n. the desire to be struck by disaster—to survive a plane crash, to lose everything in a fire, to plunge over a waterfall—which would put a kink in the smooth arc of your life, and forge it into something hardened and flexible and sharp, not just a stiff prefabricated beam that barely covers the gap between one end of your life and the other.
Translation, particularly of ancient literature, interests me. The rendering into modern or archaic English of texts whose significance and resonance to their contemporary audiences we can only sketch. The knife’s-edge walk between fidelity and flair. But more than that, the simple ability to reach back 2,500 years and hear the voices and grapple with the thoughts of those who have not walked in the sun’s bright since those days.
As an example, following are the first eight lines of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, spoken by the night-watchman. Four translations follow these, the first by Herbert Weir Smith, the classicist and author of Greek Grammar, the second by the poet and translator Richmond Lattimore, the third by poet Ted Hughes and the fourth by poet and classicist Anne Carson (all rights to the respective holders).
θεοὺς μὲν αἰτῶ τῶνδ᾽ ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων
φρουρᾶς ἐτείας μῆκος, ἣν κοιμώμενος
στέγαις Ἀτρειδῶν ἄγκαθεν, κυνὸς δίκην,
ἄστρων κάτοιδα νυκτέρων ὁμήγυριν,
καὶ τοὺς φέροντας χεῖμα καὶ θέρος βροτοῖς
λαμπροὺς δυνάστας, ἐμπρέποντας αἰθέρι
ἀστέρας, ὅταν φθίνωσιν, ἀντολάς τε τῶν.
H. Weir Smyth translation (1926):
Release from this weary task of mine has been my cry unto the gods throughout my long year’s watch, wherein, couchant upon the palace roof of the Atreidae, upon my bended arm, like a hound, I have learned to know aright the conclave of the stars of night, yea those radiant potentates conspicuous in the firmament, bringers of winter and summer unto mankind, the constellations, what time they wane and rise.
Richmond Lattimore translation (1953):
I ask the gods some respite from the weariness
of this watchtime measured by years I lie awake
elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise to mark
the grand processionals of all the stars of night
burdened with winter and again with heat for men,
dynasties in their shining blazoned on the air,
these stars, upon their wane and when the rest arise.
Ted Hughes translation (1998):
You Gods in heaven -
You have watched me here on this tower
All night, every night for twelve months,
Thirteen moons -
Tethered on the roof of this palace
Like a dog.
It is time to release me.
I’ve stared long enough into this darkness
For what never emerges.
I’m tired of the constellations -
That glittering parade of lofty rulers
Night after night a little bit earlier
Withholding the thing I wait for -
Slow as torture.
Anne Carson translation (2009):
Gods! Free me from this grind!
It’s one long year I’m lying here watching
waiting watching waiting—
propped on the roof of Atreus, chin on my
paws like a dog.
I’ve peered at the congregation of the
nightly stars—bright powerful creatures
blazing in air,
the ones that bring summer, the ones that
the ones that die out, the ones that rise
Which, I think you’ll agree, is quite a diverse set of readings. What’s the literal translation of the text? Here’s your sobsister’s rough rendering of the lines:
The gods I ask deliverance from this drudgery,
my full year’s watch, lying, dog-fashion,
on my arm on the roof of the Atreides,
and I contemplated the assembly of night stars,
those radiant rulers bringing summer and winter to man,
conspicuous stars in heaven,
whenever their setting or rising.
Have I mentioned that I’d make Greek and Latin compulsory through all four years of high school? This is our cultural patrimony. To read it, even haltingly, in the original is one way in which our species defeats Death. As you’ll have seen, translation is an art and a space where the poet and technician can meet and strike brilliant sparks. But to hear and understand the words in one’s own head, even if chipped one by one out of the text’s dark walls as beginners such as myself must do, that is truly a treat.