Why I translate Ancient Languages

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προί̈αψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή

Wrath—sing goddess, about the wrath of
Achilles, son of Peleus, a destructive
wrath that brought unbearable grief to
the Achaeans, and which sent many brave
souls of heroes to Hades, and left their
bodies as carrion for dogs and vultures,
the will of Zeus was carried out.

These first five lines of the Iliad are, to me, some of the most profound, beautiful, emotional and simple lines in all of classical literature. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was translating Homer, someone commented, “The field is already populated with several translations. What are they missing and what is new yours is bringing to the table?”

First, “several” translations is an understatement.  Homer has been translated by countless people since Ancient Greek was rediscovered in the Middle Ages!  I have no intention of sharing a full translation of my work because, for me, translation is a very personal matter. I oftentimes print out the text and make notes or jot down bits of translations on a notebook or scraps of paper. Oftentimes I translate silently to myself, or out loud when I ask one of the other two people I know who also know Ancient Greek what they think of a particular translation.  My translations, I guess, are truly ephemeral.

And what I saw in a text like Homer, when I first encountered him at the age of nineteen, is very different from how I experience his works now.  Very different.   But the point of the exercise  for me is to interact with the text. Nothing focuses my attention—especially when I am sad or stressed out, etc.—like an ancient text. The cases, the word order, the verb tenses, the vocabulary—it is an all-consuming experience for me. The few translations I do share on my blog are, once again, very personal renderings of some of my favorite ancient texts, but certainly not read by a wide audience. Every once in a great while I will do a translation on request for someone; and even more rarely I will do a translation for a particular person as a sort of gift. But, once again, these are personal exchanges and experiences, usually only done for an audience of one.

So, what are other translations missing?  Well, not necessarily anything. But they aren’t my own….

25 Comments

Filed under Opinion Posts

25 responses to “Why I translate Ancient Languages

  1. I like this thoughtful piece, and you make clear the personal nature of translation for you. I think I experience some of that wrestling with a text when I write a criticism of a poem, though there’s nothing creative in that, in the way there is in a translation. And I loved the idea of your sharing with the two (only!) other people you know who know Ancient Greek!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. zaramama

    Has to go down as one of the great opening paragraphs of all time. It whets the reader’s appetite for more. Thank you for posting this, I’ve been trying to get back into reading again, and this inspires me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I guess I don’t understand the comment about there already being many translations. Perhaps published translations are meant? But making a translation is a way to closely engage with the original and to face the problems of writing for yourself in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen when one is reading in another language just for sense. As for many published translations — one of the things Emily Wilson does from time to time on her Twitter feed is compare passages from different translations—invariably illuminating and tending to make me think a variety of perspectives is a good thing….

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Vishy

    Such a beautiful post, Melissa! I always love reading your translations and your interpretations and why you chose one particular word over another. I remember your post on Dante – it was so beautiful! Thanks so much for translating Ancient Greek and Latin literature and sharing it with us here and inspiring us to read more classical literature and think about them.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nat

    This seems like a strange question to have to answer in the first place; it’s tantamount to asking why we would read a text in the original when we can read a translation? I mean, we don’t all write down our translations, but aren’t we always essentially creating our own translations when we read in a language that is not our own? I don’t have a great facility for languages, but I do like to read in French even when an English translation is available, and I always catch some nuances that haven’t been rendered in the translations. In this case, I wonder if it’s just that so few of us know Ancient Greek that reading it in translation has become so normalized that the idea of engaging with the original seems strange?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Keep right on doing this excellent art form! It is a deep identification and participation. Many things you say make me think of my reasons for learning to read new languages. Being able to read and translate a few sentences is a taste of this experience. Glad you can take it much farther. Your translation is lovely and true. As I said, keep going!

    It’s interesting that someone mentioned writing criticism as having some of the same attraction–there is a sort of translation going on as any reader “constructs the poem” (as Louise Rosenblatt described it) from the text the author provides. Have you ever read her book, The Reader, the Text, the Poem?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Liz

    Brilliant post, Melissa, thank you. Like you and the other commentators, I can’t understand the original question. One might as well ask ‘what’s the point of doing anything’. It comes down to one’s personal exploration of life and all that it entails. And of course we all benefit through your thoughtful and fascinating writing – keep it up! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. alilauren1970

    Melissa, I have such admiration for you that you know Greek and Latin. I wish I had majored in the classics in college. One of my favorite high school teachers had her PhD in the classics. She taught an English class, as well as the Latin classes I took.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I totally relate. A few decades ago, I retranslated some psalms from the Hebrew. It was so fascinating to see all the play on words, on roots of verbs, all the chiastic constructions or repetitions, all elements showing how intricate the construction was, and well thought, and unfortunately almost all of it is lost in translations, especially in modern English translations where they just want to use “relevant” and simplified words! Which makes really for appalling results, which are light years away from the original text and meaning

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s exactly how I feel about the Iliad and especially some of the more difficult Greek texts. Oftentimes one doesn’t get a sense of their complexity from a translation.

      Like

  10. This makes a lot of sense.
    I was wondering the other day, do you ever read old texts, Latin or Greek like modern languages or is it always a translation. I studied Latin for eight years in school but it stayed translation lever, never fluent reading. I thought I was maybe just not good enough yet.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Melissa, I relate to this wholeheartedly! The sense of personal connection, the compulsion to dwell in the text — these are the hallmarks of a born translator. And that is exactly what you are.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This is a brilliant piece, Melissa! And I don’t understand the original question. Translating is a completely different experience than reading, and multiple translations of one single text complement one another. I love the way you personally engage with your translations, and I loved the idea of giving a translation as a gift!

    Liked by 1 person

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