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Translating Poetics

February 3, 2009

The other night I was reading the Stanley Lombard’s preface to his translation of Homer’s Iliad. Lombardo’s translation began as oral performance of the text. He saw this as mirroring in some way the growth of Homeric poetry itself. As such, Lombardo places a lot of weight on the poetry of his translation.

The following comment on translating epithets and formula struck me:

strict replication of the formulae (especially those intrudcing speeches) and heroic epithets would have made the performance seem less alive—stilted in style and slow in pace. Therefore, in preparing script I varied some of the formulaic phrases and cut others, especially epithets that added length but not much else to the line. I have operated on the same principles, although much more conservatively, in transforming script to poetic text and in composing the parts of the translation I had never performed. My primary concern as a poet has been, in producing text as in performing, to represent as fully as possible the energy that comes from Homer’s directness and rapidity. But I am very much a classicist also, and as such I want all of the contours of the Greek text to be present too (xi).

Lombardo goes on to show the poetic license he takes with Athena’s epithet glaukopis “grey-eyed.” He expands (up to “her eyes as grey as winter moons”) the epithet based on his poetic needs.

As one accustomed to translating biblical texts, such translational freedom seems extreme. However, as I look over my translation of Kirtu from the other day, I can’t help but wonder if a little more poetic license is needed.

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