Better than geography

I remember an acquaintance of mine visiting and picking up a translation of the Iliad lying around laughed at this

“Great Hector of the glittering helmet”

I admit that the Homeric epithets don’t work very well in translation and this reminds me of Plato’s comment to the effect that poetry stripped of meter loses all its power. I believe you can read Homer in translation and get a great deal from it. I remember just before I started learning Greek reading a translation of the Odyssey and being amazed that a story so exciting and interesting would be what I would soon learn in class. It certainly beat geography or German which were the alternatives at my school. Of course it requires a good translation.

These were Plato’s comments.

οὕτω δὴ οἶμαι καὶ τὸν ποιητικὸν φήσομεν χρώματα ἄττα ἑκάστων τῶν τεχνῶν τοῖς ὀνόμασι καὶ ῥήμασιν ἐπιχρωματίζειν αὐτὸν οὐκ ἐπαΐοντα ἀλλ᾽ ἢ μιμεῖσθαι, ὥστε ἑτέροις τοιούτοις ἐκ τῶν λόγων θεωροῦσι δοκεῖν, ἐάντε περὶ σκυτοτομίας τις λέγῃ ἐν μέτρῳ καὶ ῥυθμῷ καὶ ἁρμονίᾳ, πάνυ εὖ δοκεῖν λέγεσθαι, ἐάντε περὶ στρατηγίας ἐάντε περὶ ἄλλου ὁτουοῦν: οὕτω φύσει αὐτὰ ταῦτα μεγάλην τινὰ κήλησιν ἔχειν. ἐπεὶ γυμνωθέντα γε τῶν τῆς μουσικῆς χρωμάτων τὰ τῶν ποιητῶν, αὐτὰ ἐφ᾽ αὑτῶν λεγόμενα, οἶμαί σε εἰδέναι οἷα φαίνεται. τεθέασαι γάρ που.

Likewise I think we will say that the poet adds the colours of each of the arts using names and phrases although all he knows is how to imitate so as to seem knowledgeable to others like him who see things only through words. If anyone should speak about shoemaking in meter and rhythm and harmony, it seems to be well said, or about generalship or any other matter. By nature these things have a great charm, but when the works of poets are stripped of the colours of music, and just said as they are, I think you know how they look. For I think you have seen it.

Plat. Rep. 10.601b

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2 Responses to Better than geography

  1. palaiophron says:

    Most of the modern English translations of Homer are rather stilted, prosaic, and completely lifeless. Matthew Arnold wrote a whole treatise On Translating Homer:

    Bentley famously criticized Pope’s Homer by saying, “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” Pope’s Homer has been rather sternly criticized over the years, but think that, it’s the most engaging and faithful of English-language translations.

    Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly better in the original. Koruthaiolos Hektor has something of a ring to it that no ‘glitt’ring helm’ could ever match.


  2. platosparks says:

    I prefer a freer translation. You cannot translate the nuances of Homer which are found in the meter and sound and order of the words but you can bring out the excitement of the stories. In Matthew Arnold’s treatisewhich I skimmed through, he quotes Cowper as criticising his own translation as being “deficient in the grace of ease” which I think sums up many translations. My Greek master used to like the Butcher and Lang version of the Odyssey. I also like this although its archaic style might not appeal to some.


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