Limits of the Literal, Fidelity of the Free

By Haxton, Brooks | The Antioch Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Limits of the Literal, Fidelity of the Free


Haxton, Brooks, The Antioch Review


Twenty-six-hundred years ago, on the western coast of Anatolia and on the islands nearby, poetry reached almost everyone. It was performed by women of the upper class, by men of little means, by soldiers, prostitutes, aristocrats, progressive statesmen, maiden votaries, and philosophers.

They celebrated an awakening in language as radical as that in sculpture, where the stiff smooth limbs of the Egyptian kouroi thawed, bending and rippling with the muscle of athletes and warriors, while the rigid korai became supple representations of young women more lifelike than ever anywhere on earth. Lyric poetry in Greek, developing from the Homeric epics and from the lyric traditions of Africa and Asia, did in its verbal representation of the psyche what sculptors did in three-dimensional form.

Never having studied Ancient Greek, I began a few years ago to feel drawn toward my favorite lyrics and epigrams in the original language. I wanted to get closer to poetry I had found in various translations livelier, more deeply intelligent, funnier, more beautiful, and more and more moving over the years.

For every Greek word, at first, I used my dictionary and grammar book. With the help of Allen's Vox Graeca, I read aloud. In free translation, then, with no hope of reproducing the original prosody, I tried to deliver as much as possible of some of my favorite old poems into English. More often than not, my versions maintain literal accuracy. But the freest of them are far from paraphrase.

A short poem by Theokritos, "Inscription XIII," is my freest translation, a stretch for something that got lost in paraphrase. To show the limits of the literal, here is J.M. Edmonds's literally accurate prose trot of the poem from The Greek Bucolic Poets, first printed in 1912.

This is not the people's Cyprian, but pray when you propitiate this Goddess do so by the name of Heavenly; for this is the offering of a chaste woman, to wit of Chrysogone, in the house of Amphicles, whose children and whose life she shared; so that beginning, Great Lady, with worship of thee, they ever increased their happiness with the years. For any that have a care for the Immortals are better off for it themselves.

Although bits of connecting language are more conspicuous in English than in Greek, and some awkwardness, such as the repeated for's, might have been avoided, this version gives beginners like me a very useful construe of the original. Even the woodenness of the prose is helpful as a reminder that the pony is not the poem. Vestiges of high style in English reflect the flavor of the original, though they show more strain now than they did at the turn of the last century.

Here is Daryl Hine' s freer paraphrase in meter and rhyme, from his excellent book of translations, Theocritus: Idylls and Epigrams, 1982.

This is no vulgar Venus. Addressing her in prayer,

Call her celestial. Chaste Crysogona set her up here

In the household of Amphicles whose life she was happy to share

And whose children she bore. Better and better each year

Their fortunes, beginning with you, gracious lady, for men who revere

The gods are themselves always sure to get more than their share.

Hine delivers with rhyme, rhythm, and tighter phrasing, a feel of verse that we miss in Edmonds, though galloping anapests, especially in the last two lines, and insistent rhymes and chimes, make this sound closer to light verse in English than I believe Theokritos sounds in the Greek.

The sense of the poem comes clearer in Hine's less drawn-out syntax than in Edmonds. This clarification is true to the original effect, because the Greek is clear, with its abundance of particles and precise, inflected forms. The Greek reader needed less exposition, because author speaking for patron was commonplace in that time, as was the act of worship before a statue of the goddess, and the poetic genre of statuary inscription. …

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