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PRINCETON, N.J. - For the past decade, professor emeritus Robert Fagles has kept a Barrington's Atlas on the desk in his study, open to pages showing the Greek isles, the Italian coast and the surrounding Mediterranean, a region sailed in history by many and in legend by the Trojan warrior Aeneas.
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You could fill a shelf with translations of "The Aeneid," from John Dryden's edition in the 17th century, to modern volumes by Robert Fitzgerald and Allen Mandelbaum. But if Fagles' long-awaited version sells like his editions of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," it will eventually be known to hundreds of thousands of readers, by choice and by assignment.
"His diction is lofty, yet without seeming archaic or stilted," says Dr. Robin Mitchell-Boyask, chair of the department of Greek, Hebrew and Roman Classics at Temple University.
The 73-year-old Fagles, thin and slightly stooped in appearance, but rhythmic and precise in speech - the kind of scholar who calls a reporter to apologize for misquoting Tennyson - was interviewed recently on a rainy afternoon, in a winding, 1950s-era house he shares with his wife, Lynne.
Fagles says that Virgil's epic of the founding of Rome was a natural successor to his work on "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," just as "The Aeneid" was Virgil's sequel to Homer's narratives about the Trojan war. "The Aeneid" took around the same time to complete as Fagles' previous translations, but proved the greater challenge, not only because of age but because of language.
He feels grateful just to see "The Aeneid" published. Virgil, who lived in the first century B.C., worked on his masterpiece near the end of his life and died without completing it, urging that the text be destroyed. Fagles, too, wondered if he would finish his work.
"I know that even when I started on 'The Iliad,' I thought I was pressing my luck. I didn't know if I would live through it; it's a question on anybody's mind when you take on a 10-year project," he says.