Monday, April 21, 2008

Quid vulgus in memoria tenebit?

What will the common people remember?

Robert Fagles, renowned translator of the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid among other notable accomplishments, passed away last month, on March 6, 2008---requiescat in pace.

Over at The Worst Ever, the choice resource of De Grypis for literature, film, and music, Brett writes:

Robert Fagles, renowned translator of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, among other works, passed away on Wednesday, ensuring that we'll have to wait a while before another really boring text from ancient Greece will be declared once again "fresh and relevant for the contemporary reader," who, for his part, will quit after two pages. Fagles was 74. The cause of death was prostate cancer.

His contributions to world literature will live on, mostly unread, on millions of bookshelves in the United States and beyond. No one has done more to bring the Greek classics to high school and college students, except for the publisher of CliffsNotes.

There's more than an element of truth in it, and it is recognizing that which leaves classicists frowning. It is difficult to interest modern readers, particularly students mandated from above, in Greek and Roman epics. Why? Two key points inter alia.

  • Length- The Illiad is 15693 lines. That's a lot of lines. It's hard to get high school or college students to read the slim Apology of Socrates. A veritable tome in comparison, it would take a great deal of effort (and testing) to compel a full and careful reading. It is not the sort of daunting task teachers want to undertake, and fortunately students can find it in themselves to stifle their protests. Recalling my high school days, I remember that both Iliad and Odyssey were assigned as summer reading for AP English; what I cannot recall, however, is a single person who completed both (or either?). Feel free to confirm my hazy memory, hometown readers, or to refute (...liars).
  • Relevance-it is impossible to make the Iliad truly relevant to the today's casual reader. Elaborating on his earlier post, Brett aptly says:

I wasn't impugning the translation...just the idea..., proposed by all reviewers/journalists (who aren't a part of the classics world), that he made this relevant to the modern reader. More accessible maybe, maybe even more enjoyable, but it's just as irrelevant as it's ever been.
While there are some ideas with which the modern reader may feel common ground, to really understand the roles/themes/culture in the Iliad requires a comprehensive study of Greek culture. To put it in perspective, after fairly thorough readings in several translations, course study, and supplementary reading, I can grasp these concepts at a loose and abstract level, but even I cannot make them feel "relevant."

Nevertheless, Fagles achievements in translation are remarkable. While he cannot do the impossible, he has made the translation much "more accessible" than previous authors. And accessibility is paramount in encouraging unwilling readers to forge on ahead. In a somewhat recent paper, I argued that Fagles' Iliad is the best of three of the more popular editions---Fagles, Lattimore, and Fitzgerald:

Why another Iliad?” This question is the apparent universal bane of Homer’s translators, doggedly pursuing their footsteps as they carefully tread through the poet’s hexameters...Lattimore responds elliptically, calling it “a question which has no answer for those who do not know the answer already” (Lattimore 7). Fagles, on the other hand, attempts an answer:

It seems, that if Homer was a performer, then his translator might aim to be one as well, and that no two performances of the same work---surely not of a musical composition, so probably not of a work of language either---will ever be the same. The timbre and tempo of each will be distinct, let alone its deeper resonance, build and thrust (Fagles xii).

[And so] he responded to th[is]...inquiry with a knockout blow. His Iliad is the epic poem for our generation...consider the especially pertinent [societal] example, Troy. As a nation, we spent over $133 million on this film, a historical travesty constructed, if with the Iliad in mind at all, then only lurking in the depths of Hollywood scriptwriters’ and producers’ minds concealed by the green shadow of money---sadly, their real ambition. Even so, we consumed this summer blockbuster with our customary vigor. For indeed, we are Americans. We do not want historical accuracy; we want entertainment! We want violence and we want sex and we want it now! Certainly, it is unjust to compare Robert Fagles’ Iliad to the crimes of Hollywood; his is a noble endeavor, bringing to life the glory of Homer’s epic masterpiece. However, the manner in which he eases the Greek into readable English while still maintaining a level of poetic artistry, and most of all, with which he boldly renders the sense of imminent action in the Iliad would most cater to our modern appetites. His vivid representation of battle scenes which threaten to quickly dull with repetition conserves the inner energy of the passages and keeps our minds intent and focused. His ready readability allows the reader to move rapidly through the scenes which have less consequence on the overall plot (e.g. catalogue of ships) and to generally appreciate the brilliant qualities of the story which have made it an eternal part of Western literary tradition. For the reader to whom fortune has not blessed with the opportunity to learn the lingua Graece, the Iliad of choice is most likely that of the eminent Robert Fagles.

I, for my part, conclude by suggesting a compromise measure of sorts. For those whose Iliad is gathering dusts, appreciate the poetic grace of Robert Fagles' translation...on audio cd. It was, after all, an oral composition.


bretty8s said...

I guess I'd better be careful about what I say on AIM from now on. Thanks for framing and editing my thought to make me seem coherent, and thanks again for the plug.

And, well, jeez, I bet teachers love that sort of caricaturing of American appetites and that anti-Hollywood rhetoric, especially when you follow it all up with something about the nobility of the Greek translator.

adyates said...
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Roy said...

I seem to have a vague memory from 30+ years ago that I read both The Iliad and The Odyssey in prose form. Were those some babyish versions for semi-illiterate middle school students? Did Fagles and the other major translators write verses?

Does this mean I have to put these works back on the big list of important stuff to read? Are there audiobook versions that resemble prose and others that resemble poetry? Will the East Brunswick Library have both?

And what about Paul Michael Glaser? How does he feel about these translations? Was he involved in the production of Troy?

Shelly said...

Tony Macaroni! I can confirm I definitely was assigned both the Iliad and the Odyssey in AP English and read neither. I got somewhere around a 40 on the summer reading test.