There was an interesting piece by Harriet Devine a few days ago about translation, which prompted me to think about my own monolingualism. I read a lot of foreign literature, and I often find myself thinking how well or how badly something has been translated. How would I know!? There are exceptions, when - as with Borges - the translator works with the author, who is himself fluent in English; I'm pretty sure I'm getting the real Borges here. But there is one author, where translations are something of a hobby of mine.
Yes, I have a dozen volumes of Homer, and they don't even include Chapman, in whom John Keats found - and through whom he gave - such wondrous pleasure. As a child, I grew up loving the Odyssey in my parents' Penguin classics translation by E V Rieu, a book I still have (my library operates what I recently heard called "a zero de-acquisition policy"!). But as I grew up, I realised that the Odyssey is a fine, wonderful poem (have you read Erich Auerbach's Mimesis? Great first chapter comparing Odyssey and Genesis - the Old Testament book, not the rock group), but that the Iliad is greater far. So I thought I'd compare four translations of a few lines of Book XVI.
You remember the scene: Patroclus is wearing the armour of the great Achilles, who is sulking in his tent after losing his girl to the arbitrary king. He is fighting valiantly; but his pride, buoyed up by his success, makes him ignore Achilles' warning not to fight the Trojan hero, Hector. E V Rieu provides a calm and presumably faithful prose version:
"Three times he charged with a terrific cry...and every time he killed nine men. But when he leapt in like a demon for the fourth time - alas Patroclus! - the end came in sight. In the heart of the battle, Phoebus encountered him, Phoebus the most terrible. Patroclus had not seen him coming through the rout: the god had wrapped himself in a thick mist for this unfriendly meeting. But Phoebus Apollo stood behind him now, and striking his broad shoulders and back with the flat of his hand, he made the eyes start from Patroclus' head and knocked off his vizored helmet."
He's dead of course, the inevitable result of any "unfriendly meeting" with Apollo. The classic Victorian translation, by Butcher, Leaf and Lang, is clearly translating the same Greek, but is more knowing, more Wardour Street, more self conciously 'poetic' in spite of its prose form:
"Three times then rushed he on ... shouting terribly, and thrice he slew nine men. But when the fourth time he sped on like a god, thereon to thee, Patroklus, did the end of life appear, for Phoebus met thee in the strong battle, in dreadful wise. And Patroklus was not ware of him coming through the press, for hidden in thick mist did he meet him, and stood behind him, and smote his back and broad shoulders with a down-stroke of his hand, and his eyes were dazed. And from his head Phoebus Apollo smote the helmet ..."
Well, I know which I prefer - this is precious and inelegant to my ears, and lacks the drama of the Rieu; and the language is alien - "dazed" is really weak, and "in dreadful wise", forsooth! But you can see the same Greek behind the words, and you get the same story. Try this for comparison:
"Then rash Patroclus with new fury glows,
And breathing slaughter, pours amid the foes.
Thrice on the press like Mars himself he flew,
And thrice three heroes at each onset slew.
There ends thy glory! there the Fates untwine
The last, black remnant of so bright a line:
Apollo dreadful stops thy middle way;
Death calls, and heaven allows no longer day!
For lo! the god in dusky clouds enshrined,
Approaching dealt a staggering blow behind.
The weighty shock his neck and shoulders feel;
His eyes flash sparkles, his stunn'd senses reel
In giddy darkness; far to distance flung,
His bounding helmet on the champaign rung."
Personally, I think that's wonderful - and so it should be, it's Alexander Pope - and it has drama and excitement enough for anybody. But quite a bit of it is not in the original - as Richard Bentley told the author "It is a pretty poem, Mr Pope, but you must not call it Homer"! But some go further from the original still. Christopher Logue, in his wonderful War Music, which he calls not a translation, but "an account", has this:
"Patroclus fought like dreaming
His head thrown back, his mouth-wide as a shrieking mask —
Sucked at the air to nourish his infuriated mind
And seemed to draw the Trojans onto him,
To lock them around his waist, red water, washed across his chest,
To lay their tired necks against his sword like birds.
— Is it a god? Divine? Needing no tenderness? —
Yet instantly they touch, he butts them,
Cuts them back:
— Kill them!
My sweet Patroclus,
— Kill them!
As many as you can,
Coming behind you through the dust you felt
— What was it? — felt Creation part, and then
Who had been patient with you
His hand came from the east,
And in his wrist lay all eternity;
And every atom of His mythic weight
Was poised between His fist and bent left leg.
Your eyes lurched out. Achilles’ helmet rang
Far and away …"
My goodness, that's strong and exciting! And he uses the drama of the typeface to help him, putting just four words on one double page, as you can see below, where the Logue is contrasted with my Pope's Odyssey, with its tiny type.
Does all this prove anything? No, I don't think so, except that Homer is many different, inspiring things to different writers. I read many versions of Homer, but the ones I go back to again and again are the plainest - the Rieu - and the most imaginative - the Logue. But talking of all the different voices, does anyone know the source of my title (without using Google, dark Puss!)?