O Richard Lattimore, my heart o’erfloweth with love for thee

My mind is a little bit drained right now.  This translator is so damn weird.  I keep seeing “nor” without “neither” or even so much as a “not” in the previous clause.  As in, “he went forward, nor did he stray from his path.”

WTF, why is there a “nor” in there?  This comes up again and again and again.  And it’s not a question of archaic language, because this translation was done in the seventies.  It’s just plain ungrammatical.  And I had high hopes for this, too.  On the back, the reviewers claim that no one would DARE try to translate the Iliad into English verse for over a hundred years, because this one is supposed to be so good.  I figured it would communicate the sense of the original with clarity.

Now, of course, you run into the issue of long sentences and breaking them up would probably disturb the original artistry of the composition.  A lot of people will want to avoid that, even if it would fit better with modern styles.  That’s one thing.  I can deal with that.

Lines 1.421-422 are a different matter:

“Do you therefore continuing to sit by your swift ships/ be angry at the Achaians and stay away from all fighting”

Now, the meaning of this particular word salad is pretty obvious to me: Thetis is advising Achilles to go ahead and stay put and stay pissed, while she handles things on Olympos.  Clearly, Lattimore wants the line to be fourteen syllables long (most are, although by my count the very next line has sixteen syllables.  But hey, who’s perfect?).  The trick of verse is to say something according to certain rules without completely mangling it.  It is not enough to simply slide a set of words into a set of syllables and hope the sentence survives your bludgeoning.

Another issue is Lattimore’s tendency to use “spoke” as in “spoke this word,” even though “said” would be more appropriate and both words scan identically.  This cannot be justified on the basis of meter, so there is obviously something else going on here.  It may be true that “To speak,” in the past, could take a particular utterance as a direct object, but this is no longer grammatical and hasn’t been for a long time.  Failure to take this into account gives you a sentence which is incorrect and inauthentic.  Lattimore may as well have said “thee” and “thou” instead of “you.”

It’s important when you translate something to make sure that you’re using the same grammar and vocabulary as your target audience.  I don’t know why Lattimore didn’t, but I’m going to speculate wildly because my head kind of hurts and I’m still a few hundred lines behind and I really need a break.  If you want people to understand the grammatical and other linguistic features that distinguish Homeric Greek from, say, sixth century Attic Greek, you’re going to have to teach them both dialects of Greek.  An English translation of a single Greek poem is simply not capable of doing that.

If, on the other hand, you want to use archaic-sounding and unintelligible sentences because you think that that is what poets are supposed to do, then you are an asshole and ought to be severely beaten.  To suppose that Shakespeare is remembered because his dialect of English is better or more elevated than ours is to be dazzlingly ignorant of the history of the English language as well as of the Elizabethan London dialect in particular.  The great poets of the English language, just like the great poets of the Greek language, are remembered because they communicated effectively with their audience.  Their great skill in language was using familiar words creatively.  Lattimore tries to be clever, or at least to get the right number of syllables, but the end result is unbelievably awkward.  He might have benefitted from reading some more modern poetry or prose, but he died tragically in 1984, brutally murdered by subject-verb agreement.

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5 Responses to O Richard Lattimore, my heart o’erfloweth with love for thee

  1. I enjoyed your conclusion.

  2. I understand. I’ve read enough translations by now to know that there are good translators and really poor ones. And then certain authors whose language choices make me wonder if the works are translations, and then I discover they’re not and think about how awkward that must be for said author…

    • Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks this about Blathermore either. There is a review in the back of his edition of the odyssey which says “It’s amazing that someone who can write poetry in English would abandon the language for the worst translationese.” It’s kinda sad, really. I got a much better appreciation for the Aeneid reading it in Latin.

      • I imagine one would have a similar experience with reading most works in their original languages…even the most accurate and thoughtfully adapted translations are not going to say quite what they said in the original text.

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