Whose Translation Is It, Anyway?
“Which translation do you prefer?” has spent the past half-decade climbing my list of least-favorite questions. While still somewhere behind “Favorite book/author/album – Go!” it is somewhat more mendacious in that it’s hard to explain quickly why I find it so difficult to say anything other than, “All of them.”
By this, of course, I mean, all of them at the same time. Translation, understood etymologically, is an act of carrying across. It’s easy enough to come to an agreement on from where and to where: one language to another. One translates Homer from Greek into English, for example. But how are we to understand what it is that we’re carrying from Greek to English when translating Homer? A text? A poem? A song? An epic? A Great Work of The Civilized World? The Iliads of Lattimore, Fagles, Fitzgerald, Chapman, and so on are different works due in part to different understandings of the what. But each, despite this, manages to capture some aspect of the original that the others fail to translate. So, if I had no Greek the best way to approximate the original would be to work through multiple translations, perhaps simultaneously. I pull multiple translations off my shelf to teach myself something new (sometimes something old) about what the Greek says.
This “What?” problem also holds for works that are more easily placed into categories. What, for instance, is this piece you’re reading right now? A text? (By which I mean something very basic: just a string of words connected grammatically and syntactically.) Or a brief essay or sorts? One can translate as a text, word-by-word, literally and accurately, and still fail to capture the nature of the whole. Conversely, one might capture the whole but fail to be faithful to the individual words.
At this point, my cleverer interlocutors tend to interrupt and ask, “So, which do you think is more important in translation: translating literally, or translating ‘for the poetry’?” And again, I don’t like to take sides too firmly. (My own inclination, I suppose, is with the latter—this I attribute to the lingering influence of Ezra Pound and the Modernists.) A world with only one or the other would be a world filled with mostly poor translations. Because a reader can complement the poetic with the literal, a given translator needn’t betray the work by attempting loyalty to two mistresses, and a given translation shouldn’t be judged primarily by which it chooses. Rather than asking, “Is it literal?” or “Did it capture the ‘poetry’?” I find it far more worthwhile to ask whether the translation has been carried across alive. Is it still vital? Is it compelling? Or is it a ruin, a piece for a museum or—far, far worse—enshrinement in a high school anthology?
Another problem with the Literal—Poetic dichotomy is that it elides the role of a third pole that we shouldn’t ignore: accessibility. This is partially, but not entirely, the matter of whether I write Achilles, Akhilles, or Akhilleus. Can I, for clarity’s sake, sometimes just write “Greeks” rather than “Achaeans” or “Akhaioi”? Accessibility holds no inherent connection to either the “literal” or the “poetic” quality: Lattimore’s Odyssey is far more literal than Fagles’, but I find both somewhat more accessible than Fitzgerald’s. If Fagles’ is more accessible than Lattimore’s, it’s because Fagles’ tone is more familiar and Lattimore’s more staid.
So, which translation do I recommend? Well, if you’re teaching high school, go with Fagles. A college lecture course, Fitzgerald. A smaller seminar that’s wants to get a little closer to the literal movements of the Greek—Lattimore. But that’s not really the question of which translation someone should read. And for that, if you have the happy predicament of choosing from among various translations of any work, I recommend pulling one of each off the shelf, picking a passage at random (but in common) and spending a few minutes reading. Which one feels, to you, more vital, more compelling, more alive? Which one do you see yourself more likely to pull off the shelf in a few years and read a few lines with pleasure? That’s the one you should buy.
But when you’re finished, go read another.