Commentary Magazine

In Translation

To the Editor:

David Stern [“Translating the Ancients,” June] speaks of a translation by Cardinal Newman of the Iliad, which was excoriated by Matthew Arnold. In “On Translating Homer: Lecture I” Arnold assailed the translation of the Iliad by Professor Francis William Newman, 1805-1897, eccentric and erudite brother of the Cardinal, reputed master of seventeen languages and professor of Latin at University College, London. Arnold disliked F. W. Newman’s version because, among other blemishes, it used words of Latin origin “which seem to me quite alien to the simplicity of Homer.” Incidentally, F. W. Newman’s several changes in religious affiliation never included a conversion to Roman Catholicism. Unlike the Cardinal, he was a liberal in political sympathies and a member of the Jamaica Committee, which was led by John Stuart Mill and had the support of Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, and other distinguished Victorians. . . .

Mr. Stern refers to Albert Cook’s version of the Odyssey but does not discuss it. I like Cook’s way with Homer because his treatment is most appealing and has the virtue—to me—of using traditional English spellings of Greek names, e.g., Achilles. I wish Robert Fitzgerald and Richmond Lattimore had avoided Akhilleus (or Achilleus), Hektor, etc.

Harry W. Rudman
Baruch College-Cuny
New York City



To the Editor:

David Stern writes that the New English Bible “was published under the auspices of the Church of England.” The statement is correct but misleading. The preface to all editions of NEB makes quite clear that the work represents the joint endeavor of a number of churches besides the English established church; indeed, the initial impetus for this fresh translation of the Christian Bible arose within the Church of Scotland.

William D. Boyd
University of Southern Mississippi
Hattiesburg, Mississippi



To the Editor:

Though he does not say so, David Stern seems to see the most important failing of most recent translations of the classics: unlike the originals, they are ugly. But somehow Mr. Stern never gets this fact into focus. He notices in the first lines of Everett Fox’s translation of Genesis that the meaningless “now” is a nervous twitch not in the original, and that “Be there light!” is “not English”; but two pages later he praises the very same offenses in the first line of Robert Fitzgerald’s Iliad: “Anger be now your song. . . .” Although most of Fitzgerald’s translation is not as bad as this inexcusable first line, the work is nonetheless a contribution to the growing literature of classical “translationese.”

If I translate Mr. Stern’s conclusion correctly, he finds merit in the obvious inadequacy of such translations since they send the reader back to the original. They have that effect on me, like Mr. Stern a Harvard graduate student studying classical languages, but they simply convince most readers that the ancients, who are always rendered into translationese, must have written in this manner. The readers conclude either that the ancients had a bad style, or that stilted, choppy free verse is the style approved by the ages, and therefore has to be good.

In fact, Mr. Stern, making the obligatory obeisance to the oral theory, suggests, perhaps inadvertently, that Homer’s style is not much good. Until some scholarly liberator masters all the intricacies of the oral theory and carefully proves that most of them apply only to tape recordings from 20th-century Yugoslavia, Mr. Stern cannot be blamed for being intimidated like everyone else. To his credit, he notes that Homer’s “magnificence,” like the question of how the poems could have been written down, cannot be explained by the oral theory. But this is a problem for the theory, not for Homer: that his poems were written down and that they are magnificent are obvious to those who read Homer in the original. Not so in Fitzgerald’s and Lattimore’s translations.

I do not understand precisely what Mr. Stern means by “the distance, even the loss, of our past,” a cultural malady that apparently affects us only when we try to translate the classics and not when we read them in the original. (The Bible, of course, is a special case.) I do see that creating an ersatz classical literature in translationese, in which an original epic on Jason and Medea has even been composed, lets more of the past be lost than is necessary. This, after all, is what most educated people have to read, if they are to read the classics in bulk. At the least, we should be able to translate into standard, contemporary uncolloquial English, as Fitzgerald almost did in his Odyssey, if not in his Iliad.

Warren T. Treadgold
Seattle, Washington



David Stern writes:

I stand abashed at having mistaken Cardinal Newman for his brother, Francis William Newman, and thank Harry W. Rudman for correcting my error. William D. Boyd is also correct in pointing out that the Church of England should not alone bear responsibility for the general mediocrity of the NEB; I regret that my original statement was misleading in this respect. Mr. Rudman also owns my thanks for directing me back to Albert Cook’s translation, which now seems to me far more admirable than when I first looked at it. The use of Latinized spellings (e.g., Achilles) rather than Greek ones (e.g., Akhilleus) seems to be a matter of personal taste; I prefer the latter.

Warren T. Treadgold seems to have mistranslated nearly all my conclusions. The major reason why I never came right out and said that most modern translations of the classics are ugly is because I do not think this is true; it certainly is a false description of the Lattimore or Fitzgerald Iliads, the two classical translations I discussed in my article. The difference between the first lines in Everett Fox’s translation of Genesis and in Fitzgerald’s Iliad, and my different attitude toward them, is owing largely to the different claims which each translation makes for itself. Fox’s translation claims to be absolutely literal—hence my noting that the “now” was not in the Hebrew. His translation also attempts to push the English syntax into the shape of the Hebrew, a claim which I found somewhat gratuitous in the case of “be there light!” Fitzgerald, in contrast, makes neither claim for his translation. While the “now” in his first line is not in the Greek, it does nevertheless serve a real purpose: insofar as it is spoken by the contemporary “singer” of the epic, it tips the close reader off both to the variations in his version of the song and to its contemporaneity. The syntax of Fitzgerald’s first line does indeed resemble the syntax of Fox’s; the fact that it begins a sentence which continues through the rest of the first stanza makes it far more bearable. Any reader who, on the basis of Fitzgerald’s translation, concludes that “the ancients had a bad style” is guilty of poor logic; he also does not know how to recognize good poetry.

When I wrote that even brilliant translations like Fitzgerald’s drive their readers back to the original text, I was referring not to their obvious inadequacy, nor to their translationese, but to their inevitable failure to transpose fully their sources. At this point, however, Mr. Treadgold and I actually differ in our experiences in reading Homer in the original: he seems to find the Homeric world, at least in the Greek, perfectly translucent. As I argued in the article, and as I feel even more strongly now, after spending two months rereading the original text, many of Homer’s most basic sensibilities—the heroic ideal and his glorification of war, for example—appear absolutely foreign to my own sensibilities. This sense of foreignness is only increased by my awareness of the different conditions in which the original song was composed. (As far as I know, Parry’s oral theory is accepted by virtually all classicists today; the reader interested in oral theory, and Mr. Treadgold, might well consult Cedric Whitman’s Homer and the Heroic Tradition for a fuller discussion.) The consequent distance between the poem and myself does not diminish my appreciation of it. It only makes me work harder to understand it, and envy Mr. Treadgold’s ability to think himself effortlessly back into archaic Greece.


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