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Translating the Classics

Most people nowadays read classical literature in translation, if they read it at all. This isn't at all a bad thing, or something that classicists need to waste time lamenting. Getting even an "intermediate level" knowledge of Latin or Greek is a hard slog, and life is not infinite: dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: "Time is a hater, and while we are talking, she's gone". Translation is the means by which most people will read Horace. If we wonder about one version (as we probably will about my deliberately-debatable stab at this line: did the Romans really have "haters"?), we can compare it with multiple others: "envious time"? "hostile time"? "jealous time"? Any of these choices makes a different suggestion about what kind of person time might be, how we should feel about her tendency to scarper, and what drives her animosity towards us.

In this context, it's not surprising that new translations of classical texts are rolling off the presses at an alarming rate. I write as one of the hordes currently working on a new translation of the Odyssey. It is notable that many of my fellow-translators are not tenured academics: translation has a fairly marginal position in the contemporary academy (and certainly won't get you tenure), but it is a practice that ought to be of interest to all of us, as scholars, as teachers and as defenders of our discipline. Translation is the most direct means by which we communicate these texts to a large number of people.

Why does the world need yet another version, of Homer or any other much-translated classical author? It certainly isn't self-evident that we do need it. Each of the current top-sellers in the world of Homer translation offer a pretty good glimpse of at least one side of the original text. I love Fitzgerald's interpretative liveliness and his awareness of English verse rhythm, which makes these poems seem more like poems than most of the competition. Lattimore's dutiful way of plonking downa dictionary-definition for every epithet is successful in conveying the poems' relentless repetitiveness. Fagles achieves many of his celebrated emotional effects by adding in dashes, exclamation points and ellipses ("one man alone..."); but his Iliad is the one that most often gives me goose-bumps. Lombardo's brilliant pacing and ear for alliteration reflect yet another side of the original.

A recent-ish New York Times "Book Ends" focused on translation. The two pieces, by Daniel Mendelsohn and Dana Stevens, both dealt with modern English translations of Homer, and both suggested a fairly conventional understanding of what translation ought to do: it should be "faithful" to the tone and form of the original (Mendelsohn), and it should have a Keatsian "transfigurative" effect on the casually-dipping reader (Stevens). The pieces aroused a stream of comments, many of them irritable about the fact that the topic had been (yet again) translation from the same old works of classical literature: why not concentrate instead on the task of translating new contemporary authors who have never been available in the Anglophone world? It is a good question. Translation of classical literature raises a stark version of the usual problems of the canon wars, of justifying the persistent prominence of these texts by (almost entirely) elite, (always) dead, white (ish) men in our educational cursus. But this kind of complaint usually assumes (falsely) that antiquity is somehow more familiar to us, already, even if we have not studied it, than are the cultures and literatures of contemporary elsewheres. We need to enable wider access to these texts, because that they offer a glimpse of a world which is both vaguely familiar and entirely different from our own.

Translation is an essential means by which modern readers glimpse the uncanny reflection of antiquity. The ugly terms "domesticizing" and "foreignizing", promoted by Lawrence Venuti (who mostly favors foreignizing, and wants translations to become more visible, or at least less invisible), come only part of the way towards mapping the different poles towards which the translator must turn. There are multiple, incompatible masters to be served here, and that in itself is reason enough why translations do and should proliferate. A translation may be domesticizing in its form (as, for instance, it may put Homer into pentameters or prose) without being domesticizing in its word order or word choice. The irritating sexual and religious terminology of "fidelity" and "revelation" seem to be inescapable in discussions of translation, but they are significantly misleading, relying on what J. L. Borges (in his great essay "Some versions of Homer") called the "superstition" that there exists a "definitive text", rather than "an experimental lottery of omissions and emphases".

Historically, translations have played an essential part in the reshaping of contemporary cultures through an encounter with the alien landscapes of antiquity. An obvious literary example is the translation of books 2 and 4 of the Aeneid into unrhyming blank verse, by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey: this was the earliest printed attempt at what would become the dominant form of English verse for the next four hundred years at least. Translations of classical literature have the power to change our own culture, as well as to reshape how we construct antiquity. The current proliferation of Anglo-American classical translations is a sign of the strong interest in classical literature by non-classicists, and the continuing socio-economic importance of classical texts in our world: even if some or most of these readers are eighteen-year-olds being forced to read the Iliad in order to pass a college class, they may find out they like it, or -- even better -- are interested by it. That will happen only if they read the poem in a translation that speaks to them. Texts that have been around as long as the Greek and Roman classics can all too easily and quickly acquire a false veneer of familiarity: fresh translations are an absolutely necessary means by which we -- scholars and students alike -- can learn to be surprised again by antiquity.

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