Most recent update:6/1/2004; 5:08:59 AM

 Saturday, May 22, 2004
CHATTER: On Translations of Homer

In a HUGE review of the Troy movie in The Age in which the author is making the point that he liked the book better, we find a nice section on translations of the Iliad:

That old don H.D.F. Kitto, whom I heard lecture at the Public Lecture Theatre at Melbourne University many years ago, used to say that Homer was great in any translation and he was right. There are paperbacks of Chapman's Elizabethan translation of The Iliad, which Keats liked (one with an introduction by the American political commentator, Garry Wills) and you can still lay hands on Pope's magnificent neo-classical version. When Pope is translating the famous comparison of the generations of humanity with those of the leaves he has Homer say, with wonderful sprightliness: "They rise successive and successive fall."

But most readers will make their way through The Iliad in some more or less contemporary version. There's Richmond Lattimore's stony, phrase by phrase rendition, which has its own uncompromising monumental quality and there's Robert Fitzgerald's slightly more fluent (but perhaps less rugged) translation (though Fitzgerald really comes into his own with The Odyssey).

Then there's E.V. Rieu's novelistic prose version, which has sold in its millions and which Penguin has recently revised: this version is crisp, plain and highly readable.

The first Iliad done in this novelistic manner, in "modern" prose, is the one by Samuel Butler, the author of The Way of All Flesh, which Clive James likes quoting and which now sounds very stately and literary. James Joyce liked his Odyssey.

The current full-length state-of-the-art Iliad is by Robert Fagles and is in vivid free verse with plenty of colour and rhetoric and idiomatic phrasing. There's a Penguin version of Fagles together with a magnificent American hardback and a six-hour Penguin recording of it by the English actor Derek Jacobi.

None of the full-length Homers are going to all at once give you the poetic revelation of Homer, as a fluent enough student of Greek can understand it, or as a native speaker of English might experience Shakespeare. What they can give you is the structure and the meaning of Homer, which in novelistic and epical terms can be powerful and heartbreaking enough.

For the music - and the spectacular quality of Homer's Iliad - the one thing the reader can turn to is the handful of translations or paraphrases that the British poet Christopher Logue has collected in his Homer books, War Music and Kings.

Logue's bits of Homer, which I saw read by the author and by the actor John Stanton at Ormond College in 1986, are, as the critic George Steiner says, a revelation. They are swift, Shakespearean and utterly modern and idiomatic. They are as crisp as good movie dialogue and they are also the work of a master poet who has sat at the feet of Ezra Pound and W.B.Yeats.

The two sections of The Iliad that Logue translated into English in the 1960s with such luminous effect are Book 16, the Patrocleia, or the Death of Patroclus, and Book 17, when Achilles says he will go back to war to avenge his dead friend. Sometimes Logue collapses Homer and sometimes he condenses him - he frequently does not translate him literally (though he worked from detailed cribs from two scholars, Donald Carne-Ross and Peter Levi). But when he does, he makes most translators look hamfisted.

Here is a passage from the Death of Patroclus (that is, Book 16 of The Iliad), which Vanessa Redgrave recorded - ravishingly - with the poet and with such actors as Alan Dobie. This passage is more or less "straight" Homer: "And God turned to Apollo, saying:/ 'Mousegod, take my Sarpedon out of range/ And clarify his wounds with mountain water./ Moisten his body with tinctures of white myrrh/And the sleeping iodine; and when these chrysms dry,/ Fold him in minivers that never wear/ And lints that never fade,/ And call my two blind footmen, Sleep and Death,/ And let them carry him to Lycia by Taurus/ Where his tribe, playing stone chimes and tambourines,/ Will consecrate his royal death,/ Before whose memory even the stones shall fade." Look at the way, in Logue's Homer, we get a dramatic immediacy as well as the resonance of a traditional and ancient diction that creates exactly the right sense of ceremony.

And here is the moment in Book 19 of The Iliad, when Odysseus interrupts Achilles in his impetuous desire to revenge Patroclus without even feeding time allowed. Agamemnon makes his pledge: " 'If you will lead the Greeks, Achilles,/ I will give Briseis back./ And we may be forgiven.'// The sun is smaller now.// Achilles says: 'Let us fight now - at once' -// 'Wait' - slipping the word in like a bolt - / 'marvellous boy', Odysseus says,/ 'you can do what you like with us except make men fight hungry./ Well . . . you could do that too, but . . .'/ turning away from him, towards the moving ranks/ 'Wait!/ The King will keep his promise now./ Young lords will fetch his penal gifts/ for everyone to see and be amazed./ Everyone knows that men who get/ angry without good reason,/ conciliate without free gifts./ Therefore Achilles gladly takes/ everything Agamemnon gives./ And he who gives steps free of blame/ even as he adopts the wrong./ God bless them both.'// And squatting by Achilles says:/ 'Boy - you are the best of us. Your strength is fabulous./ But in my way I know some things you don't./ In any case, I'm old: be patient with me./ 'What we have got to do is not embroidery; for you the battle may be gold, the men will go through it like needles,/ breaking or broken, but either way emerging naked as they went./ Think of the moment when they see the usual loot,/ gold, horses, women, tin, is missing from this fight -/ although the usual risks are not./ They do not own the swords with which they fight,/ nor the ships that brought them here;/ orders are handed down in words they barely understand;/ frankly, they do not care a whit who f---s soft Helen./ Ithaca's mine; Pythia yours; but who are they defending?/ They love you? Yes. They do. They also loved Patroklos;/ and he is dead, they say; bury the dead, they say;/ a hundred of us singing angels died for every knock/ Patroklos took - so why the fuss? - that's war, they say,/ who came to eat in Troy and not to prove how much/ dear friends are missed./ 'Certainly, they are fools./ But they are right. Fools often are. Bury the dead,/ and I will help you pitch Troy in the sea.' "

It doesn't matter that "marvellous boy" is stolen from Wordsworth's description of Chatterton. Arguably the "steal" is precisely the way Homer used the tradition he was exploiting and, we can only assume, transfiguring. It is also the case that marvellous boy is immeasurably richer in this context, used vocatively (that is, to address Achilles) as a wonderfully eloquent piece of flattery, at once sincere and consciously eloquent, as the wily old wordsmith is in deadly earnest but also very intent on achieving his purpose.

So if you want to cotton on to the swiftness and solidity of Homer's world read Logue. It is a crying shame that he only did a small part of Homer but that part shines.

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CHATTER: The Lessons of Troy

From the Washington Dispatch comes an editorial on what the 'real' lesson of Troy is:

[...] However, as Troy burned, the Greeks sailed off having crushed their enemies, mission accomplished. No nation building or reconstruction for the Trojans, the outright losers of a war that many on both sides believed to be totally pointless. But as the undisputed Big Dog of Greek politics, Agamemnon felt that his family’s honour had been slighted, a slight that only war could rectify, and the rest of them had better fall in line.

According to legend the Trojan nobleman Aeneas, bearing his father Anchises on his back, fled the burning city with some companions. For 10 years he also sailed the Mediterranean. He encountered Dido, the beautiful Queen of Carthage at its infancy, who loved him so much that, according to Virgil, ‘she fed with the wound with her life blood and was wasted by the fire she kept hidden’. When Aeneas chose his people over her, she swore everlasting enmity between Carthage and his descendants, a legend later used in their own causes by those who claimed to be of his line.

Eventually, Aeneas and his followers settled in a pleasant area of seven hills in central Italy. He passed into myth, until a great city grew up on the spot where he settled. It became known as Rome, and the Romans always invoked their Trojan roots when the occasion arose.

After the great victory of Troy, the Greeks never stopped fighting, either against the Persians, the Macedonians or each other. For them, there was no end to war. Eventually came Alexander the Great, whose dream of Empire from the Danube to the Ganges lasted only a few years after his early death. As time passed, the Romans became stronger, and the descendants of the Trojans returned to Greece as conquerors, where they stayed not for a decade but for centuries.

Beware the fate that awaits those who wage specious wars for family honour.

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CHATTER: Colleen McCullogh

An excerpt from a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on one Australian premier's fanaticism for things Roman and Colleen McCullough:

Such is Carr's passion that he has lured McCullough from her home on Norfolk Island to join him at the Sydney Writers' Festival on Sunday for a conversation about her books.

Both express a fierce preference for the Romans over the Greeks. "The Greeks said it and the Romans did it," says McCullough, who studied Latin and ancient Greek at school. "There was only one Roman philosopher, Marcus Aurelius with his little book of aphorisms. The Romans appeal to people who are doers."

If you read the whole thing, it turns out that Carr and McCullough are going to be discussing things Roman and there will be a live webcast this Sunday which will later be available for a month. Stay tuned ...

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CHATTER: Cleopatra's Beauty Secrets redux

We've mentioned the Cleopatra-bathing-in-donkey's-milk thing before ... a piece from the Hindu adds something:

A popular legend goes that Cleopatra soaked herself in donkey's milk to get a glowing, flawless skin. And Poppea, King Nero's wife, took along several donkeys wherever she went, so that she could bathe in their milk.

The story of Poppaea is repeated all over the internet, and supposedly hails from Pliny (the old guy, of course), but I can't seem to find it ... then again, I don't have any coffee in me yet. What's up with that?

UPDATE: Amicus noster EJM has reminded me that the ref is Pliny xxviii. 50. 183:

Cutem in facie erugari et tenerescere candore lacte asinino putant, notumque est quasdam cottidie septies genas custodito numero fovere. Poppaea hoc Neronis principis instituit, balnearum quoque solia sic temperans, ob hoc asinarum gregibus eam comitantibus. impetus pituitae in facie butyro inlito tolluntur, efficacius cum cerussa, sincero vero ea vitia, quae serpunt, superinposita farina hordeacia, ulcera in facie membrana e partu bovis madida. [via Lacus Curtius]

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CHATTER: Winners and Losers

From the 'Winners and Losers' column in the Chicago Tribune ... under the rubric 'Winners':

Ancient writers. Homer (the Greek lit dude -- not the cartoon dad) did first draft of "Troy," now hotter than Jane Austen in H'wood. Virgil in talks with studios to rewrite "Aeneid" as big-budget musical.

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CHATTER: Why Not Read the Book?

A column in today's Globe and Mail ventures into semi-novel territory ... it actually suggests that folks would enjoy reading the tome that inspired the move (Troy, natch)! And then it even goes further:

You can either hold your breath and plunge into this world -- hoping that you will soon grow gills -- or you can strap on the oxygen tank that advanced students of Homer provide. Since you won't be breathing in all of The Iliad in one afternoon, you may want to take advantage of these aids to reflection:

Jasper Griffin's brief but learned, insightful and accessible Homer (Bristol Classical Press, 1980) will show you how the latest historical and scholarly investigation reads Homer and the classical epic in general. Its chapter headings -- The Homeric Epic, The Iliad, The Odyssey -- tell you how broad in coverage and basic in nature Griffin's treatment remains.

Switch your focus from Griffin's long shot to a close-up. Robert Fagles's translation of The Iliad has won widespread applause since its first appearance (Penguin Classics, 1990). Spend some time with the cogent and detailed introductory material that Bernard Knox provides to this edition. It will help you acquire a working knowledge of the kind of imaginative experience that Homer was intent on providing, the social and cultural assumptions behind it, and the particular problems that Homer lays upon his would-be translators. You are ready for the plunge.

But wait: Don't start until you promise yourself an after-read. The first of these rereadings involves just listening to the story. Keep on eye on the bulletin board in your nearest Toronto Public Library branch, because at odd intervals the Toronto Story Tellers group stages a Homeric retelling that is worth your attendance.

But you don't want to stop at that. My pleasure over the decades of reading Homer has grown through argument. Other, greater spirits than mine continue to force me to reconsider just what it is about The Iliad that keeps pulling me back to it. So look up from the present, and choose an engaging future. Two of those brilliant spirits -- the one an English genius, the other a French saint -- will send you back to Homer and scrape the rust off your mind.

Considered as a response to Homer, Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida flips him over and turns heroism into nastiness. The play's "heroes" are intriguers and glory hogs; only the vanquished wear the shreds of honour; sexual chicanery and conquest serve as cultural currency. "That's a way of reading The Iliad?" we shriek. "That's what Homer really meant?" Of course not. But to experience Shakespeare after Homer is to face what happens to a text as it marches along through history. The Iliad is not some immobile rock to which anyone in search of cultural stability can cling.

Classical Athens idolized Homer. We cannot. The epic offers a splendid account of human experience that the foundry of history recasts and reshapes from generation to generation. Every generation comes to grips in its own way with the warp of rage, violence and death weaving its way beneath the pattern of our lives. To reread is always to misread, to learn the humility that comes from watching a great story provoke its own parodies and therefore widen its range of meanings.

Then switch from black comedy to soulful agony. Simone Weil's counterblast The Iliad: A Poem of Force (widely anthologized, now available in a critical edition from Peter Lang Publishing) testifies to the power of Homer by seeking to counter it. For Weil, writing from her experience of the Second World War German occupation of Europe, the epic celebrates every brutalist tendency in human nature and gives that brutalism cultural authority. Here is a world view that, to Weil, strangles any possibility of political decency. She experiences the lines of poetry as smouldering brands pressed into her spirit. As if that were all there is to Homer! But your response to Weil, your own sense of just what are the values that make life worth living, will test your own powers of reading. One great book provokes another.

The Iliad is a work as great as it is cracked up to be because it forces us to test our responses to it against the responses of others, and to forge from that encounter a sense of just how much real reading demands of us. The poet and sage Goethe -- catching the deep sadness at the heart of Homer -- remarked that beneath Homer lies hell. Reading The Iliad as a living text against which others have slammed prepares us for our encounter with that hell.

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AWOTV: On TV Today

8.00 p.m. |HISTU| Attila, Pt. 1
Movie. Shot in Lithuania, this 2-part movie portrays the life of one
history's most feared men--Attila, King of the Huns in the 5th
century--and the Western World's fate, represented by a rapidly
diminishing Roman Empire. Part 1 follows young Attila, who survives
the murder of his chieftain father and the slaughter of his village,
and goes on to become a great warrior whose exploits draw the
attention of Roman General Flavius Aetius. Starring Gerard Butler,
Powers Boothe, and Alice Krige. (2001)
10.00 p.m. |HISTU| Attila, Pt. 2
Movie. After defeating his brother, Attila becomes king and marries
N'Kara--who tragically dies in childbirth. Attila grows in power, and
after a series of triumphs over Roman fortifications in Gaul, finally
meets Aetius on the battlefield. The fate of each man is intertwined
in a tangled web of revenge, deception, and betrayal--and the outcome
of the Battle of Chalons will decide the fate of Western
civilization. Starring Gerard Butler, Powers Boothe, Tim Curry, and
Simmone Jade MacKinnon. (2001)

HISTU = History Channel (US)

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