Latin is in equal measure an amazing and an exasperating language, and Virgil is one of its most amazing and exasperating writers. My gob was well and truly smacked when I came across this passage, lines 725-29 of Book II of the ‘Aeneid’:
ferimur per opaca locorum,
et me, quem dudum non ulla iniecta movebant
tela neque aduerso glomerati examine Grai,
nunc omnes terrent aurae, sonus excitat omnis
suspensum et pariter comitique onerique timentem.
David West’s translation in Penguin Classics gives:
. . . we moved along, keeping to the shadows. This was the man who had been unmoved by all the missiles of the Greeks and had long faced their serried ranks without a tremor, but now every breath of wind frightened me and I started at every sound, so anxious was I, so afraid both for the man I carried and for the child at my side.
That’s a great piece of translation, which both captures the sense of the Latin and puts it into credible English. What it doesn’t do, and what no translation can do, is reveal the complexity of the original.
The first line is a simple enough clause. In a literal translation, ferimur = ‘we are borne along’ and per opaca locorum = ‘through (the) dark (of) places’. The next four lines are a coordinate clause. The object is me, that is the hero Aeneas. This being Latin, we have to trawl through the clause until we find the verb and the subject. We find two verbs in fact, the plural terrent and the singular excitat, as well as their subjects omnes < > aurae and sonus < > omnis, both either side of the verb, in the fourth line. So, we have the bare bones of the clause:
All breezes omnes aurae) frighten (terrent) me, every sound (sonus omnis) startles (excitat) me.
But there’s more. Me is modified by the relative clause introduced by quem. The me that is frightened and startled is the me who for long (dudum) not any hurled weapon (ulla iniecta < > tela) nor the assembled Greeks (glomerati < > Grai) in a hostile swarm (aduerso < > examine) would unruffle (movebant). Me (Aeneas) is further modified in the last line by the adjective suspensum and the present participle timentem, both in the accusative because they modify the object me. So, Aeneas is ‘anxious and at the same time fearing for my companion (his son) and my burden (his father being carried on his back).’
On top of all that, Virgil had to ensure that his lines fitted the metrical requirements of the Latin hexameter. Oh, and tell a story about the founding of Rome. And flatter the emperor Augustus. Oh, yeah, and use the gods to raise the philosophical question of free will. And no word processor, just papyrus or wax tablets.