27 March 2017

Reading Multiple Translations

Phaeton woodblock print by Constance Brewer

I've been rereading The Iliad in bits and pieces. My translation is by Robert Fagles and while satisfactory, I find myself longing for the Shakespearean overtones of a more poetic interpretation. At least I thought I did. After poking about on the Internet, I found the verse versions translated by Alexander Pope and Ian Johnson, and the prose interpretation by Samuel Butler.

What's the difference? I think I bring different expectations to a poetry work than I do a prose work. It's not just that poetry doesn't fill the page, it's that poetry seems to depend on a richer imagery than a prose work. Poetry compresses thoughts to a narrower focus (perhaps that expectation thing) and the prose has a more leisurely build up. Every sound, every word in poetry is calculated for effect - or should be. I'm not as aware of this when I write fiction as when I write poetry. I think because my poetry is generally short, my longest poem is only seven pages. Maintaining tight focus and emotional resonance over a long poem can be difficult. Doing it over the course of the Iliad in Pope's translation always leaves me a bit awe-struck. (And twitching over some of the tortured syntax to get rhymes.)

Poetry is a souped-up Mustang driving past the police station with one tail light out. Prose is a Cadillac on the Interstate headed for a nearby town. At least that's how it seems to me. Although I love reading Shakespeare, some days the flowery language is just one more thing I don't want to wade through. I also don't care for modern day four-letter-word fests in my reading. So where does that leave me? Buying multiple translations of The Iliad. Because I don't own enough books, especially multiple copies of the same one.

Each translation offers a different interpretation of events. While essentially the same, they offer enough variation for a word fanatic to feast on for many a thought. Hence the occasional reread. It's the same with poetry, by giving myself distance from the work, I find new understanding as my experiences throughout the year color my interpretation. It seems like I'll be rereading the same books the rest of my life, an alternatively cool and scary prospect. How about you, are there books or poems you turn to for inspiration? Have you read the Iliad? Preferred translation? Is there a translation of something out there I should be reading? Besides Rilke, that is.

(Verse Form)
The Iliad, Book I
Translated by Robert Fagles

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, bu made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

(Verse Form)
The Iliad, Book I
Translated by Alexander Pope

Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.(41)
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!(42)

(Verse Form)
The Iliad, Book I
Translation by Ian Johnston:

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus—
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds—
all in fulfillment of the will of Zeus.

(Prose Form)
The Iliad, Book I
Translated by Samuel Butler

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that
brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did
it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a
prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove
fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men,
and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.


Kathleen Cassen Mickelson said...

Love that print of yours at the top of the post!

Constance Brewer said...

Thanks! Should have done it in lino...