Achilles who?

Years ago, when I was traveling in Morocco, I was fascinated by the story tellers who plied their wares in the souks of the ancient cities. It was radio, television and the news all rolled into one bright, vivacious package.

The story tellers would begin something formulaic, and gradually work in current events and other things the audience would be familiar with.

They worked for tips, and if you were generous, you could get your name added to one of the stories in the teller’s repertoire. If you were particularly generous, you could get a story custom made, with you as the main character.

Years later when I was studying Homer’s epics, it occurred to me that what I had seen in Morocco was directly descended from that tradition. There’s a long-standing debate about who Homer was, or if he even existed, but what’s clear is that the poems attributed to him were written down in the early 8th century BCE, just about contemporaneous with the development of writing itself in ancient Greece. Before that they were a part of the rich tradition of story telling in the agoras of Greece. Analysis of Homer’s poems reveals his use of standard structures and characters from older traditions. The stories themselves relate to the Trojan War, which seems to have happened near the end of the 12th century BCE.

This all got me thinking about Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, and the most fearsome of all the Greek warriors. For a hero, he was not much of a bargain. The story is that, on the way to lay siege to Troy on a trump-up grievance, the Greeks sacked a few minor cities here and there, apparently just to pass the time. In one of these attacks, Achilles kidnapped a woman with whom he became enamored. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and the commander-in-chief of the Greek expedition, decided to take her for his own.

Achilles was furious, and, in revenge, spent almost the entire war, which lasted ten years, sulking in his tent while his comrades were getting slain and wounded. It was only after his friend and probable lover, Patroclus, was killed that Achilles roused himself and joined the fray, killing Hector, crown prince of Troy, and the killer of Patroclus.

For my money, Hector was a much more admirable character for a number of reasons; go read the Iliad for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean. I recommend Stanley Lombardo’s translation.

So why focus on Achilles? True, he was a formidable fighter when roused, but mostly he’s portrayed as a pouting adolescent nursing his pride.

Unless, of course, a contemporary of Homer, co-incidentally named — drumroll — Achilles, promised to fork over a generous fee to get put into the Iliad as the main character.

Perhaps this Achilles promised more than he ended up paying. Never cross a poet!

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.
Speak
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?

Wilderness revisited

It’s a crazy world.  The other day, I decided to go for a walk; it was the first gorgeous day after a period of rain, and utterly irresistible.  I ended up at the city library, one of those Carnegie structures so ubiquitous in small and medium towns across America, a millionaire’s atonement for ravaging society, back when such people even cared.  This particular one sits in a little park with a bandstand and a monument to a parents’ grief for their soldier son, killed in action.  It has the added virtue of offering coffee from one of those Keurig pod machines for fifty cents.  Pretty good coffee, too, and you get entertained by the myriad characters that hang around such places.

It was, as I said, a beautiful day, so I took my coffee outside, to sit by the fountain donated by another benefactor to the glory of his family.  It was windy, so it was just as well the fountain was off.

Just as I settled in, I heard an animal running somewhere behind me, a large dog, I thought.  As it passed in front of me, though, I was startled to see a young deer bounding headlong toward the midday traffic.  It’s not a huge town, but the streets along the park run to four lanes, and I worried that the deer wouldn’t make it without getting pancaked against a cement truck.  No problem.  In a flash, it cleared six lanes, including a side street, and disappeared into an adjacent church parking lot.

Now, those with a mystical bent might see an omen of some kind here.  Me, I just reflected on the fact that our town, these days essentially just a suburb of St. Louis, has grown very rapidly, outstripping its sleepy county seat days, and leaving nearby wildlife precious little room for, well, wild life.  Ironically, as habitat shrinks, so does the taste for hunting among the minions of the town, now pretty much gentrified and unused to killing their own food.  Canada geese, which used to pass here twice a year during migration, now stay year round in the many ponds dug for all the wilderness-sounding suburbs (Iron Mountain Lake, Notting Hills Forest, etc.).  People complain about the scat, but eating the birds is illegal, so they thrive.  As do wild turkeys, of all things, frightening toddlers in their own yards.

This is happening all over the country, as demographic studies continue to show the increasing urbanization of America.  At least we don’t have bears where I live; that would, indeed, be a portentous omen.

I suppose the upshot is that wherever you might find omens, there is usually a practical element involved as well.  I’m reminded of a student I had while doing archaeology on the island of Ithaka, in Greece.  It was, of course, the home of Odysseus, and we were at the foot of Mount Aetos.  My student, who was supposed to be paying attention to a prism pole he was holding, looked up and cried, “Hey, what kind of bird is that?”

I looked where he was pointing, to his left.  “It’s an eagle,” I said, “and it’s to your left.  According to Homer, that’s a bad omen.”

“Oh,” he said, and turned around until it was on his right.