Tag Archives: Classics

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….

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Sappho Fragment 16

Sappho Fragment 16 (translation is my own):

Some men say that the best thing on this black earth is
a column of horses, others say it is an army of foot
soldiers, and still others say it is a fleet of ships.
But I say that the Best thing on this black
earth is to love someone. It is wholly easy to make this
idea understandable to everyone. For Helen, surpassing
all others in beauty, chose for herself the best man—
he who destroyed all the Majesty of Troy—and she made that
choice without consideration of her child or her beloved parents,
but she was swayed by Love and carried this love far away.
It always seems like a female trait to turn away or to
be light in one’s thoughts. And so now you do not
remember Anaktoria, or so it seems; she whose lovely steps and
whose bright radiance in her face you would like to behold
more than the armies or the hoplites of Lydia. We know that it
is not possible for men on this earth to be completely happy;
We must, however, pray to hold onto our shared memories rather
than to completely forget those experiences.

I have immersed myself in this beautiful and, at times, maddening Ancient Greek fragment for the last two days. I used the longer version of the Ancient Greek text with the last few lines, in particular, reconstructed. I realize this isn’t the standard version with which most are familiar. I see in this poem a stark contrast between male and female, which begins in the first three lines with a primael. Men choose war—cavalries, armies and ships, but women choose love. The best example of this is Helen—she chooses Love in the form of Paris, because, to her,  he is the best (aristov).

As the poem concludes, Sappho turns to Anaktoria who left her (some speculate to marry). Sappho, unlike Helen, doesn’t have a choice. But as memory fades the one option for her is to remember their shared experiences. Her beloved, no longer present, can quickly become a case of “out of sight, out of mind”; the poet must make a conscience choice to remember their time together. But as her memories fade and her lover is no longer present, she can just as easily choose to let her go.

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Go, litel bok: Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt

With Lives of the Poets, Michael Schmidt takes up the daunting task of tracing the history of English poetry from the Middle Ages to the present. His engaging style of writing has immediately drawn me into this wonderful book. He writes:

Poems swim free of their age, but it’s hard to think of a single poem that swims entirely free of its medium, not just language but language used in the particular ways that are poetry. Even the most parthenogenetic-seeming poem has a pedigree. The poet may not know precisely a line’s or a stanza’s parents; indeed may not be interested in finding out. Yet as readers of poetry we can come to know more about a poem than the poet does and know it more fully.

Schmidt’s point about pedigree and influence was proven for me almost immediately in his book with the chapter on Chaucer. The early English poets of the fourteenth century were struggling to break free from the literary supremacy of both Latin and French but, by including the introduction to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Schmidt shows that although he chooses to write in English, Chaucer’s Latin ancestors are never far from his mind:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, or that he dye,
So sende might to make it som comedye!
But litel book, so making thow n’envie,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, where as thow seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

The references to Ancient Epic authors is quite obvious, but there is also a hidden allusion in these lines to Catullus that Schmidt doesn’t mention. Catullus was not widely read in this period, but the discovery of his manuscript in 1300 does make it slightly possible that Chaucer know about Catullus’s own libellum (little book) and his introductory poem which is also self-deprecating. In Carmen 1, Catullus begins his collection of poetry(translation is my own):

To whom should I dedicate my new, charming, little book
that I just polished with my dry pumice stone? To you,
Cornelius, you who used to think that my petty scribblings
were actually worth something.

I’ve always suspected that Catullus knows the worth of his talent and that this modesty in the dedication is feigned. Schmidt’s discussion of Chaucer has me wondering the same thing about the English author and his “litel bok.”

I took a British Literature course which was required when I was in high school and I credit this course with making me the reader I have become as far as classic literature is concerned. The first work we read in the class was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which captivated my 16-year-old attention. I haven’t read Chaucer, unfortunately, since I was a teenager, and a pleasant side effect of Schmidt’s book is the rediscovery of old favorites. My plan is to read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as well as Gower’s Confessio Amantis from the same time period.

Last week when I translated Catullus Carmen 1 with my Latin students, I also read to them Chaucer’s lines from Troilus and Criseyde. Not a single student knew who Chaucer was; British Literature is not a required course. So sad…

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Inertia Means Trouble for You: Some Thoughts on Flaubert’s Sentimental Education

Sentimental Education begins with Frederic Moreau, the pupil of said “education”, meeting, by chance, an older woman whose presence affects the rest of his life. Eighteen-year-old Frederic has been visiting a paternal uncle in the hopes of becoming the heir to his fortune when he encounters Madame Arnoux, Monsieur Arnoux and their young daughter on a steamship traveling out of Paris.  Although Monsieur Arnoux is a garrulous and outgoing man, it is his wife that captures Frederic’s attention (trans. Robert Baldick): “She was sitting in the middle of the bench all alone; or rather he could not see anybody else in the dazzling light which her eyes cast upon him.  As he passed, she looed up; he bowed automatically; and when he had walked a little way along the deck, he looked back at her.”  As he walks up and down the deck of the boat, he becomes inert and can concentrate on nothing an no one else but her. But he also hasn’t the courage to speak to such an incredible woman:

Never had he seen anything to compare with the splendour of her dark skin, the seduction of her figure, or the translucent delicacy of her fingers.  He looked at her workbasket with eyes full of wonder, as if it were a thing of beauty.  What was her name, her home, her life, her past? He longed to know about the furniture in her room, all the dresses she had ever worn, the people she mixed with; even the desire for physical possession gave way to a deeper yearning, an aching curiosity which knew no bounds.

Frederic moves to Paris where he attends law school and insinuates himself into the life Arnoux family.   He often visits the object of his desire, but the first half of the novel  describes his love for Madame Arnoux, yet his complete inertia, his inability to act in any definitive way to make her his lover.  I found the second half of the book more interesting as the pace of the narrative becomes quicker and more initeresting.  As the years slip by, this woman continues to be a presence in Frederic’s life and even though he takes up other mistresses he can’t get Madame Arnoux out of his heart or his mind.  He is incapable of committing to a marriage because there is always the hope of being with Madame Arnoux.   Furthermore, his inertia extends to his career since he doesn’t have the attention span to devote to a political career.  He lives on the inheritance from his uncle so he has no real need for a private income.  But having a serious occupation would have benefitted his otherwise unoccupied mind.  He let’s several professional and business opportunities slip through his hands because of his focus on his love and social life.

In the introduction to the Penguin Edition, Geoffrey Wall explains the autobiographical aspect of Flaubert’s novel and quotes the author’s letter to Amelie Bosquet:

I loved immeasurably, a love that was unrequited, intense and silent.  Nights spent gazing at the moon, dreaming of elopements and travels in Italy, dreams of glory for her sake, torments of the body and the soul, spasm at the smell of a shoulder, and turning suddenly pale when I caught her eye, I have known all that, and known it very well.  Each one of us has in his heart a royal chamber.  I have had mine bricked up, but it is still there.”

The object of Flaubert’s secret desire was an older, married woman named Elisa Schlesinger whom he meets as a teenager while on vacation on the Normandy coast.  He, too, would encounter her by chance throughout the years but never confessed his true feelings.

It seemed fitting that this week as I was reading Sentimental Education I was also preparing for my second semester Catullus course for my upper level Latin students.  Catullus is also smitten with an inaccessible, older woman and as I was reading about Frederic and Flaubert, Catullus’s Carmen 51 kept coming to mind.  It is the first, many argue, in the Roman poet’s series of Clodia (a.k.a. Lesbia) poems; Catullus sees Clodia at a party and the first sight of her instantly captivates him and he can only focus on her.  But, like Frederic and Flaubert, he is paralyzed by his feelings and cannot bring himself to approach her.  At the end of the poem, Catullus chides himself for his inaction:

Inertia, Catullus, means trouble for you.
You wallow in your inertia, and you carry it too far.
Such inertia has previously brought about the
destruction of kings and grand cities.

The Latin word otium seemed especially fitting, in my mind, for Fredric. I translated it here as “inertia”, but it can also mean “leisure.” It was originally used as a military term to describe the leisure of the army, when soldiers are encamped and experience boredom. If otium is translated as “leisure” in this Catullus poem then, I think, the meaning of the last few stanzas is completely changed, as it implies that too much leisure gets the poet into trouble. But I prefer to translate it as “inertia,” or “inaction” and see these lines as Catullus scolding himself for inaction which keeps him from being with his true love. This translation of otium also makes more sense in the context of the beginning of the poem during which he is literally and figuratively paralyzed by the site of this woman.

Both translations—“leisure” and “inertia” are equally fitting ways to describe Frederic. His inheritance allows him too much leisure time to get into trouble and his inability to act on his feelings for Madame Arnoux affect his entire life. Otium is the true cause of Fredric’s inability to attain true happiness at any point in his life.

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A Sense of Expectation and Agonizing Impatience: Some Thoughts on Dante’s Purgatory

Aeneas and the Shade of Creusa. Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. 1663. Engraving

Osip Mandelstam’s essay on the Divine Comedy, “Conversation about Dante” is a magnificent work of art in and of itself.  The Russian poet uses the most sublime language to describe the complexities of Dante’s poetic speech,  rhythm and structure; he compares various parts of the Divine Comedy to the intricate workings of a beehive, the elaborate geological structure of granite and marble, and the rich timbre of a cello:

Dante’s cantos are scores for a special chemical orchestra in which, for the external ear, the most easily discernible comparisons are those identical with the outbursts, and the solo roles, that is, the arias and ariosos, are varieties of self-confessions, self-flagellations, or autobiographies, sometimes brief and compact, sometimes lapidary, like a tombstone inscription: sometimes extended like a testimonial from a medieval university; sometimes powerfully developed, articulated and reaching a dramatic operatic maturity, for example, Francesca’s famous cantilena.

The density of the cello timbre is best suited to convey a sense of expectation and of agonizing impatience.  There exists no power on earth which could hasten the movement of honey flowing from a tilted glass jar.  Therefore the cello would come about and be given form only when the European analysis of time had made sufficient progress, when the thoughtless sundial had been transcended and the one-time observer of the shade stick moving across Roman numerals on the sand had been transformed into a passionate participant of a differential torture and into a martyr of the infinitesimal.  A cello delays sound, hurry how it may.  Ask Brahms—he knows it.  Ask Dante—he has heard it.

Mandelstam uses Inferno, Canto XXXIII and the description of the death of Ugolino and his sons by starvation at the hands of Archbishop Ruggieri of Pisa to prove his point about music and the cello.  But the scene in Purgatory, Canto II, of Dante’s attempted embrace of his beloved friend Cascella is, to me, equally “encased in a cello timbre, dense and heavy…”: (trans. Robin Kirkpatrick)

And one drew forward now, I saw to me
to take me in his arms with such great warmth
it moved me, so I did the same to him.
Ah shadows, empty save in how they look!
Three times I locked my hands behind his back
As many times I came back to my breast.
Wonder, I think was painted over me.
At which the shadow smiled, and so drew back,
while I, pursuing him, pressed further on.

Any good commentary will explain that these lines are an allusion to Aeneid 6 where Aeneas has traveled to the Underworld and sees and tries to embrace the spirit of his beloved father, Anchises: (All translations of Latin and Ancient Greek are my own)

Aeneas speaks to his father: “You, oh father, and the sad image of your spirit appearing to me so often are what drove me to seek out these thresholds. My ships wait on the Tyrrhenian sea. Allow me to grasp your hand, father, allow me father, and do not shrink away from my embrace. Speaking thus his face was soaked with large tears. Three times he tries to embrace his father’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escapes his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.

As I was reading this Canto, however, what came to my mind, before the scene with Anchises, was a similar encounter earlier in the Aeneid between Aeneas and his lost wife Creusa in Book 2.  For me this double allusion increases the pathos of the futile attempts at embrace that occur in the Roman underworld and in Dante’s Purgatory.  As he is trying to escape Troy that is burning down around him, Aeneas loses his wife and tries to go back to the city to save her.  But he only finds Creusa’s spirit whose parting words to him are to continue loving their son and as a final gesture Aeneas tries to embrace her.  The lines in Latin are exactly the same as those in Aeneid 6:  “Three times he tries to embrace his wife’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escaped his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.  The additional knowledge of the exchange between Aeneas and Creusa (it’s a shame that most commentaries don’t mention it)  makes a greater emotional impact when reading Dante’s reunion with Cascella and creates what Mandelstam describes as “a sense of expectation and agonizing impatience.”

The volucri somno—winged dream—is specifically Homeric and is Vergil’s allusion to Odysseus’s encounter with his mother in the underworld of the Odyssey.  Mandelstam’s concept of that delay of sound as applied to the Divine Comedy seems especially appropriate for these images of shades that reach back to Homer.  Homer and Ancient Greek were not available to Dante so it is only later generations of readers of Purgatory that truly hear the echoes from Book 11 of the Odyssey as Odysseus describes his attempts to embrace his mother, Anticleia:

After she spoke to me I was anxiously wishing to embrace the soul of my mother.  Three times my soul stirred me to embrace her, and I approached her, but three times she escaped from my hands like a shadow or a dream.  And the pain in my heart became even sharper to me.

The number three is often used in Ancient epics but I have always found it particularly fitting for this trope—three embraces are the perfect amount before a person becomes fully and painfully aware of loss and grief.  Any fewer than three would lessen the agony of each of these scenes and any more would make them melodramatic and overwrought.   The first is a naïve attempt to reach out and touch the person that was, in life, so important; the second attempt highlights a sense of denial and disbelief of the loss; the third and final attempt and failure to embrace brings about the painful reality of a physical absence.  This seems like a fitting metaphor for the grief one experiences with death or with any other loss we go through in life.  Cue the heavy, slow music of the cello…

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