Also Seen: The Decline in Translation

An excerpt from a review-article in the New Criterion of D.S.. Carne-Ross, Classics and Translation:

That revolution in our notion of a translator’s work has altered both the course of English literature and the place of the Classics in our culture. I can point to two concrete effects. First, readers are now far less critical in their engagement with translations from the Classics. Translators, publishers, and reviewers alike, in making claims for a translator’s accuracy or transparency, have led us to assume that we are “getting,” say, Homer. But we’re not. We’re getting (say) Richmond Lattimore or Robert Fitzgerald or Robert Fagles, Americans writing a book in English, and each writer very different from the others. Readers of Classical translation today most often lack what Keats had: an awareness of the particular qualities of a translation itself, of whatever (good or bad) the translator adds to whatever of Homer has managed to come through.

A second effect has been a diminishment in the ambition of translations. The new expectation that the job of a translator is to adhere to scholarly accuracy, to become invisible to his readers, has stunted the growth of one of our literature’s fruitful boughs. The market—and it is now, as we will presently see, largely a classroom-driven market—demands a narrow sort of fidelity that would be hostile to a Chapman or a Pope. If Homer (to stick with that example) is to have a living place in the literature of the English-speaking world, as opposed to merely in the academy, he must have translators of superior original gifts, poets who can give us versions capable of inspiring readers, including poets, as Chapman had inspired Keats. But translators of the Classics now rarely speak out loud and strong.

I have been leading to this point: that for the sake of English literature and for the future of the Classics in our culture, we need critics who will attend closely to the literary character of translations from the Classics. Fortunately there has been such a critic, and a great one.

The whole thing is definitely worth reading …

2 thoughts on “Also Seen: The Decline in Translation

  1. I recall my Greek teacher in Seminary speaking about one of the Loeb translations (golly, can’t recall which: Josephus or Philo or Clement — something relevant to an NT/early Xty scholar), saying that at first he felt the translation too loose, but as he thought about it more, he felt it really caught & illuminated the meaning of the text.

  2. Is any of this new? Speaking as a professional translator, the dilemma between absolute faithfulness (impossible) and perfect natural beauty in the target language (also impossible) is constant. So, unfortunately, is most readers’ inability to realize that the translation is not the original.

    What’s new is how many “classicists” and Mediterranean archaeologists have no Latin/Greek and have thus forced themselves to rely on translations.

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