On Translations of Classics

I recently found myself in a rather long conversation with my daughter about translations. Last week she was working on reading the second part of the Oresteia by Aeschylus, which is the The Libation Bearers (also called Choephori, and of the trilogy the first is Agamemnon, the third The Eumenides). She was, of course, complaining about the text.

A stack of books.


Or rather, she would probably say she was merely explaining to me why she was late finishing her reading for the week. ‘A convoluted translation,’ she said, ‘not allowing the story to be interesting,’ she insisted.

Now, it must be first said that she frequently complains about the books she is reading. Not because she is upset that she has a heavy classical literature focus in her homeschooling, but merely because she has read so much that she is a highly opinionated reader.

For example, she feels that the Illiad was about as dry as a desert and just as monochromatic in impression, that Hector was rather more a foul person than he is portrayed in movies, the Odyssey was surely written by someone else entirely because it is as interesting as the Illiad is boring, and she is also fairly certain that it was written by a woman due to the choices of wording. The one word she uses to sum up Prometheus with is ‘whining,’ and well, you get the idea.

She has an opinion, and that’s very excellent of course.

But this complaint was about translations, not about the story. Which only goes to emphasize the stage she is at in her reading that she is on about translations already. The particular version was an E. D. A. Morshead translation, and he does tend to write in archaic metered verse. Which can be rather painful if you’re not a fan of things in verse at all, and she certainly is a member of that group. Not a poetry fan by a long-shot.

The beginning of the book, with Morshead’s translation, is like this:

Lord of the shades and patron of the realm
That erst my father swayed, list now my prayer,
Hermes, and save me with thine aiding arm,
Me who from banishment returning stand
On this my country; lo, my foot is set
On this grave-mound, and herald-like, as thou,
Once and again, I bid my father hear.

Yes, poetic, if it’s a style you prefer. R.C. Trevelyan translates the same portion like this:

Nether Hermes, guardian of paternal rights,
Preserve me and fight with me at my prayer.
Over this grave’s mound on my sire I call
To hearken, to give heed.

So clearly there is significant variance.

Once upon a time I used to prefer both of these general styles as a reading preference. Feeling that, for some reason, using archaic terminology was somehow more accurate. Yet over the years I started to change my preference and lean toward the more modern translations which consider translation for accuracy and understandability.

While we know of some writers who wrote out of linguistic period context, most wrote in the common language of the time they lived. The realization of which was key to my transition to a modern translation which uses the common language of our period, to reflect the intent of the author at that time.

I do still have a soft spot for the lyrical and archaic, but I reserve it as a preference now for watching plays – which I find rather suiting since they tend to re-enact the period in costume so it is appropriate that they change speech also.

It turns out that my daughter was ahead of me in figuring this out, because when presented with the options she came to roughly the same conclusions.

She happily snapped up a modern translation by George Theodoridis whereby the same passage was written as:

Hermes, God of the underworld, Protector of my father’s kingdom, come to me, save me and help me, now that I’m returning from exile. I’m at my father’s tomb, Hermes, calling him to hear my plea and to help me.

I definitely agree with her choice. It is more readable and in the common modern tongue, yet has no abridgement. In fact, she prefers it so much that she’s become a huge fan of the translator, asking me to specifically look for translations by him. Within the week she is now finished with Libation Bearers as well as Eumenides, The Trojan Women, and Alcestis (the latter two from Euripedes) — all in his translations.

Lucky for her, he also has done translations of some Sophocles for her readings next week. Soon enough though, she will have to find a new favorite translator. Either way, I’m very happy she’s reached the point of being critical of, and opinionated about, translations so early.

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