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Pool: Gained in translation?

By Frank Pool
Dec. 12, 2017 at 4 a.m.
Updated Dec. 12, 2017 at 8:59 a.m.


A recent spate of translations provides new looks at old books. Why is this happening, and what's the point of translating something when it's been done many times before?

Though there's a steady stream of translations into English from contemporary writers, I've been struck by the contemporary engagement with the fundamental texts of Western civilization.

Emily Wilson has published a new translation of the "Odyssey" that, according to one review, "scrapes the barnacles off Homer's hull." Wilson is the first woman to translate it in full and her work gets positive attention for its complexity and the double consciousness of a woman's perspective on the ancient epic.

Virgil's "Aeneid" has been a staple of English translation for half a millennium. David Ferry has a new try at that in the words of one reviewer provides "regularity of meter, clarity of image, simplicity of language, understatement of the horrific. Throughout, Ferry maintains a coolness even amid the most terrible drama."

Sarah Ruden is a translator of classical literature both pagan and Christian. She has translated Virgil and "The Golden Ass" by Apuleius. Most recently she has presented us with a new edition of "The Confessions of St. Augustine."

Augustine addressed God as "dominus," which means "Master," and Ruden uses this word instead of the more grand "Lord." According to one learned reviewer, this move helps make the God who so moved Augustine into a real presence in his autobiographical meditations.

Any translator must decide between two opposing factors, whether to be as literal and faithful as possible to the original language or to make the work beautiful and comprehensible for the readers who encounter the translation.

Both approaches have problems. A "dynamic equivalency" at its worst degenerates into mere paraphrase studded with anachronisms. A literal approach may not convey shades of meaning that were present in the original or make idioms opaque.

Perhaps the most interesting of the recent translations is David Bentley Hart's new reworking of the New Testament. Hart, who is an Orthodox Christian, says, "My aim is simply to make the modern English reader 'hear' the words of the text as words in common meanings, as early Greek-speaking Christians would have done." He attempts to produce an "almost pitilessly literal" translation.

He is also conscious that the authors of the New Testament did not write in particularly good Greek. This is most true in the case of Mark. Where Mark writes bad Greek, Hart translates into bad English. This brings out the different voices of the writers. So far I've only read Mark and John and Luke, whose styles are each distinctive in this translation.

Hart's appendix "Concluding Scientific Postscript" summarizes the reasons he translates important words as he does. He believes familiarity has numbed readers to the urgency and intensity of the original, and that we read encumbered by later interpretations.

He says he wants to highlight the "strangeness of the text: the novelty, the impenetrability, the frequently unfinished quality of the prose and of the theology." Further he believes that usually the "more unsettling rendering is the more accurate."

This translation is not meant for liturgical use but for those who are most interested in textual criticism. As one reviewer noted in a generally positive essay, Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek, so even the New Testament translates his words.

I don't read Greek, so I compare various translations of Homer or Scripture to see how many ways a text can be rendered. I also note the consensus of scholars who have devoted years to close study and wide reading.

The latter strategy is useful in many other fields, like science.

— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and a retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School.

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