the great cities of Libya, Rumor, an evil than which no other is swifter: she thrives with speed and gains strength by going, small with fear at first, soon she lifts herself into the air and walks on the ground and hides her head among the clouds. The Earth, provoked by anger against the gods, so they say, gave birth to her last as the sister of Coeus and Enceladus, quick on her feet and with nimble wings, a horrible monster, huge, who has as many feathers on her body, as there are  watchful eyes beneath (amazing to say), as many tongues, as many mouths are speaking, as many pricked up ears. She flies at night in the middle of the sky and the earth shrieking though the dark, her eyes do not close with sweet sleep; by day she sits as a guard either on the top of the highest roofs or on high towers, and alarms the great cities, holding on as much to false and evil things as to being a messenger of the truth. Now rejoicing she keeps filling the nations with various rumors, and she keeps singing true and untrue things equally: that Aeneas born from Trojan blood has come, beautiful Dido deigns to join herself to that man; now they are keeping the long winter warm together in luxury, forgetful of their kingdoms and captive to their shameful desire. The foul goddess spreads this on the mouths of men everywhere. At once she turns her course to King Iarbas and sets fire to his spirit with her words and increases his anger.”

In the fourth book of the Aeneid, following the metaphorical marriage between the Carthaginian queen and the Trojan hero, Vergil includes an extended depiction of Rumor personified as the goddess Fama. Rumor, described more specifically as a “foul goddess,” dea foeda, gleefully spreads the news of Dido and Aeneas’s private relationship through the city streets, inciting anger and unrest among their own people (4.195). As a result of Rumor’s wild and erratic behavior, Aeneas eventually comes to see Dido as a distraction and is reminded by the gods of his fate in Italy. Departing in secret from Carthage, Aeneas leaves behind Dido, who is so distraught from heartbreak that she abandons her role as queen and commits suicide while the Trojan fleet sails away from the Carthaginian shores.

Vergil opens this symbolic passage straightaway with a sense of urgency, using the Latin word extemplo, “immediately,” setting a frantic tone for the passage to follow (173). This is further emphasized in the next line with the comparative adjective velocius, “swifter.” Nothing one can match Rumor’s speed (174). Here, Vergil is already beginning to paint the image of Rumor as an uncontrollable creature who cannot be tamed. This portrayal of the goddess might also foreshadow the unfortunate future of Queen Dido, as both are compared to a female follower of Bacchus later in the epic. After Dido learns of Aeneas’s plan to leave Carthage in secret, she “runs wildly,” bacchatur through the city before confronting Aeneas (4.301). When Dido finally succumbs to her miserable state, Rumor is said to have similarly “run wildly,” bacchatur through the city, spreading the mournful news, acting as a dramatic echo of the dead queen’s actions (4.666).

Vergil also stresses the power of Fama as a deity, specifically noting her apparent omnipresence in the “skies,” auras and on the “ground” solo and among the “clouds” nubila (176-177). The polysyndeton in this line is what draws the reader’s attention to Rumor’s ability to seemingly be in a multitude of places at once because of her impressive speed and agility. Vergil uses various poetic devices throughout his entire epic, but this passage in particular is full of repetitions, most notably alliteration and anaphora, in addition to this example of polysyndeton. Not only does the phrase ira inritata almost exactly repeat in translation, meaning either “provoked by anger” or “angered by anger,” but it is also alliterated, producing a repetitive rhythm and tonal effect when spoken aloud (178). The repetition of tot, “so many,” or totidem, “as many,” in the list of Rumor’s descriptive traits, tot vigiles oculi…tot linguae, totidem ora…tot subrigit auris, is an example of anaphora in epic verse (182-183). These literary techniques and poetic devices, which are all repetitive in nature, stress the rhythmic pattern and verse of the epic while drawing attention to these specific phrases, many of which highlight the disturbing characteristics and actions of Rumor.

Vergil creates a suspenseful atmosphere to emphasize the direness of Aeneas’s situation in Carthage, where he is sidetracked from his fated journey to Italy. Rumor’s act of “shrieking,” stridens creates a palpable, almost audible sense of horror for the reader, distinguishing Rumor from mere gossip, which a contemporary audience might understand it as (185). This terrifying tone is also seen in Vergil’s direct description of Rumor as a “horrible monster,” monstrum horrendum, with the goddess personified as a female winged creature (181). In contrast, however, the other female figure present in this scene, Dido, is described as pulchra, “beautiful,” although to a Roman audience, her actions would perhaps seem like a distraction keeping Aeneas from his Trojan duty (4.192). Vergil therefore creates a connection between Rumor and Dido for the reader based on their egregious actions, despite the contrast in their outward appearances.

Vergil seems to be using personified Rumor to propel the storyline of his epic foreword, literally with the goddess’s speed. This section comes directly after what Dido understands to be her marriage to Aeneas, and already the goddess is polluting the streets of Carthage with this fact mixed with her own exaggerated “lies,” infecta (190). Although this relationship has somewhat just begun, Vergil is already alluding to its imminent collapse. While she may revel in falsehoods, Rumor eventually represents reality for both Dido and Aeneas when her deceitful behavior plagues both lovers by the end of book four. While attempting to leave Carthage in secret, Aeneas manipulates and deceives Dido, sending the heartbroken queen into a frenzy. Incited by Aeneas’s impious act, Dido similarly deceives Anna before taking her own life. This passage, therefore, ultimately builds the tension of the epic and creates a reference of what is to come with Rumor’s terrifying description and dishonest conduct.

In her 2021 translation of the Aeneid, Shadi Bartsch seeks to construct a “parallel experience” to Vergil’s epic poem in English (Bartsch 57). She believes that Latin “gives each translator a choice,” and she chooses to stay truthful to the original language, tempo, tone, metaphors, and verse of Vergil (52). The poetic device she seems most concerned with is alliteration, which she replicates frequently in her translation and uses to emphasize certain aspects of the analogy in English as Vergil does in Latin. Early in the passage she uses alliteration to contrast Rumor’s initial fear with her growing power, beginning as “small and scared” but building “speed” and “strength” as she flies (Vergil 175-176). This also resembles the typical course of daily gossip, which begins as an individual rumor but increases and strengthens as it spreads.

Another example of alliteration is Bartsch’s description of the goddess as “fast of foot and fleet of wing” while simultaneously being a “huge, horrific monster” (180-181). While “fast of foot” is very direct in word choice and meaning, “fleet of wing” is more ornate and complex. Already having used the word “fast,” Bartsch finds an alternate translation for speed while still fitting it into the alliteration of the phrase. Although Vergil does not alliterate the phrase monstrum horrendum, ingens, the Latin does have a rhythmic beat, especially in the first two words, which Bartsch retains by inverting the word order and alliterating the phrase, translating it as “a huge, horrific monster” (181).

Bartsch is also dedicated to preserving a similar tone of panic and alarm as Vergil, which she accomplishes through her animalistic word choice in this passage. Rather than the common meaning “lifts” or “raises” for attollit, Bartsch translates the phrase sese attollit in auras as “she rears to the skies” (176). The English verb “rears” typically only refers to animals, specifically horses, but in this case fits the actions of a wild bird. Another possible translation inferred from attollit could be “soars,” which offers a more bird-like quality to the passage (176). Bartsch returns to more characteristic descriptions of a winged creature with the verbs “screeching” for stridens and “perches” as a more specialized translation for the common Latin verb sedet (185-187). Although Vergil does not classify his comparison of Rumor to a specific bird species, his description of the goddess almost seems like that of a vulture or a similar bird of prey, exploiting and feeding on the secrets of Dido and Aeneas. By attempting to replicate the original meaning and meter of the poem directly into English, Bartsch successfully fosters a terrifying atmosphere almost identical to that of Vergil’s, which only intensifies the fear for the reader of the events to come later in the epic.

In contrast, Sarah Ruden’s methodology for her 2021 Aeneid translation seems to be taking each of Vergil’s lines or phrases and reimagining them in poetic English. She states that the most effective aspect of Vergil’s writing is its “Roman epic style,” but because English works very differently to Latin, she makes some alterations in her translation (Ruden 7). While Vergil frequently repeats the same Latin words as a common thread throughout the epic, Ruden believes this would come across as boring and monotonous in English, so instead she chooses to “vary the vocabulary,” using different translations for the same Latin word (8). Although the Aeneid is written in dactylic hexameter, Ruden uses iambic pentameter in her translation as it is more flexible with the English language (9). She seeks to embrace the sense of the Latin and the “flavor” of the Aeneid, rather than default to a word-for-word translation (10). By doing this, she is able to leave behind the expected, and often awkward, English translations for a more interpretive and aesthetic style reminiscent of Vergil’s extraordinary poetic abilities.

She too utilizes an abundance of alliteration in her translation with phrases such as “tiny and timid” and “sweet sleep,” as well as word repetition with phrases such as “quick-footed, quick-winged,” which resemble the alliteration of the original Latin: pedibus celerem et pernicibus alis (4.176–179, 185). But for the most part, Ruden seeks to completely reinterpret the Latin, like in the phrase “Her claws hold both true news and evil lies” for tam ficti pravique tenax quam nuntia veri (188), while the original Latin might literally translate to “holding on as much to false and crooked things as to being a messenger of the truth.” Ruden uses her liberty as a translator to alter the Latin to fit the grandiose style of her translation. In this phrase, Ruden’s most notable modification is translating the adjective tenax with the noun “claws,” adding to the passage’s bird-like imagery, rather than simply as “tenacious” (188). This rearrangement of the original passage displays Ruden’s frequent decision to completely depart from Vergil’s word choice and verse.

Ruden prefers a loftier, more exaggerated translation, often opting for rare or unusual word choices rather than the expected English translations. “A blaring mouth” for ora sonant not only alters the number from plural “mouths” to singular, but the verb becomes an adjective describing the one “mouth” (183). “Blaring” is also a slightly jarring translation for sonant, which is typically understood to mean either “speaking” or simply “making a sound.” Similarly, for the Latin word populos, with its clear English cognate “people,” she chooses the more mythical and outdated word “realms” (189). While Shadi Bartsch uses her liberty as a translator to remain as faithful as possible to the original Latin, emulating Vergil’s tone by attempting to directly copy his words into English without losing his meter or meaning, Sarah Ruden disregards the details of Vergil’s Latin to reproduce the magnificent style and heroic design of the Aeneid in reimagined English. With her over-the-top, dramatic translations, Ruden creates an atmosphere of fantasy and magnificence suitable for an epic poem full of legends, battles, and fated destinies.

Re-written Verse Translation – Aeneid 4.173-197

[Based on “Rumour Has It” by Adele from the perspective of Italy, personified]

“Now Rumor has it” that you’ve forgotten your path,

You’re giving into Dido and her beautiful wrath.

“Haven’t you heard the rumors” that are filling the streets?

They know you as Aeneas, a hero despite the Greeks.

“Now Rumor has it” that “you’ve got your head in the clouds,”

That you’ve forgotten your kingdom, that’s what’s heard in the crowds.

That Dido wants to marry you, says Rumor flying swiftly,

But please don’t forget, Aeneas, that “you and I have history.”

“Now Rumor” sings these tales (so amazing to say),

But “she is a stranger,” boy, don’t give your fate away.

“All these words” the quick goddess does “whisper in my ear,”

Although her image makes it hard to have faith in what I hear.

“Now Rumor has it” that “she made a fool out of you,”

Exposing all your winter plans madly as she flew.

Speeding ‘round at night, all I see is gleaming eyes,

But when it comes to gossip, well, “she’s got it all” in the skies.

“Now Rumor has it” Dido melts your heart, “cold to the core”

Now Rumor reaches Iarbas and she brings the heat some more.

Although she has the beauty, and I guess that’s why you “strayed,”

“Is that really what you want,” Aeneas, what of the Trojan name?

Works Cited

Bartsch, Shadi, translator. The Aeneid. By Vergil, Random House, 2021.

Ruden, Sarah, translator. The Aeneid. By Vergil, Yale University Press, 2021.

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