Saturday, August 28, 2010


A Scarecrow to All Translators

William Cowper, letter to Walter Bagot (December 6, 1787):
In the course of our conversation he produced from his pocket-book a translation of the first 10 or 12 lines of the Iliad, and in order to leave my judgment free, informed me kindly at the same time that they were not his own. I read them, and according to the best of my recollection of the Original, found them well executed. The Bishop indeed acknowledged that they were not faultless, neither did I find them so. Had they been such, I should have felt their perfection as a discouragement hardly to be surmounted; for at that passage I have laboured more abundantly than at any other, and hitherto with the least success. I am convinced that Homer placed it at the threshold of his work as a Scarecrow to all Translators.
William Cowper, translation of Homer, Iliad 1.1-12:
Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus' son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia's host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Hades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

Who them to strife impell'd? What power divine?
Latona's son and Jove's. For he, incensed
Against the King, a foul contagion raised
In all the host, and multitudes destroy'd,
For that the son of Atreus had his priest
Dishonored, Chryses.
The Greek:
Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾿ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾿ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾿ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι· Διὸς δ᾿ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

Tίς τ᾿ ἄρ σφωε θεῶν ἔριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι;
Λητοῦς καὶ Διὸς υἱός· ὃ γὰρ βασιλῆϊ χολωθεὶς
νοῦσον ἀνὰ στρατὸν ὄρσε κακήν, ὀλέκοντο δὲ λαοί,
οὕνεκα τὸν Χρύσην ἠτίμασεν ἀρητῆρα
One reason why Cowper decided to translate Homer was his dissatisfaction with Alexander Pope's version (letter to Clotworthy Rowley, February 21, 1788):
Not much less than thirty years since, Alston and I read Homer through together. We compared Pope with his original all the way. The result was a discovery, that there is hardly the thing in the world of which Pope was so entirely destitute, as a taste for Homer. After the publication of my last volume, I found myself without employment. Employment is essential to me; I have neither health nor spirits without it. After some time, the recollection of what had passed between Alston and myself in the course of this business struck me forcibly; I remembered how we had been disgusted; how often we had sought the simplicity and majesty of Homer in his English representative, and had found instead of them, puerile conceits, extravagant metaphors, and the tinsel of modern embellishment in every possible position.
Rhyme, thought Cowper, led Pope astray (letter to Edward Thurlow, August 22, 1791):
I verily believed that rhime had betrayed Pope into his deviations.
Here is the beginning of Pope's translation of the Iliad:
The Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring
Of woes unnumber'd, heav'nly Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury'd on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the Sov'reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove.

Declare, O Muse! in what ill-fated Hour
Sprung the fierce Strife, from what offended Pow'r?
Latona's Son a dire Contagion spread,
And heap'd the Camp with Mountains of the Dead;
The King of Men his Rev'rend Priest defy'd,
And, for the King's Offence, the People dy'd.
See the detailed criticisms on the opening lines by Philip Gentner in his edition of Pope, The Iliad of Homer: Books I., VI., XXII., and XXIV. (Boston: Benj. H. Sanborn & Co., 1899), p. xviii-xix:
In his first verse, Pope ornaments and elaborates a simple thought implied by Homer; he calls Achilles' wrath the "spring" of disasters, and, worse than that, seems to play upon the various meanings of the word. In the second verse, he adds the needless adjective "heavenly," and calls the "Muse" "goddess." The third verse adds the epithet "gloomy," and impairs the visual image suggested by "Hades," by adding the abstract word "reign" (realm). The fourth verse expands the Homeric phrase, "strong souls of heroes" into "mighty chiefs untimely slain." The fifth verse changes and elaborates a graphic picture into trivialness; "limbs" takes the place of body, and the words "unburied" and "naked "are gratuitous and woefully artificial. For the sixth verse, Pope has been praised for an accuracy and concreteness surpassing Homer's. "Vultures," it is said, is more definite than "all winged birds;" and, moreover, every bird is not one of prey. But it is hard to believe that Homer meant more than that the bodies were there, a ready spoil for all birds that cared to prey upon them; and, in any case, since other birds besides vultures do feed upon the dead, Homer's expression is as true as Pope's, and far more wide-reaching in import. Again (to say nothing of Pope's feeble reduplication of idea in the words "devouring" and "hungry,"), Homer, by the epithet "winged," adds an idea of flight absent in Pope.
Gentner overreaches a bit—Homer has "goddess," not "Muse," and I see no epithet "winged" in the Greek.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?