Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Arnold and Homer

The premise of On Translating Homer hardly stands up to consideration:
My one object is to give practical advice to a translator...
How many students, since the publication of On Translating Homer in 1860 have had practical ambitions of publishing a translation of the Iliad or the Odyssey; and what fraction do they make up of those who have read the essay? I would guess that the fraction is pretty small. The fraction since Chelsea House reprinted the work thirty-five years ago must be tiny.

Arnold argues for four qualities in Homer:
that is is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression  of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally that he is eminently noble;
He points out convincingly the want of one or more of these qualities in one or another of the translators of Homer into English, from Chapman on.  He quotes the strictures of Bentley on Pope's Iliad and of Wordsworth on Dryden's Aeneid. He offers his own translation of a few passages, and hints on meter.

Near the end of the essay appears
 for what he has in common with Milton--the noble and profound application of ideas to life--is the most essential part of poetic greatness.
The passages he quotes in support of this, from the last book of the Iliad certainly are remarkable:Rachel Bespaloff's essay "Priam and Achilles Break Bread" is worth reading for a sense of them. Yet I cannot see them as applications of ideas to life, or see how the application of ideas to life is an essential part of poetry.

I am glad to have read the essay. But I think the premise implausible, and for other practical uses I can think of better essays. For a comparison of translations, Guy Davenport's essay "Another Odyssey", collected in The Geography of the Imagination, has more extended and more current examples. Robert Fitzgerald frankly acknowledges the impossibility of translating the Odyssey "as an aesthetic object."

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