Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Breakfast with Pandora

Last week I discovered David Frauenfelder's blog Breakfast with Pandora ("For a Diet Rich in Myth and Logos," says the subtitle). One post that I found particularly engaging comments on a passage from Iliad 1 as translated by Stanley Lombardo and Robert Fagles. Achilles is promising Agamemnon generous compensation if he will return the captive woman Chryseis (whose father is a priest of Apollo and has asked that god to send a plague upon the Achaean forces). Here is the passage in Lombardo's translation:

All right, you give the girl back to the god. The army
Will repay you three and four times over -- when and if
Zeus allows us to rip Troy down to its foundations.
And here's Frauenfelder's comment:
Robert Fagles' translation was trumpeted when it came out in the early nineties, but it looks like a tricycle next to Lombardo's Ferrari.

Fagles cannot resist retaining just a little of that formal diction that makes readers go cold. . . :

      So return the girl to the god, at least for now.
      We Achaeans will pay you back, three, four times
      if Zeus will grant us the gift, somehow, someday,
      to raze Troy's massive ramparts to the ground.

By boiling down "raze Troy's massive ramparts to the ground" to "rip Troy down to its foundations," Lombardo saves only one word, but over the course of the poem these add up. Plus, who wants to read "raze" when "rip" will do just as well or better? And why would you put "massive ramparts" unless you wanted someone to read the translation in a Monty Pythonesque voice ("HUGE tracts o' land")?

I'm biased, yes. Maybe there are Fagles enthusiasts out there. I came from Richmond Lattimore's translation, which is very close to the Greek, but which, as my mentor used to say, always sounds better after you've gotten through the better part of a pitcher of beer.
These paragraphs are a great example of how to characterize tone in a persuasive way: the clichéd loftiness of "massive ramparts" becomes instantly clear.

I'd add that "somehow, someday" is a very strange (intentional? unintentional?) echo of "Somewhere" from West Side Story.

Link: Comments on Iliad Book One (from Breakfast with Pandora)

comments: 7

Lee said...

I agree about 'massive ramparts' but not 'raze,' which I think is far more effective: that 'z' sound, for one; the awkward rhythm of 'rip Troy down'; and even the question of whether 'rip' is appropriate for a city. You rip out a wall, you rip out a toilet or window. Do you rip a city down?

My suggestion, in fact, would be a hybrid:

...Zeus allows us to raze Troy to its foundations.

or even perhaps

...Zeus allows us to raze Troy to the ground.

Michael Leddy said...

I like both of those better than the Fagles' version, Lee.

Your comment made me want to see what's happening in the Greek. (I don't have Greek, but I have the Perseus Digital Library.) And I found something interesting: Troy in these lines is Τροίην εὐτείχεον, Troiên euteicheon, "well-walled Troy." To destroy Troy would be, in a way, to rip down its wall. Raze though, is also a striking (no pun intended) word.

Later, in Iliad 16, Achilles speaks of his desire "To rip Ilion down, stone by sacred stone" (Lombardo's translation).

Now I'll post this comment and see if the Greek came through.

Lee said...

I don't have any knowledge of Greek but will ask my husband for his translation (into German, I suppose). All of this, of course, beautifully illustrates what an art translation is, and how woefully underappreciated.

Michael Leddy said...

"[W]oefully underappreciated" -- absolutely, as if it were a matter of decoding word by word.

DF said...

Michael, I'm impressed with your Greek font. Wa hoo. I have never tried that and wouldn't know where to start. Is it a free download, perhaps?

My $.02 on translation choices-- Lee, I can "zee" your point, but to me, "raze" is an archaic word almost no one uses, and as a homonym with "raise" it can be confusing orally.

"Rip down" is much more sinewed a choice to me; anyway, since I've always imagined the best Iliad movie would give the Greeks American GI accents and the Trojans British, the rough, prepositioned verb feels right for Achilles.

A translator who wants to preserve something of Homer's archaic diction-- he uses a made-up dialect, in fact-- might choose "raze," but I go for immediacy.

Thanks, Michael, for the plug and the kind words.

Michael Leddy said...

DF, I like the American-British analogy. Hector suddenly seems like a very British sort when he speaks to Andromache about why he must fight.

About fonts: many fonts already have at least rudimentary Greek (and many other goodies). You can see what's there by choosing "Insert special character" or "Insert symbol" in a word-processing program. Some fonts are better than others, of course. I believe that the best font for Greek is the free New Athena Unicode, which you can get from this page. Gentium (also free) is another, available here. To get the Greek phrase in the above comment, I cut and pasted from the Perseus page (which I have set up to display Greek).

Lee said...

This blog is a dangerous place. I can already see I'm going to spend far too much time here, but I appreciate finding people who care deeply about how words are used. And I love active debate - far better than bland agreement, isn't it?

Rip vs. raze: I'm not going to argue, only to point out how each word choice carries its own, sometimes idiosyncratic, cloud of associations. For DF, raze/raise (the oral point is a good one); for me raze/razor.