Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Aeschylus in three translations

Richmond Lattimore, 1953:

I ask the gods some respite from the
of this watchtime measured by years I lie
elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise to
the grand processionals of all the stars of
burdened with winter and again with heat for
dynasties in their shining blazoned on the air,
these stars, upon their wane and when the
    rest arise.
Lattimore is making stately lines of iambic hexameter (da DUM, times six). The lines sometimes have a clunky, rough beauty—“ elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise,” “and again with heat for men”—but there’s often a lack of clarity. The accumulation of prepositional phrases (twelve in a single sentence) doesn’t help.

Robert Fagles, 1966:
Dear gods, set me free from all the pain,
the long watch I keep, one whole year awake . . .
propped on my arms, crouched on the roofs of
like a dog.
                 I know the stars by heart,
the armies of the night, and there in the lead
the ones that bring us snow or the crops of summer,
bring us all we have—
our great blazing kings of the sky,
I know them when they rise and when they fall . . .
Fagles is translating in a loose iambic pentameter (the final line is the clearest example of the meter). There’s greater clarity than in Lattimore’s translation, but also what seem to me to be gaffes. I can’t help hearing “Dear gods” as a little too campy and histrionic, and a little too much like the start of a letter. Fall is an odd word to describe stars moving through the sky (falling or shooting stars are another matter entirely). As in Fagles’ Homeric translations, characters tend to space out  . . . for no apparent reason (the two ellipses are in the original). Notice that Fagles brings an overt military overtone to the stargazing with his reference to “the armies of the night.”

Peter Meineck, 1998:
Gods! Free me from these labors!
I’ve spent a whole year up here, watching,
propped up on my elbows, on the roof
of this house of Atreus, like some dog.
How well I’ve come to know night’s congregation
    of stars,
the blazing monarchs of the sky, those that bring
and those that bring summer to us mortals.
I know just when they rise and when they set.
Meineck is translating into non-metrical lines, with line breaks following the syntax. Like Lattimore, he is close to the Greek, but with far greater clarity. Here it’s possible really to hear a weary watchman, a hired hand—a man treated “like some dog”—who plays no great part in the affairs of state. His rueful awareness of the house’s sorry history is evident even in his reference to “this house of Atreus.” (I can hear the sardonic quotation marks around house of Atreus.)

Even without knowing each translator’s background, it wouldn’t take much to guess that Meineck is the translator who’s most clearly thinking in terms of translation suitable for performance, would it?

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