Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, with notes and an introduction by Bernard Knox, ©1990, Penguin 1998), from beginning to Book 3 line 190
My partner, known on this blog as the Emerging Artist, asked why I was reading The Iliad, which is surely all about men killing each other. I didn’t have a coherent answer beyond, ‘Because it’s there.’
Anyhow, after one month I’m half way through Book 3, and only one person has been killed. Apart from four or five mornings’ worth of roll call of the Greek troops and then the Trojan defenders, I’m riveted. Achilles has had a big row with Agammemnon and withdrawn from combat. The gods keep intervening in fascinating ways, including making promises they have no intention to keep. Now, as the vast armies are lined up against each other, it looks as if the war is about to be called off and replaced with a two-man fight to the death between Paris, the strikingly handsome man who abducted Helen, and Menelaus the wronged husband. I’m on the edge of my seat: I know the plan isn’t going to work, but I can’t see how.
I’m not going to do this in every monthly progress report, but I want to compare some translations. Here’s the very first death in Robert Fagles’s translation:
The veteran Protesilaus had led those troops
while he still lived, but now for many years
the arms of the black earth had held him fast
and his wife was left behind, alone in Phylace,
both cheeks torn in grief, their house half-built.
Just as he vaulted off his ship a Dardan killed him,
first by far of the Argives slaughtered on the beaches.
(Book 2, lines 796–802)
Compare Alexander Pope’s translation of the same passage, published in 1715. Pope sacrificed literal translation in order to render the poem into rhyming couplets – heroic couplets. He also renders the ancient practice of tearing one’s cheeks into the more familiar breast beating.
These own’d, as chief, Protesilas the brave,
Who now lay silent in the gloomy grave:
The first who boldly touch’d the Trojan shore,
And dyed a Phrygian lance with Grecian gore;
There lies, far distant from his native plain;
Unfinish’d his proud palaces remain,
And his sad consort beats her breast in vain.
(Book 2, Lines 853–859)
Alice Oswald’s version emphasises the pathos of the moment. It’s not a literal translation, though you could argue that it feels closer to Fagles than to Pope. As she says in her introduction to Memorial (faber & faber 2011), ‘Instead of carrying the [Greek] words over into English, I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at.’ This passage includes material from earlier and later lines:
The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus Iton Pteleus antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He's been in the black earth now for thousands of years