Thursday, September 17, 2015

Translating Hesiod

The Iliad and The Odyssey are often called the "Greek Bible." But unlike the sacred texts of most religions, they don't exactly give good advice about behavior or morality or whatever. For that, we really need to look to the ancient Greek poet Hesoid, whose "Works and Days" and "Theogony" are closer to what we'd think of today as a "Bible."

Like the Bible, Hesoid has been translated many times. I've often wondered how different translations color the meaning of ancient texts. Not every word translates exactly. Translators have to make judgment calls, not only about what individual words mean, but also in conveying the tone or intention or attitude of the original. Not an easy task, I imagine, and it's one that is probably pretty subjective.

That being said, I think it's safe to say that most ethical translators don't much change the meaning of what the original is trying to say.

Here's the second bit of Works and Days, translated by Hugh Evelyn-White in 1914.

"So, after all, there was not one kind of Strife alone, but all over the earth there are two. As for the one, a man would praise her when he came to understand her; but the other is blameworthy: and they are wholly different in nature. For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves, but perforce, through the will of the deathless gods, men pay harsh Strife her honor due. But the other is the elder daughter of dark Night, and the son of Cronos who sits above and dwells in the aether, set her in the roots of earth; and she is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbor, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbor vies with his neighbor as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men."

Here's the same passage, translated by Stanley Lombardo in 1993.

"It looks like there's not just one kind of Strife - that's Eris - after all, but two on the Earth. You'd praise one of them once you got to know her, but the other's plain blameworthy. They've just got completely opposite temperaments. One of them favors war and fighting. She's a mean cuss and nobody likes her, but everybody honors her, this ornery Eris. They have to: it's the gods' will. The other was born first, though. Ebony Night bore her, and Kronos' son who sits high in thin air set her in Earth's roots, and she's a lot better for humans. Even shiftless folks she gets stirred up to work. When a person's lazing about and sees his neighbor getting rich, because he hurries to plow and plant and put his homestead in order, he tends to compete with that neighbor in a race to get rich. Strife like this does people good." 

Those two don't have any different meaning, do they? I don't think so. The second one obviously reads better for a modern audience. And since Hesiod is said by Greek linguists to have used a "rustic" voice, maybe the second version is actually closer to the style Hesoid intended. The first, translated long ago, seems to attempt to sound formal and "classy," probably because of the "serious" subject matter of ancient Greece. Personally, I prefer the latter.

Many Greek plays, especially, were first translated into English at a time when modern sensibilities blushed at some of the crudity of Greek comedy. Next time we'll look at the play Lysistrata, and compare a Victorian-era translation with one done in the 1980s. I think you'll find the difference between the two much starker than what we see here in these translations of Hesiod.

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