Thoughts on translation

“My dear friend, if we two could escape from this war and were certain to live for ever, ageless and immortal, I would not myself fight in the first ranks, nor would I send you into the battle where men win glory; but now, since, come what may, death’s spectres stand over us in their thousands, which no mortal can flee from or escape, let us go forward, and give the glory to another man, or he to us.” Iliad 12.322-328, Anthony Verity translation

These are the words of Sarpedon, leader of the Thracians, who are aligned with Troy, to his comrade Glaucus. Like many English-language translators, Verity uses “glory” for the Greek word “kleos.” The fuller meaning of kleos is more like “name on one’s lips” or “that which is sung about.” Though I understand why translators choose “glory,” I think “fame” allows for the ambiguity that I sense the poem expresses about the heroic exchange: giving one’s life and in the process having one’s exploits “immortalized” in epic poetry.

It’s one small word, but how it is translated can have seismic repercussions not only on how the Homeric poems are received and interpreted but also the ends for which they’re appropriated. Throughout history, expansionist empires, from the Romans on, have drawn on the mythology of the Trojan war to justify themselves to themselves. I wonder sometimes how many have seen the poem as what it is, a lament for the human condition, a longing for something more than the destructive cycle of desire, greed, and revenge that has no winners, only mourners.

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