Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Few Notes on the Translation

My preferred sort of libation bearers

I thought I might follow up on my post about Agamemnon by providing some examples of what I was talking about in regards to translations.  As a quick aside, I would also like to encourage everyone, once again, to write letters to people that you admire and to do it immediately.  In preparing for this post, I learned that Robert Fagles died only 4 years ago.  I should liked to have written to him and thanked him for his work.

What I'm going to do is simply to show you three different translations of the first line of The Choephori (or The Libation Bearers.) 

The first is the version used by Dr. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series.  Do bear in mind that Dr. Eliot was assembling his series in 1910 and that we currently and constantly reap the benefits of an accelerated culture to the point of taking it for granted.  I retain my charter membership in the Dr. Eliot Fan Club.  The translation is by E.D.A. Morshead (Edmond Doidge Anderson Morshead in case you were wondering.)  As a cute aside, Mr. Morshead was marked by his students to have a distinctly peculiar and eccentric upper-class accent which they called "Mushri" as if it were a different language.  His students compiled a "Mushri to English" dictionary, nicknamed him "Mush", and, predictably, his classroom was called "The Mushroom."  I think I would have liked Mr. Morshead.  He was a fellow Classicist of a Liberal mind.  He championed scientific advances as a Classicist, believing that reaching toward the highest aspirations of humankind is what the classics point to and what ought to be going on at any given time in a great society.  He also made academic translations of classical literature which I find next to unreadable.  Here is his opening lines of The Libation Bearers:

"Lord of the shades and patron of the realm that erst my father swayed, list now my prayer Hermes, and save me with thine aiding arm, Me who from banishment returning stand on this my country; lo, my foot is set on this grave-mound, and herald-like, as thou, once and again bid my father hear."

Doesn't exactly trip off the tongue and I have a difficult time imagining how to perform sentences like that in a way that would engage an audience.

Philip Vellacott translated the version I own, which is an older Penguin edition.  Vellacott was of my great-grandparent's generation.  He was a conscientious objecter to the Second World War, being a member of the Peace Pledge Union.  The Peace Pledge was a document that members of that union signed which stated "I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war."  I might get in trouble for saying this because it is largely considered the "just war," but I do have some admiration for the special courage it takes to make that kind of a stand.  Although as another aside, I'm a little shaky on my enlistment criteria history, but he was around my age at the beginning of that war and I do have some doubts as to how much demand he would have been in anyway.  I have a soft spot for conscientious objectors due to my Quakerism and due to my father's heroic (to me at least) conscientious objection to what I believe was the second most "unjust war" in my nation's history to date. 

I will also include some of Professor Vellacott's obituary by Richard Luckett from The Independent in 1997: "In person he was slim, erect, quizzical and tenacious. He was a resolute walker, and a pianist of professional competence who knew the entire Art of Fugue by heart, if at a rather steady pace. He had Shakespeare virtually word for word. His sister Elisabeth is a distinguished artist, several of whose finest works he possessed."

I think I would have liked Mr. Vellacott as well.  Here's a work by Elisabeth Vellacott called Evening Walk:


Philip Vellacott claimed that he got in a bit of trouble with the Classical establishment over positing that these works in particular were filled with political motivation.  This seems to smack a bit of falsehood as Classical literature in his day was almost entirely composed of such theories and I feel that his translation may suffer a bit from putting forth theories, rather than to attempt to recreate the work itself.  Also, he wrote a translation that was used widely for decades which is precisely the sort of thing that allows the Classical establishment to continue to exist. 

Granted, that doesn't stop people within the Classical establishment from complaining about it.  I am continually amazed by how low ratings almost all operas have on Netflix.  Not because they are bad by any means, but rather because the opera fans are so devising, persnickety, and catty that not their favorite soprano or too many close ups means the opera gets a lower rating than Troll 2.  This is really where I feel that Classicists cut their own throats in front of the rest of the world. 

Philip Vellacott's version is an improvement over the Morshead to be sure, but still a bit clunky and wordy I thought.  But infinitely more readable.  Here, again, the opening line:

"Hermes, Guide of the dead men's souls below the earth, Son of Zeus the Deliverer, fill your father's office: Be my deliverer.  Receive my prayer; fight in my cause. An exile newly returned to this my land, my home, I seek my native right.  Over this mound, his tomb, before my deed is in hand, I call on my dead father to hear, to sanction."

I hope that my examples will make this needless to say, but I would read anything Robert Fagles translated.  Fagles, as I mentioned before, is the most modern of the three and I feel that there is a lot of be said for constantly renewing the most accurate and most contemporary translation of a classical piece of literature, especially as our language continues to evolve so rapidly.

I recognized the name when I went to the library yesterday as the same translator who afforded a solution to a similar problem I had when reading The Odyssey a year or so ago.  Fagles was a Princeton professor.  His father died when he was 14 and it only just struck me that the very text I've pulled for this post is Orestes at the grave of his father. 

He translated "The Big Three" of Classical Literature, being The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid.  In a New York Times interview concerning the latter he said, "It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer... The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.”

I was immediately struck by the clarity of his translation and instantly put aside any thought of reading any other version when I read his opening line:

"Hermes, lord of the dead, look down and guard the fathers' power. Be my saviour, I beg you, be my comrade now. I have come home to my own soil, an exile home at last, here at the mounded grave I call my father, Hear me, -I am crying out to you..."

I would also add that, of the three, I feel like this is the one that would play best on stage.  The language provides opportunity to explore and convey the emotion involved and communicate said emotion to the audience clearly.

And, at the end of it, I feel like if one let's the stories speak for themselves, one can feel the rustle of the ages behind it.  One can identify with the very human stories.  But, like so much of life, the ground becomes richer the deeper you dig.


  1. Hi Paul,
    I loved your asides. They made the piece interesting & entertaining - the human touch. A bit like filling Bible, historical & cultural background when preaching. Some academics are such amazing people & sometimes endearingly quirky.

    You comment on the readability and dramatization of the translations. Coming from a Bible background I'd be interested in the readability and the accuracy of the translations. I'd like to know whether the first translation was the most literal and, generally, how free the translations are. For instance only T2 has 'Son of Zeus', I presume adding identification for the non-specialist reader. Then we have 'my father', 'your father's' and 'the fathers' '. In Greek the definite article can stand in for the personal pronoun but that is quite a wide range of translation possibilities.

    But you're right: readability is key. If an accurate translation is virtually unreadable what's the point. And if it is readable, then it is comprehensible by an audience and so act-able or capable of being dramatized.

    If you're a Classicist you're one of a rare breed. The only classical Greek I did was to translate Plato's The Last Days of Socrates, back in 1982! I love Plato even though he is far from my Christian worldview.

    Thanks for your piece.


    John Child
    Cape Town

  2. Hi, John!

    I should probably take pains to express that I am strictly an amateur enthusiast of the Classical world. My Greek is almost non-existent although learning Greek is next in line after I master Latin (working on it. At this point I think I could order dinner and find the nearest restroom in Ancient Rome.) I do, however, have a very high regard for antiquity and spend most of my mental energy on things that have been dead for at least one millennium.

    Thanks for stopping by!