There used to be a town in Missouri called Ferguson

I wasn’t going to write about this. Not now. Too much emotion, too much bitterness, too much frustration. Anything I write, I thought, is likely to bring down vilification from one side or another. Later, maybe.

Only, I had to. So much has happened, is happening, that cries out for a statement of conscience. I couldn’t leave it alone.

The undisputed fact is that an unarmed man was shot dead by a police officer. What is disputed, and hotly, is whether the killing was justified. Some eyewitnesses said he had his hands up, in a gesture of surrender; others apparently disputed that. On the face of it, it’s a case that begs for investigation in a public trial.

Normally, either the prosecutor would indict, or he would take the case to the Grand Jury, which would be given a summary of the evidence, hear a few witnesses, and make a decision that the case was worthy of further investigation: in short, an indictment based on the facts presented. Instead, in this case the Grand Jury heard an unprecedented amount of evidence, took months to reach a decision, and decided there was no probable cause for even a charge of involuntary manslaughter, a charge for which you can be convicted for causing a fatal accident by texting while driving.

What we got, instead of a public trial, was essentially a secret trial, the result of which was simply announced, a done deal, no recourse.

It seems the prosecutor, Robert McCullough, not a man known for his humility, wanted to dazzle everyone with his thoroughness; he has released a complete transcript of the proceedings. We can, he is saying, see for ourselves if we want to wade through endless pages of transcripts. None of this matters; Ferguson is burning tonight.

Why, you might ask, would people destroy the town they live in? True, there are the customary “outside agitators,” but they are thriving on the visceral anger of the residents; without it, they would fade away.

It’s about Michael Brown, the young man who was killed; and yet, it isn’t. People are killed, justly and unjustly, every day, and apart from people close to them, no one really cares. Although this killing is the direct cause of these events, it goes much, much deeper than that. It’s about a people who have been harassed and vilified for years upon years, and finally are taking no more.

Imagine a life, where you were stopped by police for the mildest of violations, where you were charged for crimes out of proportion to the general population. Imagine being stopped for simply walking down a street, and ordered to identify yourself and justify your presence. Imagine being carefully watched any time you enter a store in a mall. Imagine ordinary people avoiding eye contact regularly. Imagine being an automatic suspect any time something goes missing. Imagine that the police, who are sworn to protect you, were abusive and threatening, and that any encounter, no matter how trivial, could escalate into tragedy.

Imagine that your people are filling prisons in proportions far exceeding the general population. Imagine indictments far more frequent, almost automatic convictions, and sentences that are routinely longer than average. What would you call this?

In Ferguson, even traffic tickets are disproportionately issued to black residents. Do they just drive faster than white people? When I taught at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, I regularly drove through Ferguson on my way to work along Florissant Ave. The speed limit through town is 30 mph; I rarely saw anyone, myself included, go slower than 35, and usually it was closer to 40. Speeders were easy pickings. Under the circumstances, you’d think a normal distribution of traffic tickets would mirror the proportions in the population in general. Apparently, though, the biggest vehicular offense in Ferguson is DWB – Driving While Black.

Its polite name is profiling. Racism and oppression are other names that suggest themselves. Am I exaggerating? Ask any white person, and you’re likely to get a resounding yes. Ask any black person, any black person, and the answer will be quite different.

We live in a country where the attorney general of the United States was stopped while shopping at an upscale mall. Where the president of the country is regularly insulted in the most obscene ways. There is nothing, apparently, that a black person can do to completely escape being considered subhuman, and fair game for suspicion and innuendo.

This is what Ferguson is all about. This is why, no matter what anyone in authority says, there will be protest and violence. Because murdering a young black man for no reason is just what the police would do, in the minds of a people subjected to such humiliation for so long.

Lost in translation?

I’ve been thinking. About life, of course, but also about writing, and especially poetry, and how the whole point of it is to transmit something ineffable – paradoxically – using language. Of course, the best prose does exactly the same thing, but still, something about poetry is different. The lineage of poetry probably goes back to the moment language escaped from the present, and allowed us to consider things that were not immediately before us.  It goes back to the invention of metaphor, which can be seen as arising from the inadequacy of vocabulary.  Lucky for us, the human mind runs on analogy.

It is without doubt the oldest form of literature we have; I can say that quite confidently because of the unique role that meter, repetition, and rhyme play in memorization. There’s something in the structure of the mind that makes things stick better in structured verse than in plain prose. That’s why all those pithy sayings we live by are usually in handy little couplets.

Some of the earliest recorded literature, the epics of Homer, consist largely of memorized stories subsequently written down for posterity. Even today, there are places where the story teller presents his wares orally; I’ve seen them myself in the souks of North Africa. We listen to these stories, or we read them, and we are moved by them, sometimes profoundly. Homer, however, composed in the first half of the 8th century BCE, in a language that is no longer current in the form that he used. This raise the question of what exactly we are responding to when we read Homer. Even if you are able to read in the original Homeric Greek, it is certain that you miss some of the meaning, and certainly the nuance, that would have been obvious to the native speaker hearing the same work, because no one today is a native speaker, nor has anyone alive even learned the language from a native speaker. Even scholars have variable levels of skill; my own experience of reading ancient Greek is more akin to solving a difficult crossword puzzle than to reading. It involves a large dictionary, a stout drink, and a great deal of squirming and cursing, and even then I’m not sure I’ve got it right. More likely, like me, you read Homer in translation, and this is the problem I’ve been wrestling with.

To illustrate the problem, let’s look at the opening lines of the Odyssey, which I reproduce here in the original for those of you who can read it:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν:
πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὣς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ:
αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς Ὑπερίονος Ἠελίοιο
ἤσθιον: αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.
10τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν.

Here’s a more or less literal translation by A. T. Murray, from the Loeb Classical Library edition:

Tell me, muse of the man of many devices, driven far astray after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy. Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose minds learned, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the sea, seeking to win his own life and the return of his comrades. Yet, even so, he did not save his comrades, for all his desire, for through their own blind folly they perished – fools, who devoured the cattle of Helios Hyperion; whereupon he took from them the day of their returning. Of these things, goddess, daughter of Zeus, beginning where you will, tell us in our turn.

I’ll forgive you if you’ve dozed off; such is the introduction to Homer for many generations of students who used the Loeb series. By contrast, here’s how Robert Fagles renders the same passage:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove –
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed the all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will – sing for time too.

Better? Or just subtly different? One last version, by Stanley Lombardo:

Speak, Memory –
Of the cunning hero,
The wanderer, blown off course time and again
After he plundered Troy’s sacred heights.
Of all the cities he saw, the minds he grasped,
The suffering deep in his heart at sea
As he struggled to survive and bring his men home
But could not save them, hard as he tried –
The fools – destroyed by theior own recklessness
When they ate the oxen of Hyperion the sun,
And that god snuffed out their day of return.
Of these things
Speak, Immortal One,
And tell the tale once more in our time.

Well, that’s something different. But which of these translations is the best? To answer that, we need to decide what we mean by “best,” for the most poetically satisfying might not be the most accurately reflective of the original meaning. Let’s say that we want the translation to capture not just the literal meanings of the words, but their connotations as well, and something of the experience of 8th century BCE Greeks hearing this.

First, we have to imagine each of these translations recited at night, around a fire, with a drum keeping time, for that was the experience in Homer’s own time. Or recited formally, at a competition four centuries later in a public theater, which is how the citizens of Classical Athens would have experienced it.

Are you beginning to see the problem?

There are, of course, many layers of meaning in even rather bad poems, including those of which the poet himself is unaware.  The reader also brings a world of experience to the poem and adds, willy-nilly, layers never conjured in the original, either consciously or otherwise.  There are, in essence, a minimum of two separate acts of translation in a poem: from the heart of the writer to the paper, and from the paper to the reader. Throw in a completely different language, with different natural rhythms, and you have a challenge indeed. And how to translate the cultural experience along with the words?

Homer presents a particularly sticky problem in all these aspects, but he’s by no means unique. What got me thinking about all this was my attempt (still unrealized) to translate a rather straightforward poem of Federico Garcia Lorca, a poet writing in a language with which I am reasonably familiar, in a European context.

What to do: be as literal as possible, or try to capture the mood at the expense of literalism?

What do you think?