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Translational Tug-of-War

February 8, 2010

Last night I was reading Robert Fagles’ preface to The Iliad when I was struck by the following passage:

Working from a loose five- or six-beat line but inclining more to six, I expand at times to seven beats—to imply the big reach of a simile or some vehement outburst in discourse or the pitched fury of combat on the field—or contract at times to three, to give a point in speech or action sharper stress. Such interplay between variety and norm results, I suppose, from a kind of tug-of-war peculiar to translation, between trying to encapsulate the meaning of the Greek on the one hand and trying to find a cadence for one’s English on th other, yet joining hands, if possible, to make a line of verse. (p. ix)

What struck me about Fagles’ statement was how hard it apparently is to engage in this sort of tug-of-war with Mesopotamian texts. After having worked through Andrew George’s translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh with undergrads for the last few weeks, I wonder as to why we don’t have more of this concern for poetic performance. Reading the text aloud is a train wreck.

Many of my more literary inclined colleagues bemoan the fact that we do not use  Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh: A New English Version. And while I find Mitchell’s paraphrase frustrating on many levels, it at least attempts to make the epic sing again. However, is it powerful precisely because it is a paraphrase rather than a translation?

While I know that it”s hard to engage in the tug-of-war of which Fagles speaks when we are always afraid that the text will crumble in our hands, I nonetheless envy my colleagues in classics.

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