Saturday, 25 February 2012

On translating and listening to Homer


Edward Luttwak has a good essay in the London Review of Books on the Iliad. Ostensibly, it’s a review of Stephen Mitchell’s recent translation of Homer’s tale of the Greek siege of Troy; but before Luttwak gets there he takes us on an interesting excursion – by way of why the Iliad outsells the Odyssey; the Iliad’s enduring popularity – apparently – with American soldiers about to leave for combat; and the appeal of the epic in China and Japan.

Regarding Mitchell’s translation, Luttwak is scathing, partly because of its use of American slang and colloquialisms but, more significantly, because of the New York poet’s ‘excisions’ and ‘mutilations’ of Homer.

In particular, Luttwak is appalled by Mitchell’s ditching of the recurring Homeric epithets and stock phrases and outraged by the translator’s complete omission of Book 10 – in which Odysseus and Diomedes, on reconnaissance, capture, interrogate and kill the callow Dolon – a scene Mitchell has described as ‘baroque and nasty’ and of dubious authenticity.

Another American translator of Homer who goes for slang and colloquialisms is Stanley Lombardo, whose version of the Iliad I’m currently listening to as an audiobook.

Lombardo’s resort to American slang is occasionally jarring, and his Achilles can come across as shrill at times; but, generally, his translation is exciting and shocking and his performance excellent, proving why Homer is better heard than read. I listened to Lombardo’s version of the Odyssey first, which was also very good; having dumped Ian McKellen’s reading of Robert Fagles’ translation, because I found McKellen’s hamminess intolerable. (See what I mean here).

Finally, if you haven’t touched Homer ever or, like me, for a while, I want to say this: Homer is the ultimate expression of human culture, imagination and experience and you’d be well advised to acquaint, reacquaint or keep acquainting yourself with his unsurpassed, incomparable masterpieces.

*See interview with Stephen Mitchell on his translation of the Iliad here. The video above is Stanley Lombardo reading from Book II of the Iliad, the scene in which the Greek rank and file are ready to rebel against Agamemnon and go home, with Thersites leading the insubordination and insults, only for Odysseus to turn on the guttersnipe and give him a beating. You can compare Lombardo’s demotic style with Robert Fagles’ translation from the same scene below. Download audiobooks here.

So Thersites taunted the famous field marshal.
But Odysseus stepped in quickly, faced him down
with a dark glance and threats to break his nerve:
‘What a flood of abuse, Thersites! Even for you,
fluent and flowing as you are. Keep quiet.
Who are you to wrangle with kings, you alone?
No one, I say – no one alive is less soldierly than you,
none in the ranks that came to Troy with Agamemnon.
So stop your babbling, mouthing the names of kings,
flinging indecencies in their teeth, your eyes
peeled for a chance to cut and run for home.
We can have no idea, no clear idea at all
how the long campaign will end…
whether Achaea’s sons will make it home unharmed
or slink back in disgrace.
But there you sit,
hurling abuse at the son of Atreus, Agamemnon,
marshal of armies, simply because our fighters
give Atrides the lion’s share of all our plunder.
You and your ranting slander – you’re the outrage.
I tell you this, so help me it’s the truth:
if I catch you again, blithering in this way,
let Odysseus’s head be wrenched off his shoulders,
never again call me the father of Telemachus
if I don’t grab you, strip the clothing off you,
cloak, tunic and rags that wrap your private parts,
and whip you howling naked back to the fast ships,
out of the armies’ muster – whip you like a cur.’

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