Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Homer: Comparing Translations

Last week, I announced that I had been hired by Providence Christian Academy in St. Louis. It is a part-time position teaching Humanities to 9th and 10th grade students. This upcoming school year, I will be taking them through the Ancient period, as I noted on Sunday in the used bookstore post.

One of my tasks of late has been to secure all the books I'll need, and in the same translation (and pagination) as the editions assigned on the reading list for the class. I have found some of the books in my local used bookstores, and thus also found the need to check and see if older editions were the same as newer ones. I found out on Tuesday that the older edition of the Plato anthology I bought has the same pagination as the newer edition, thanks to a quick trip to Borders.

One of the books I purchased new during that trip to Borders was the proper edition of Homer's Odyssey, the very book that taught me the importance of a good translation for those of us who cannot read Classical Greek. The summer before my freshman year of college, I was sent a high school reading list from my college's English department with a list of some books and authors that they hoped we would all be familiar with, and The Odyssey was one such book. Since I hadn't read it in high school, I picked up a copy from my local library and tried to read it on the drive to Spring Freshman Orientation (which, incidentally, was five years ago this month). I had only made it no more than five pages in when I (gently) tossed the book aside in frustration. It was hard to read and did not make a lot of sense to me. When I learned that it was on the reading list for my freshman Great Books class, I was more than a little worried about how I would survive.

To the rescue came my professor, Dr. Somerville, who, out of his wisdom, had picked an amazingly readable translation of The Odyssey. The confusing and hard-to-understand tome that I had feared simply failed to show up. I am sure there were other factors going on as well, such as having a professor lecturing, explaining and answering questions as we went along. Here is a comparison of the translation we used in the Great Books class, and the other, "standard" translation:

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 them all,

The blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun

And the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return.

Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,

Start from where you will- sing for our time too.

And the other:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
Of that man skilled in all ways of contending,

The wanderer, harried for years on end,

After he plundered the stronghold
On the proud height of Troy.
He saw the townlands
And learned the minds of many distant men,

And weathered many bitter nights and days

In his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
To save his life, to bring his shipmates home.

But not by will nor valor could he save them,

For their own recklessness destroyed them all-
Children and fools, they killed and feasted on

The cattle of Lord Helios, the Sun,

And he who moves all day through heaven

Took from their eyes the dawn of their return.

Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
Tell us in our time, life the great song again.

The first is from the Robert Fagles translation, and the latter is from the older translation by Robert Fitzgerald. While it ultimately comes down to a matter of preference (unless you want as literal a translation as possible, which isn't as big a factor in this instance), I find the Fagles translation much more readable and "poetic." I've read this section from a number of other translators (such as Lattimore) and none of them seemed to draw me quite like Fagles does. That said, based on the excerpts given (which come from the first twelve lines of the epic), which translation would you rather have to read?

1 comment:

abby said...

I'm reading Fagle's traslation of The Illiad right now and I LOVE IT, although it is fairly gory and a little gross.