author of The Ecstasy of Michaela and assorted stories and essays
Epigraph/epitaph: "He has been a sick man all his life. He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all."
I have always wondered about the origin of literal translations. Nowadays we are fond of literal translations; in fact, many of us accept only literal translations because we want to give every man his due. That would have seemed a crime to translators in ages past. They were thinking of something far worthier. They wanted to prove that the vernacular was as capable of a great poem as the original. And I suppose that Don Juan de Jáuregui when he rendered Lucan into Spanish, though of that also. I don’t think any contemporary of Pope thought about Homer and Pope. I suppose the readers, the best readers anyhow, thought of the poem in itself. They were interested in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and they had no care for verbal trifles. All throughout the Middle Ages, people thought of translation not in terms of a literal rendering but in terms of something being re-created. Of a poet’s having read a work and then somehow evolving that work from himself, from his own might, from the possibilities hitherto known of his his language.
How did literal translations begin? I do not think they came out of scholarship; I do not think they came out of scruples. I think they had a theological origin. For although people thought of Homer as the greatest of all poets, still they knew that Homer was human (“quandoque dormitat bonus Homerus,” and so on), and so they could reshape his words. But when it came to translating the Bible, that was something quite different, because the Bible was supposed to have been written by the Holy Ghost. If we think of the Holy Ghost, if we think of the infinite intelligence of God undertaking a literary task, then we are not allowed to think of any chance elements—of any haphazard elements in his work. No—if God writes a book, if God condescends to literature, then every word, every letter, as the Kabbalists said, must have been thought out. And it might be blasphemy to tamper with the text written by an endless, eternal intelligence.
Thus, I think the idea of a literal translation came from translations of the Bible. This is merely my guess (I suppose there are many scholars who can correct me if I make a mistake), but I think it is highly probable. When very fine translations of the Bible were undertaken, men began to discover, began to feel, that there was a beauty in alien ways of expression. Now everybody is fond of literal translation because a literal translation always gives us those small jolts of surprise that we expect. In fact, it might be said that no original is needed. Perhaps a time will come when a translation will be considered as something in itself. We may think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portugese.
Sometimes I have attempted a rather bold metaphor, but have seen that no one would accept it if it came from me (I am a mere contemporary), and so I have attributed it to some out-of-the-way Persian or Norseman. Then my friends have said that it was quite fine; and of course I have never told them that I invented it, because I was fond of the metaphor. After all, the Persians or Norseman may have invented that metaphor, or far better ones.
Listen, I think that in the history of literature there has been only one decisive change: the passage from orality to writing. For a long time literature was only spoken, and then suddenly with the Babylonians and the Greeks came writing. That changed everything, because before when the poet recited or sang his poem and could change it at every performance as he pleased, he was free. By the same token he was ephemeral, as his poem changed in oral transmission from one generation to the next. Once written, the text becomes fixed. The author gains something by being read, but he also loses something—freedom. That is the great change in the history of literature. Little developments such as division in chapters and paragraphs, punctuation, are relatively insignificant; they are details.
For example, they say that contemporary literature is very dynamic because it is influenced by the cinema, the television, the speed of communication. But the opposite is true! If you compare the texts of the Greek antiquity with today’s literature, you’ll notice that the classics operated in a far larger terrain, painted on a much broader canvas, and had an infinitely greater dimension—a character moves between sky and earth, from a god to a mortal, and back again, in no time at all! The speed of action, the cosmic vision in a page and a half of the second book of the Iliad is impossible to find in a modern author. The story is simple: Agamemnon has done something that has displeased Zeus, who decides to punish him. He calls a messenger and tells him to fly to earth, find the Greek general called Agamemnon, and put a false dream into his head. The messenger arrives in Troy, finds Agamemnon asleep, pours a false dream into his head like a liquid, and goes back to Zeus. In the morning Agamemnon calls his officers and tells them that he has had a beautiful dream and that they should attack the Trojans. He suffers a crushing defeat. All that in a page and a half! One passes from Zeus’s brain to Agamemnon’s, from the sky to earth. Which writer today could invent that? Ballistic missiles are not as fast!
Oswald says she’s stripped away Homer’s narrative to ‘retrieve the poem’s enargeia’, which she translates to mean ‘something like “bright unbearable reality”’. Surely the run-ons and lack of punctuation have been deployed to blind us with brilliance or, at the very least, get all up in our helmets. But these are the sort of easy, go-to solutions a poet will grab for when she’s after some violent spontaneity. They assure some fantasy of a complacent reader that what he’s supposed to be experiencing is discomfort, what with all the Brutal Hyperreal Lyricism going on.
If I call Memorial ‘Anne Carson-lite’, it is not to suggest that Carson, the Canadian poet and classicist, is especially weighty; it is to suggest, rather, that Memorial updates the classical world with but a touch of the weirdness that is often attributed to the not-very-weird poetry of Carson. Oswald, less radical than rascal, slips in references to ‘parachutes’, ‘god’s headlights’, and ‘astronauts’. Near the end, Hector is compared to a man ‘in full armour in the doorway’ who leaves ‘his motorbike running’. The problem is not just that Hector was a convertible man; it’s that there’s something predictable, even calculated, about Oswald’s choices. Of course the book is subtitled ‘An Excavation of the Iliad’; archaeology would be the appropriate metaphor for a post-Foucauldian project that seeks to recover a subjugated narrative - that ‘“bright unbearable reality”’. Of course Oswald describes her ‘approach to translation’ as ‘fairly irreverent’ and that she’s ‘aiming for translucence rather than translation’; what translator today is declaring her goal a stuffy, cautious fidelity? We’re supposed to be irreverent now, aren’t we?
Jason Guriel, “Rosy-Fingered Yawn” (review of Alice Oswald’s Memorial)
(Agreed. Read a third of this, got the point, fell asleep, threw it over. Will the age of earnestly-politicized conceptual playfulness never end? To add insult to enervation, the American edition has a dumbed down subtitle, à la Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s: A Version of Homer’s Iliad.)
Homeric translations into English have always been an index of the state of the language, and the quality of English poetry, in any given century. Reading these new translations of Homer forces you to take stock of how limited is the range of rhetorical registers in contemporary English, even in English poetry. Colloquial registers? No problem there. But the English of our day is not well-suited to formal modes, and few poets can manage anything like the confident and easy elevation you find in certain passages of Shakespeare or Dryden or Arthur Golding. One reason for reading and cherishing Anthony Hecht is that he was one of the last poets in English who could achieve, elegantly but without affectation, a lofty rhetorical pitch. One of the reasons for reading the later poetry of Geoffrey Hill is to admire, in a more vexed way, his struggle to achieve, if only for a line or two, a pitch of language which resists the debased currency of demotic commercial English. Hill’s predicament is like the predicament of Homeric translators. Homer’s idiom is an occasion to rise to: it is highly stylized, built around repeated formulaic phrases, and combining, in a Greek nobody has every spoken, elements of disparate dialects. Its meter, the quantitative dactylic hexameter, accommodates within its fixed rules a great variety of metrical variations, with the result that it is at once perfectly strict and highly flexible. Homeric diction is often lofty, particularly in the Iliad, and yet capable of modulation into many shades of declension, including the comic and the homely. The English of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries offered more resources for answering to the grander aspects of Homer’s style. Since the Romantic revolution, English has operated on principles that make Homeric translation more difficult. For the past two hundred years, our poetry has generally been thought to gain in vigor as it hews closely to the demotic; poetry is ordinary speech heightened. This means that contemporary translators may be led to regard the stylized elements of Homeric verse as incompatible with contemporary English, and to excise them.