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 Homer, however, composed in the first half of the 8th century BCE, in a language that is no longer current in the form that he used.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?