“Any theoretical remarks offered by a translator are bound to be an apology for his failures. Obviously, no sane translator can allow himself to dream of success. He asks only for the best possible failure.” —John Ciardi, Translator’s note, The Divine Comedy
As I have been working on rendering Homer in English, one of my favorite inspirations is reading translated poetry and translators’ notes. I love Ciardi’s gentle and humble words. Needless to say, there are as many ways to translate a poem as there are readers of that poem. Each of them will fail in different ways while still potentially being beautiful and engaging. The paradox is fitting!
Two of my approaches with Homer are 1) to try to capture the improvisational aspect of oral poetics. Meaning, I treat each line as a self-contained unit, and 2) to bring latent meanings to the surface. Like any language, Greek words carry layers of meaning, older and newer, sacred and everyday, denotative and connotative. It’s hard to capture that in English. Sometimes, instead of translating ‘literally,’ I will insert the connotative meaning. Other times, I will include two variations to try to capture the nuance.
Here is my translation of Odyssey 1.1-9. In the comments, I would love to hear your thoughts on the effect of these approaches on your experience.
“A husband, a versatile man of many devices. Tell me about him, Muse. He who very much
Was made to wander, after sacking the sacred citadel of Troy.
He saw many people and cities and came to know their modes of perception.
He experienced many hardships at sea upon his consciousness,
Striving to recover his mortal identity and the return home of his companions.
But not even he could rescue his companions, having been very eager to
Himself, for they destroyed themselves by their own recklessness,
Being disconnected. The sacred cattle of Hyperion, the Sun—
They ate them. And [the god] took away their day of returning.”