Thoughts on translation

I wanted to write a short post about Homer, since my two “Trojan Peace” novels use characters from the Trojan War legends, which have their roots in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. This quote grabbed my eye:

“Now down in the Ocean sank the fiery light of day, drawing the dark night across the grain-giving earth.” (Homer’s Iliad, 8.561-62, trans. Robert Fagles)
“Now in the western Ocean the shining sun dipped, drawing dark night on over the kind grainbearing earth…” (Homer’s Iliad, 8.551-53, trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

In either version, the words are beautiful–you can see why Homer’s verses have moved people for the past 2700 years. Still, they aren’t beautiful in the same way. Translation is a challenge. If you can read ancient Greek, there’s undoubtedly no substitute for the original. For those of us who can’t, though, we have to depend on translators, and I find their choices fascinating. They greatly affect the feel of a text. “Fiery” and “sank” are much more energetic than “shining” and “dipped,” while “grain-giving” is similarly more active than “grainbearing.” To me, the Fagles Earth seems more alive…but also less gentle than the Fitzgerald Earth.

Writing itself is constant translation, shaping the fluid ideas in your mind into a fixed form on the page. It’s frightening, in a way. You start with a host of possibilities but have to narrow them down to one. A fiery light or a shining sun? A grain-giving earth or a kind, grainbearing earth? Every choice affects your finished work.

img_2651The sun sets near Troy (2013, my photo).


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