I checked out The Aeneid from the library and read it today. I found it a bit easier to read than I'd expected (I guess I expected worse-than-Shakespearean language/turns of phrase) and then I realized that of course, it had been translated from Latin.

As I read through, I found kind of odd phrasing here and there, that made me wonder how different it was from the original text. I also found it really hard to discern the meter (apparently, it's written in dactylic hexameter) but would it have been easier to hear in the original language, and perhaps there was also more rhyme in the original?

Could there also have been "clever" pieces of writing, like puns and such, that you can't pick up in the language?

In short: how much was lost in translation? (My copy was the translation by Robert Fitzgerald.)

  • 3
    Fitzgerald's translation is in blank verse, i.e. unrhymed iambic pentameter. The original Virgil was in dactylic hexameter, but that doesn't translate well into English. And nobody rhymed anything in Latin until much later than Virgil.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 2:04
  • @PeterShor my ignorance is evident =) Thank you for the information.
    – auden
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 20:09
  • Meter in latin is based on long and short syllables rather than stress/accent. It's impossible to reproduce in English. In addition, Latin word order is fluid and many different figures of speech are because of this which are also hard if not impossible to reproduce. Rhyme is not really a thing in Latin, but there's so much more to reading it in the original language.
    – CHEESE
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 18:51
  • Note: a good translation will do something with all puns that it can, even when they don't translate easily. E.g. they might be converted into some other kind of pun. But some things typical of one language are just untranslatable.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 14:31

1 Answer 1


As I said in my comment above, Latin and English poetry are very different.  They both have multiple layers of depth and meaning, but in very different ways.  Firstly, meter in Latin is not based on stress but on long and short syllables.  This isn't even a thing in English, so a translation in meter is impossible.  Even translating it into an English meter is very hard, as well as stupid.  In addition, many poetic figures of speech in Latin are made possible by fluid word order, which is not available in English.  For example, while in English you could only say "he had a large basket of apples," in Latin you could say " large he had of apples basket."  This could emphasize not only the immense size of the basket (the space between large and basket) but also the fact that the apples are inside the basket.

I'll give you a quick example by glossing the first couple lines:

Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris

Arms and man I sing, of Troy who first from shores

Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit / littora

to Italy, by fate exiled, and Lavinian came shores

Obviously this order would not work in English, but there are reasons (other than fitting into the meter) why Vergil chose that order.  For example, the Troiae in line 1 is usually translated as "came from the shores of Troy" could, because of the word's placement between clauses, mean "the man of Troy"—Aeneas. The placement of venit (came) is also interesting and has some depth to it.

There are also differences in translation.  For example, Vergil uses two different words for "shore:" oris and littora. There must be some significance to this other than the fact that he had to fit it in the meter; I'm not sure what it is but it's certainly there. This is just a little bit of what was lost—the depth of everything, every placement and choice of every word, which is totally lost in English.

  • Excellent answer. One minor detail: are you sure oris could mean "mouth" here? Ora, orae means only coast, doesn't it? Os, oris means mouth, but then it would have to be a genitive, which wouldn't fit. // Oh, and I think stupid is a little bit harsh! It is possible and not entirely without merit, although the disadvantages you mention and suggest are, indeed, formidable. // Lastly, as to littora v. oris, it may be because the repetition of oris / oras in close proximity would be ugly, and/or metri causa.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 14:24
  • @Cerberus Ah, didn't realize this was ora not os, thanks. And the stupid--I think that adding in English meter is highly unnecessary and can only serve to make the translation less accurate. However, you're entitled to your opinion.
    – CHEESE
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 14:35
  • @Randal'Thor I'm pretty sure it can be Vergil or Virgil
    – CHEESE
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 14:38
  • 1
    Taking the philosophy in your answer to an extreme, one might conclude that nobody should ever translate poetry into another language as anything but prose. I disagree with this vehemently. But aside from that, good answer!
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 20:02
  • @PeterShor Well don't take it to an extreme then :-)
    – CHEESE
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 20:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.