- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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The Italian phrase traduttore, tradittore—”translator, traitor,” has been around long enough that its mordant sentiment is sometimes attributed to St. Jerome, the great fourth-century renderer of the Hebrew Bible into Latin, and the patron saint of those who labor at fitting literature in new clothes.
The attribution is false, though as the Italians also say, non è vero, è ben trovato—”maybe it isn’t true, but it’s well lied.” (My translation.) For even Jerome, a revered scholar when he took on his Hebrew-to-Latin project, ran into what has become the usual buzz saw of opposition that faces translators of a text for which there already exists a “traditional” rendering—in Jerome’s case a Latin translation that had been made from an earlier Greek version known as the Septuagint.
No less a figure than Augustine got into the fray. He not only believed that the Greek Septuagint had itself been divinely inspired, but as a practical matter he feared that a new Latin Bible, however well made, would cause confusion among those familiar with the older text. “I beseech you not to devote your labor to the work of translating into Latin the sacred canonical books,” Augustine wrote to Jerome, citing a “tumult” that had occurred after Jerome’s new translation of Jonah was read aloud to a gathering of the biblically literate faithful. Jerome, of course, survived the challenge from Augustine (as do his tough-minded letters responding to his fellow Church father), and his translation of Hebrew scripture, known as the Vulgate, became the authoritative Latin text for Catholics, while he was eventually canonized.
It’s a remarkably happy ending for the story of a translation and its maker. The more usual tale is one of woe, beginning with an attack on the newly published version by scholars who bark that the author didn’t understand the words (as well as they do), or by litterateurs who wail that the hack bungled the music (they hear so clearly). And even if the translation is strong enough on fidelity or tunefulness, or both, and survives the initial battles, it generally lives only for a generation or two before a new version, with fresh tastes, cadences, and pleats, comes along, and suddenly the old renderings so many have relied upon and drawn pleasure from are discovered to have always been in some way corrupt.
Such has been the case recently with the work of the indefatigable Constance Garnett, whose English translations of some 70 major 19th-century Russian works have defined that literature for millions of English-speaking readers. Now, in the wake of an acclaimed new translation of War and Peace, it’s been revealed that Garnett turned Tolstoy into Trollope and skipped over the passages in Dostoevsky that she found difficult to understand. And C.K. Scott Moncrieff, whose English version of Proust is the one that many thousands of us have pledged to savor just as soon as we retire, has now been pensioned off himself, for the crime of adding sentences (yes) to Remembrance of Things Past. Meanwhile Willa and Edwin Muir have been driven out of town for dosing their translations of Kafka novels with religious flavorings not intended by the author. (They also equipped Gregor Samsa with a cockroach’s charisma, when he was, in fact, a beetle.)
Translators of Homer into English have fared no better, and of some 200 renditions and 60 full-text versions of the Iliad printed since 1581—including restatements in blank verse, rhymed couplets, prose paragraphs, dactylic hexameter (the Homeric meter that stresses English in all the wrong places), radio script, and modern colloquial English (with a cringe-inducing photo of the D-Day landing on the book jacket)—only a dozen or so, from Pope’s 1715 edition (decried at the time as too “pretty”) to today’s ruling troika of Lattimore-Fitzgerald-Fagles, are still held to be readable and Homeric.
My taste in translation runs to affect over purity (the cockroach over the beetle), which is why I favor War Music, a small, odd, snarling adaptation of a handful of the Iliad‘s books by the contemporary British poet Christopher Logue.
An illustration of Logue’s work: First, here is Robert Fitzgerald’s rendering of Hector’s reply to the Greek hero Patroclus, at the end of Book 16, just after Patroclus’s soul “slipped to be wafted to the underworld” thanks in no small part to the spear Hector had rammed through his body, and who died prophesizing that Achilles would soon kill Hector:
Why prophesy my sudden death, Patróklos?
Who knows, Akhilleus, son of bright-haired Thetis,
might be hit first; he might be killed by me.
Here’s Logue’s compression:
Saying these things Patroclus died.
And as his soul went through the sand
Hector withdrew his spear and said:
Some critics find Logue’s Iliad a betrayal of the text. Some find it genius. Sounds like a translation to be reckoned with for a couple of generations anyway.
David Gill’s reflection on the Iliad (utilizing his own translations) begins here.
Read more by Ben Birnbaum