Wednesday, December 17, 2014

On Translation and reading The Iliad by Homer

I spent this entire morning snuggled up in bed reading the final fifty pages of The Iliad, aloud, to myself, because out loud is the only way the book should be read, trust me on this. The blog has been in a slump through December and I can't think of a better way to revive it than by sharing impromptu musings on my new-found respect for translators and a glimpse at the best reading experience of my life - yes, that's what it's been. It's The. Effing. Iliad.

In all honesty, a part of me wanted to read The Iliad for the same reason you'd want to read Proust - so I could say I've read it. I was looking at attending university, studying literature and hardly well versed as I am in classics, I thought being legitimately able to insert "When I read the Iliad..." into conversation would tip the scales in my favour. Of course, that was only one reason. Another was just trying my hand at reading an epic. I chose The Iliad because it was a History Channel film on Helen of Troy I'd seen as a kid that had first sparked my interest, if a dull spark back then, in mythology.

Choosing the translation was a difficult business. This was back in July; I spent days perusing Wikipedia's English Translations of Homer page. I did not want to pick something too heavy or clunky to get through and end up abandoning it. Finally, I narrowed my choices down to the post-1950s translations by Richmond Lattimore (most recommended,) Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald. Sampling their translations on Amazon, I found Fitzgerald the easiest to follow and the most poetic. Interestingly, my copy arrived with a blurb on the back cover by Atlantic Monthly that says,

"Fitzgerald has solved virtually every problem that has plagued translators of Homer. The narrative runs, the dialogue speaks, the military action is clear, and the repetitive epithets become useful texts rather than exotic relics."

I won't get into what I thought of the epic. It is still far too fresh in my mind for that. But reading this book has completely made me question an initial unthinking stance on translators and here's why. Homer is not easy and Fitzgerald just plays with words. The writing is beautiful and I cannot stress enough how smoothly the writing flows, how rhythmic it is; how deceptively with-ease he makes rhymes. It retains the conversational-recital tone of the epic, and it can be experienced, as is appropriate, without academic help.


Reading The Iliad made me realize and accept the very critical and influential role of a translator in literature. Not as the commonly described "bridge between reader and writer," which attempts to sound all profound but is basically a definition of the job. A translator is an interpreter and giver of new / deeper meaning. A good translator should peel back the layers of a narrative, maintaining or adding aesthetic quality, sure, but mostly - making a text more accessible to his intended audience. And that is something that I never thought about before, the simple idea that a translator may have his own intended reader that might not be the same as the writer's. Translation is maybe not a strict replacing meaning-for-meaning work that has everything to do with language. Taking focused liberties with a piece could make a great translator out of a good one. 

I've come to realize recently that I think as I write which makes me often end up in winding lanes of thought and incomplete corners. But that's how I am. So, I'll leave this characteristic half-formed idea with a far more coherent comment (which I hope it's okay to repost) by a fellow blogger, Viktoria, on my review of Translator Translated by Anita Desai

I have noticed when it comes to poetry that they like to use the word interpretation instead of translation. Which makes sense. I really think of all translation as interpretation, and come to think of it, I think the act of reading, whether across language borders or not, is interpretation. I have been in enough book discussion groups to know that my reading can differ a whole lot from my neighbours reading. Actually, I think what makes literature great is its capacity to contain and express my own experiences. It´s like writing is the art of embracing and affirming every potential reader. So, I would argue, there is an art to reading that is kin to the art of translating. Its mother, perhaps.

Something to chew on. I'll post more on reading The Iliad later. It's good to be back. 

5 comments:

Delia D said...

Hi Priya,
I'm glad you're back.
This looks like an epic undertaking. I'm not a fan of long poems, not since I gave up on The Canterbury Tales, but I look forward to your next post.
I do agree that a good translation makes all the difference.

Priya said...

Delia, I gave up on The Canterbury Tales too and was hoping the same wouldn't happen with this! But this was very engaging. It's great to be back, I'll add the Lolita-badge to the blog and read the book now, if it's not already too late! :)

Delia D said...

Ok, maybe there's hope for me yet. :)
It's not too late for the read-along, you have until the end of the year to post your review. I'm curious to see what you make of it.

Viktoria Berg said...

Good to have you back! Can´t believe you quoted me. Hardly remember writing that. I´m chewing on it myself right now... ;-) Actually, I had decided to stop attempting to write and perhaps go into nursing, and now I´m wavering. I think you re-injected some fuel into my literary furnace. Thank you.

Priya said...

Viktoria - I loved the comment, and I do hope you don't give up on writing.

Post a Comment