Four or Five Hectors
for Stefan Hagemann
I just recommended Lombardo's Iliad to my friend Stefan Hagemann, so I'll make a case for my choice by looking at how Lombardo and three other principal translators—Richmond Lattimore (1951), Robert Fitzgerald (1974), and Robert Fagles (1990)—handle this one line. Here is Lattimore's Hector:
Yes, Lattimore is close to the literal sense of the Greek (as we'll soon see). And he manages to suggest Homer's hexameter, though I'm not convinced that a six-stress line in English brings a reader of the poem closer to the original than, say, a loose pentameter does. Indeed, attempting to emulate Greek metrics often prompts Lattimore to pad, saying things as uneconomically as possible to match the movement of Homer's polysyllabic words. That doesn't happen with this line, but it happens often in Lattimore's translations of Homer and Sappho (whose sapphics he matches syllable for syllable).
George Steiner's praise of Lattimore as a translator who brings Homer into “the American English of [his] day” has always puzzled me. Quite the contrary—Lattimore's phrasing in the Iliad too often has the ungainliness of “translationese”: “since that time when first there stood in division of conflict” (1.6), “to you may the gods grant who have their homes on Olympos / Priam's city to be plundered” (1.18-19), “yet this pleased not the heart of Atreus' son Agamemnon” (1.24). And so on. The problem with Lattimore's version of Hector's words is that it's quite difficult to imagine someone saying “Evil Paris, beautiful, woman-crazy, cajoling.” The four adjectives form a crazy salad; it's particularly difficult to hear cajoling as a term of genuine rebuke. And what's urgently missing from Lattimore's line is you, the inevitable pronoun of rebuke in spoken American English: “You dirty rat,” “Why you little . . . .”
I love Robert Fitzgerald's Odyssey , but like many readers, I find him less at home in the Iliad . Here is Fitzgerald's Hector:
This Hector makes no overt reference to Paris' appearance; “a gallant sight” sounds like a comment on Paris' retreat. That's a curious shift, as Homer has just noted Paris' glamorous leopard-skin. (Paris is “pimped out,” as a student put it.) And as for “You bad-luck charm!”—that phrase introduces a tone of high camp that I find bewildering in this context. It's as if Hector has morphed into Frasier Crane.
Robert Fagles has picked up all the establishment honors, but his translations of Homer (and Aeschylus) seem to me to strain too hard for a faux-lofty, Yeatsian rhetoric. Rarely do they, for me, ring true. Here is Fagles' Hector:
What I notice first is the sheer verbiage: what Homer does in five words, Lattimore and Lombardo in six, Fitzgerald in eleven, Fagles does in sixteen. Fagles' Hector speaks with stagey repetition and with two!—two!— exclamation points (as does Fitzgerald's Hector).
Another problem: Fagles' translation seems misleading for new readers of the poem, for the Paris of the Iliad has lured neither Helen nor any other woman. (There is no “them all.”) The Iliad presents Helen as a captive filled with contempt for her captor. It's not at all clear that she's been, in some 19th-century way, “ruined”: though she's filled with shame and self-hatred, the poem never passes judgment on her, treating her rather with considerable compassion. (Helen becomes of course a very different figure in Odyssey 4—drugging the wine and professing her patriotism, an elegant lady doing damage control on a scandalous past.)
Looking at these four versions of Hector's words, I'm drawn to the blunt, plainspoken language of Lombardo's translation. Anachronistic as Lombardo's diction may be, I'm delighted by Hector's characterization of his brother as a “pretty boy”—a mere dazzling surface. The seeming outrageousness of Lombardo's diction here is enough to make any reader wonder what's going on in the Greek. Is there really a “pretty boy,” or language even close to that, in the Iliad ? Here finally is a fifth Hector:
The Greek immediately reveals a wonderful surprise: Lombardo's “desperate” is an inspired way of bringing Duspari (which by chance it resembles) into English. There's no “pretty boy” in the Greek, but Hector's praise of his brother's looks makes sense only if it's bitterly sardonic, and “pretty boy” suggests the right sort of contempt for someone who merely looks impressive (eidos : “that which is seen”). Noticing the similarity of sound between Duspari and desperate makes me wonder if the sound of hêperopeuta inspired Lombardo to think of “pretty boy.” Try saying the Greek word; it's easy to hear exasperation in the aspirated initial vowel, and the explosive p sounds are like two short blasts of contempt.
For me, Lombardo's translation of this line is best—close to the Greek without falling into awkward literalism, plainspoken and furious as befits Hector, and inspired at its beginning, and perhaps at its end, by the sound of the original. Who could ask for anything more? Looking at this line in four translations and in Greek reminds me of why I choose Lombardo's Iliad when I teach.
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