In the summer of 1815, the poet John Keats and his friend Charles Cowden Clarke stayed up all one night in Clarke’s lodgings reading a borrowed copy of Chapman’s translation of Homer. At dawn, Keats went home. Later, when Clarke came down to breakfast, he found a sonnet Keats had sent him: “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” In the poem, Keats described how the night’s reading had affected him. [Keats changed the word “wond’ring” to “eagle” before publication.]
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The Keats and Clarke story is printed along with the poem in The Complete Poetical Works of Keats, Cambridge Edition. My sister gave me the book on my eighteenth birthday. All these many years later, her gift sits, sandwiched between David Ignatow and Pablo Neruda, within arm’s reach of my work desk. It has stayed with me from Mississippi to Pennsylvania to Israel.
It is interesting to note that Homer’s effect on Keats resulted from reading the work in English, not ancient Greek. Another great translator of Homer was the English poet Alexander Pope. In the Preface to his translation of the Iliad, Pope writes of the challenge of translating Homer into English from Greek, “a superior language.”
I want to draw attention to three words Pope uses here: spirit, darkness, light. It is these non-textual qualities of the original work that are put at risk by translation. Consider darkness, for example. Sometimes there is an obscurity in a source text that can tempt a translator to remove it. At times, the opacity is the result of textual corruption. At other times, the ambiguity may be present on purpose, put in by the author intentionally. Pope suggests that the best method for handling these obscurities is to translate them “almost” literally.
In Act II of The Playboy of the Western World , the Irish poet and dramatist, John Millington Synge [1871 – 1909], wrote: “A translation is no translation…unless it will give you the music of a poem along with the words of it.” Notice how, like Pope, Synge uses a non-textual quality of a poem, its music, to identify a literary quality of poetry put at risk in translation.
I want to share four different translators’ versions of a few lines from the Iliad describing the death of Gorgythion—one of King Priam’s sons. I picked this passage on purpose since Gorgythion is only a minor character in the poem. While some translators may pay more attention to sections dealing with major characters, their handling of these small passages displays their talent best, so it seems to me. So, first, let’s look at an interlinear version of the lines to get an idea of what the source text says literally.
Now let’s look at four translations of the source text.
George Chapman [1559? – 1634]
And as a crimson Poppie flower, surcharged with his seed
And vernall humors falling thicke, declines his heavie brow;
So of one side his helmet’s weight his fainting head did bow.
Alexander Pope [1688 – 1744]
As full-blown poppies overcharged with rain
Decline the head, and drooping kiss the plain;
So sinks the youth: his beauteous head, depressed
Beneath his helmet, drops upon his breast.
Richmond Lattimore [1906 – 1984]
He bent drooping his head to one side, as a garden poppy
bends beneath the weight of its yield and the rains of springtime;
so his head bent slack to one side beneath the helm’s weight.
—The Iliad of Homer. University of Chicago Press.
Caroline Alexander [Born 1956. Translation of The Iliad 2015]
His head hung to one side like a garden poppy
made heavy with seed and the showers of spring;
so his head drooped, weighed down by his helmet.
—The Iliad. Ecco.
Which of the versions do you prefer? Which one do you think, using Pope’s words, is a version almost literal that preserves a light of antiquity, that captures the beauty of Homer’s vision?
My wife tends a small flower garden that borders the entry to our home. There are no poppies in it. However, there are narcissi. It is the rainy season in the Land of Israel. On a recent morning, when taking our dog for a walk, I noticed it had rained overnight. Some narcissus flowers in our front yard were bent by the night’s rain. It was hard not to think of Homer’s description of the death of Gorgythion.
Experts disagree about whether or not Homer was blind. Some even think he might not have existed at all. Whatever the truth is, what matters to me as a reader is that whoever wrote the Iliad enabled me to see the world with different eyes. And for me, I do it wearing the glasses provided by gifted translators. I owe them an incredible debt of gratitude.
All the best,