What's with all the translations of ancient epics?
In recent weeks, I've read a number of reviews about new renditions of Homer's "The Illiad" and "Odyssey" and Virgil's "The Aeneid."
The critic Daniel Mendelsohn caught the enthusiasm for ancient stories with his memoir "An Odyssey, A Father, a Son and an Epic." Published last September, the book relates how Mendelsohn and his father gained new understanding of each other when the father monitored Mendelsohn's course at Bard College on "The Odyssey."
The Sunday New York Times magazine last week ran Wayne Mason's effusive profile of Emily Wilson, whose "Odyssey" will soon appear. The daughter of English historian and biographer A.N. Wilson, known for changing teams from atheists to believers, Wilson is the first woman to translate "The Odyssey." She's not the first to do Homer though - Caroline Alexander joined the long list of "Illiad" translators in 2016.
Poet April Bernard in the current New York Review of Books praises David Ferry's new translation of "The Aenied," although I didn't find anything that special in the passages she cited.
Bernard values Ferry's deft handling of meter in his blank verse lines while finding Robert Fagles' much lauded version of a few years ago too loose in its free verse. But Bernard extols another oft-praised translator, Robert Fitzgerald, who like Fagles got around to many of the classics. Bernard also finds space to tweak John Dryden for his translation from the 17th century.
The New York Review also recently ran a positive review of new Illiads by classicist Peter Green, who got around to his work nearing age 90, and Barry Powell. The reviewer found both translations worthy, with strengths and weaknesses. I plan to try the Green book, having enjoyed his reviews for many years in the London Review of Books.
Mason's New York Times magazine profile of Wilson overpraised Wilson for her translation of a Greek word that ambiguously describes the hero Odysseus as "turned" or "turning." Mason acclaims Wilson's brilliance for translating the term as "complicated," which fails to indicate Odysseus' reputation as a devious trickster.
Along with Fagles and Fitzgerald, Richard Lattimore is remembered as an exemplary translator of the classics. Going further back, the club includes Alexander Pope, and George Chapman, the first English translator of Homer, whose work so thrilled Keats.
As conventional wisdom claims the diminishment of publishing, it's encouraging that ancient texts receive such love. Translations arrive almost as frequently as new books, reflecting the poverty of today's literary imagination.
Who keeps reading - and buying - all of these translations? Perhaps they are mostly for whatever colleges courses still feature dead, somewhat white, male writers. A slice of readers must keep devouring the same stories over and over in different translations.
The audience for contemporary poetry is small. Readers show they love traditional rhythms, like Ferry's. Years ago, poetry stopped being used for long narratives, with a few exceptions. The continual wave of classics, along with translations of Dante, indicate a hunger for long-form verse.
The ancient stories, still mined by Hollywood, give basic emotions of heroism, adventure, travel, sex, family, mercy and war. They'll reach us until the last human voice falls silent.