KU professor makes life’s work of translating classics
He interpreted the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” two of the great classic poems of all time. Now Kansas University professor Stanley Lombardo has translated Virgil’s “Aeneid,” completing a quest that began when he was a teenager.
But Lombardo’s translation – recently released by Hackett Publishing Co. – isn’t a verbatim conversion into English. It is an art all of its own
“It’s like a spiritual struggle,” Lombardo said of the translation process. “You know somehow it’s there. You can’t find it within yourself.”
Like creating a painting, translation is painstaking work. It can take an hour – at a computer, in a coffee shop or at home – for Lombardo to translate 10 lines. In the case of the Iliad, there are 16,000 lines.
The key is to find the original author’s voice and to fuse that with your own, Lombardo said. And that isn’t always easy.
Lombardo labors to create believable voices and to use contemporary American language that is respectful of the original text.
“It’s got to be a page turner,” he said. “The idea is to bring the poems to life, not to embalm them.”
Retired KU classics professor Betty Banks said translation requires being true to the text, while making it speak to a contemporary audience.
“It’s creating a new work of art out of an old work of art,” she said.
Lombardo also performs his translations – sometimes to the music of a folk harper, sometimes to the beat of a single drum. Audio versions of Lombardo’s translations will be released in March.
“I’m telling the story and becoming the characters and creating some rhythmic trance,” he said.
Cassandra Barrett, 12, attended a recent Lombardo reading.
“It was exciting,” Cassandra said. “It wasn’t just cold reading. It was a lot of really emotional stuff. : His word usage: it was really vivid and colorful. It made it easier to picture in your mind.”
Cassandra’s father, Ron Barrett, also attended a reading.
“When he got done reading, the audience sat there in stony silence because they were so shocked by his words,” Barrett said.
Lombardo’s love for poetry began when he was a teenager. He spent his career mastering Greek and Latin, studying poetry, and immersing himself in the history and stories of the classics. That work, he said, enabled him “lock eyebrows” with the original writer.
“You know it so well, you can get beyond the language to the mind,” he said.
With his life’s work complete, Lombardo has felt a little blue. He filled the void with a new translation venture: Dante.
That, he said, should keep him busy for awhile.