"With Liberty and Justice: A few remarks about translation" by David R. Slavitt

            There are many questions one might ask a translator, but they resolve themselves, I think, to three:  why do you translate; how do you choose what to translate; and then how do you go about it?  I cannot give answers that all translators would agree with, but I can speak about my own motivation and experience, and perhaps extrapolate to some general ideas that could apply rather more widely.


            I was not a particularly gifted Latinist at school, but I had some brilliant teachers – Dudley Fitts at Andover, and Howard Porter at Yale.  And while I didn’t have any classes with him, I knew Bernard Knox there and had tea with him at the Elizabethan Club every now and then.  These were enormously impressive men and their example to me was both wonderful and also in some degree misleading.  I assumed that all grown-ups – or grown-up poets, anyway -- translated.  It was one of the things you do, like driving a car, or sewing on a button.  It’s a way to learn things you don’t know, like how to handle a long piece of more or less abstract verse as in Virgil’s Georgics.  And if you’re having a dry spell and your life is going so well that there is no particular prompting to do original poetry, you can turn to the greats and find something they’ve done that you can work on and that will keep your fountain pen from drying up with disuse. 


            The advantage to translation is that what you start with is very smart, accomplished, elegant, important. And in some intimate way, it appeals to you somehow.  (Larry Venuti is the only translator I know who prefers to do second- and third-rate work and, in the name of fidelity, do it badly so as not to betray its inferiority by improving upon it.)  Most of us want to do our best, which is what the original work demands.  And most of the time it is impossible to achieve this literally, so that we have to take liberties in order to be accurate. 


            The fact that translation from one language to another, and from one era to another, is impossible to do perfectly may be good for the soul.  Your reach generally exceeds your grasp, and this keeps you modest.  But there are moments, sometimes in your own work and more often in the work of others, where you see that something brilliant has been managed, and you keep those miracles in mind, hoping that lighting will strike again or even strike for you, too.


            Let me offer a couple of examples of that kind of brief triumph.  One is from a translator whose name I don’t remember, and it is a French version of T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  In one way, it is wildly inaccurate, but in another, breathtaking and wonderful and correct.  For the famous lines, “In the room, the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo,” the Frenchman has, “Dans la chambre, les femmes vont et viennent / en parlant des maîtres de Sienne.”  If anything, it’s better than Eliot, but surely it does the same thing as it characterizes the women’s chatter and its improbable pretentiousness.  It’s a wonderful thing to have brought off.  Another example of a perfect performance is Dudley Fitts’ rendition of an anonymous epigram from Book IX of the Palatine Anthology, the Greek of which I don’t have in front of me and don’t even particularly care about.  His English version is called “A Whore’s Bed of Laurel,” and it goes in its entirety, “A fugitive from the bed of one / A bed for many has become.”  The terseness, translucence, and the near rhyme (which the Greek wouldn’t have had) make it memorable.  It knocked me out when I read it as a schoolboy, and I still think it’s just fine.


            So you translate for much the same reason that you decide to write – you admire things you’ve read and you want to do that, yourself.  


            But what is “that,” and where do you start?


            The choice of the source text is about half the job.  If you can find a text or, even better, a writer with whom you are spiritually compatible, you are fortunate indeed.  It is better than friendship, and almost as good as love – the connection you discover with another voice and another sensibility that are sufficiently like your own but, in many ways, finer, richer, better. You improve your own instrument by reaching for effects that you might not ever have had occasion to attempt in your “original” work.  The search for such compatible writers is not tedious.  You read a lot, and what you don’t like you can put aside.  There aren’t any orals at the end of the process.  You find odd things that you may not want to translate – or be able to translate – but that you can enjoy.  But then you come across someone who seems to be a pal, a semblable, a frère.  For me, Ausonius is one such discovery.  His Nuptial Cento is exactly the kind of horsing around that I enjoy, and his “Recollections of the Professors of Bordeaux” – not very well known, I’m afraid – is funny and sad and generous.  Intimate, in a particularly appealing way.


            The impulse here is to champion the work of this pal and to introduce him – or her – to a wider audience.  That is often a difficult undertaking.  Publishers, even university presses, are reluctant to undertake books that they can’t expect to see adopted as textbooks, and classics departments tend to be very conservative.  So for Ausonius, or Prudentius, or Avianus, or Statius or Claudian, I was bucking the system, and lucky to be able to get the book issued in an increasingly adverse environment.  Classics faculties are more interested in curricula and cannons and syllabi than in the innocent pleasures of reading.  They are trying to be professionals, after all, while literature is in fact an undertaking for amateurs. 


            It is always fun to twit the establishment, and one of the great satisfactions I’ve had is to take one of the standard authors and on occasion demonstrate that most of the “scholarship” has been wrong and that academics haven’t understood what they’ve been reading and teaching.  It was the tradition for several generations to dismiss or at least to disesteem Ovid’s poetry of exile.  It was said to be whiny and complaining, full of self-pity, and not “manly.”  Nobody seemed to realize that the self-pity was a pose, and the drama of the poem was to see how, from time to time, the mask of the sad man would drop to reveal, behind it, a human face that was also sad.  A wonderful bit of business, very modern actually.  But the “purpose” of classical training in the nineteenth century in Britain was to produce Horatian stoics who would do well as soldiers and diplomats.  And that tradition, once it had been established, continued through pure inertia.  The Ibis was another piece that few academic classicists seem to have understood.  It is a long list of mythological deaths, punctuated every now and then, by a refrain that is, more or less, “And that should happen to you, you son of a bitch!”   It goes on for a very long time, and received opinion is that it is tedious.  Sarah Mack in her book about Ovid in Yale’s Hermes series says quite bluntly: “unhappily, about halfway through, the poem degenerates into a catalogue of obscure myths.  It shows extraordinary erudition but it becomes tiresome, as catalogues tend to do. . . . Most readers will not, I think, find the Ibis a very impressive poem.”


            What?  Do catalogues tend to become “tiresome?”  Have I missed something?  Auden says that the catalogue of the ships in the second book of the Iliad is one of the touchstones of poetry.  If you don’t like that, and its chewy proper nouns, you don’t like poetry.  (And although he doesn’t say it, I’d go further and suggest that maybe you should be working in a garage somewhere or perhaps out in the fields.)  The Ibis is a long, extravagant riff, and the joke only builds as it gets improbably longer and longer.  As it drags itself out, it shows Ovid’s powerlessness, the elaborate impotence of a Yiddish insult too complicated to be wounding.  “May you make a million dollars and spend it all on medicine.” “May every tooth in your head fall out except one, and in that one you should have a tooth-ache.”  


            One of the great pleasures in intellectual life is to shout, “No, you’re wrong!”  And my version of the Ibis does that, for six hundred and some-odd lines, which I think are wonderfully amusing.  This is not to say that Ovid didn’t dislike the person to whom the poem is addressed or resent the fact that he’d insulted Ovid’s wife in some way, but the inability of a poet a thousand miles away to do anything except write this absurd litany is as poignant as the poem is funny, and it gives the joke a bitter edge.  Here’s just a small piece of it:


                                        Remember how Polydorus,

Priam's son, was killed for the treasure of Troy by his host,

   Polymnestor, his brother-in-law? So you

may be killed for greed, but of something far less dear—those few

    copper coins in your pocket (all you own)!

I want your family with you; the whole clan should be there,

     as Damasichthon's was, and all wiped out                    
at one terrible time. And you ought to be the last

      so that you see and understand what's happened.

Better than that, you might, like Palinurus, survive

     the long swim, the grabbing waves that gobble

sailors and even playwrights. Your arms are aching and weary.

     You make it to shore, as he did, stagger and fall,

but somehow you haul yourself out of the surf and up

     the pebbly beach where you give thanks to the gods,

but a little prematurely. The nasty inhabitants swarm

     down from their huts to kill you for the poor                  
        rags you haven't lost in your long ordeal. It's bad,

              but good for you!


            It goes on and on like that, gets wearisome for a bit, but then gets funny, and then funnier, as we realize what is going on (if we realize what’s going on).  It’s like the act Andy Kaufman used to do in night clubs.  He’d come out, sit down, and start to read The Great Gatsby, and he’d keep on reading until people figured out that this was absurd, ridiculous, hysterical . . .   But if the audience was made up of people like Sarah Mack, he had nowhere to go but onward.  Which is also funny, if you have that kind of heartless sense of humor.


Those insights, those moments of realization are a reason for translating.  My Metamorphoses is, similarly ridiculous in places, because I think Ovid was being ridiculous, especially in some of the battle scenes, which are violent in the way that John Ford’s barroom fights are violent but excessively choreographed and therefore cartoon-funny.  But if you were writing an epic in Rome only a few years after Virgil had set the standard with the Aeneid, you’d be funny and defensive, too, and occasionally self-mocking.  Other versions of Metamorphoses are generally too serious, too earnest, and too respectful.   These works are poems, after all, not “texts,” and they need to be approached honestly and innocently.

            Scholars are looking for papers they can write, questions they can ask or will have to answer, issues and themes they can discuss in a seminar, and they tend to be too solemn. Translators are merely trying to convey what they find in the poem in a way that is understandable in their time and language. They can be breezier, which is often appropriate, and it helps to know that if they get it wrong, they haven’t done any harm, because the original text is still there and someone else may do a better job, or merely as good a job but one that better suits the time and the audience a generation or two later. If Ovid is sometimes being a wise-ass, we should acknowledge that and enjoy it.

            I have had other “aha!” moments, which may or not be correct but which I hope may contribute to the tradition of a piece of literature.  The Psalms of David, for instance, have a childlike quality to them, and there are complaints, pleas, and the offers of deals with God – if only you save me or help me or soothe me, I’ll be good and believe in you – of the kind that earnest nine-year olds make.  So it was not unreasonable to do them as children’s poetry, with a timbre not unlike that of A Child’s Garden of Verses.  And they come out, I think, quite well that way. 


            I found that same kind of simplicity in Prudentius, which appealed to me for much the same reasons.  Taking liberties here, not so much with the script as with the setting and the lighting and maybe the incidental music, I was able to do a performance that gets very close, I think, to oddly appealing devout voice of the poems.  This is the beginning of the first piece of the Cathemerinon, or The Daily Round.  These are the first couple of stanzas of “The Hymn for Cockcrow”:


"Coco rico," the rooster crows.
The dawn is come, and he sings to those
who lie abed. So Christ does, too,
rousing our sluggish souls to the new
         dawn of His being.

Beds are for bodily sickness or sloth,
but the sun is up, and now God's truth
shines in the skies, as birds declare
from rooftops into the morning air
            the glory of seeing.


Let every daybreak symbolize

the falling away of scales from eyes

hungry for light, as all our souls

shall be when the bell of judgment tolls,

            and we repent.

These darknesses we now rehearse,

we then shall understand a curse,

mortified by our wretched torpor,

and begging divine forgiveness for poor

            lives misspent.



            But then we get to the last and the most important question, which is what do translators actually – or ideally – do.  A scholar’s idea of a poem is that there is a text, and you get the best version of the text that you can, and then you explain stuff in notes.   The reader can, if he’s interested enough and talented enough, put together the poet’s lines in their likeliest version and the scholar’s notes, and come to an “understanding” of the work, which is to say, his private vision of the poem.  The aim of most translators is to take all this as a kind of kit and put it together to create, or recreate, a public vision of the poem.  The experience of reading a good translation of a poem ought to be, first of all, an experience of a poem.  This means that the translator has to reproduce not only the narrative line, if there is one, or the argument, or whatever the ostensible burden of the piece may be, but some simulacrum of the linguistic density of the original.  You can’t do Greek or Latin metrics in English, but you can do English.  You can supply the distracting bric-a-brac on which poetry depends.  What, after all, is the function of rhyme and meter, if not to occupy the left-hand side of the brain, keeping count and waiting for the rhyme-word, so that the right side is undefended and less critical than it might otherwise be?  You can distract just enough of the attention of the reader to sneak into his dining room and not steal anything but deposit the silver.  The machinery of prosody is mostly a distraction that enables a more immediate and intimate engagement of the emotions. The transaction is like the induction of a hypnotic trance, the point of which is to enable the subject to take suggestions.


            Aside from personal preference – which I do not at all dismiss – this is my reason for objecting to translations of Greek or Latin poetry into English prose.  Which still happens.  Most of the versions of De Rerum Natura are in prose, and the poem is taught – more in history of science than in classics courses, I’m afraid -- as if it were a physics text, which it is, but isn’t merely. The Loeb Library is all in prose, which means that it is useful as a trot for students and it is a convenience for translators who don’t have to look up each word in dictionaries but can begin with a sense of where the sentence is going and, most of the time, can rely on what the right-hand page offers as a starting point.  But for the general reader – the real reader – it’s wrong-headed and useless.


            There are of course, some translators who take an altogether different view.  Vladimir Nabokov’s rendition into English of Eugene Onegin is the best known of these, but one may question whether it is, indeed, a translation or, in fact, a course in Russian.  He wants you to read it in the original.  He makes you learn the Cyrillic characters so you can do that, and then he leads you by the hand, word by word, through the original poem, with copious notes telling you where Pushkin is borrowing from the French.  Noble, and just a bit mad, but then Nabokov’s heart was still in Russian, and he is insisting that we share his nostalgia and learn his mother tongue. 


            Seamus Heaney’s translations are also quite different from mine.  He does Beowulf or Antigone into a language almost as foreign as the originals, a kind of neo-Gaelic with lots of local and obsolescent words that can only be read by the smoky glow of a peat fire.  He leads you to a different dictionary but with almost the same frequency as if you were trying to read these works in the original.  I can’t imagine his motive, except that, as a Nobel laureate, he can do pretty much as he pleases, and, as Farrar Straus understands, there are some books that are bought not to be read but merely to be owned and displayed. 


            But what do I do?  I wish I could tell you.  There isn’t any formula, any set method of addressing each piece as I take it up.  A great store of knowledge isn’t necessary, and can even get in the way.  Talent?  that goes without saying.  Nerve, or even arrogance, will also help, because it is a nervy undertaking to sit down at the desk and pretend to be Ovid or Aeschylus or Sophocles.  But I think what one needs most of all is taste . . . which can’t be taught, or not directly.  An ear for the language – the English language, I mean – and what they used to call in the old days, an accurate appreciation of what the original work was saying or the original author was up to.  If I have translations à thèse, I also have pieces I’ve done just because I enjoy them, or love them, or think they’re fun, or sometimes -- let me admit it – because I think they deserve better versions in English than any I’ve been able to find. 


            Ausonius, Avianus, Statius, Claudian Valerius Flaccus, Bacchylides, Propertius . . . They’re buddies of mine.



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