08 September, 2006

All Greek to me?

Not a post, today, but a non-post, the space where a post should have been.

Three years ago I got around to reading Robert Fagles' lauded translation of the Iliad. It's okay, swift and energetic and all that, full of stock phrases, nothing all that special. In Book 3, Helen sits on the walls of Troy with Priam and tells him about the heroes—the scene is called the teichoscopy or 'looking from the walls'. Referring to Agamemnon, she says, in Fagles' translation, line 134 (underlining mine):
he used to be my kinsman, whore that I am!
There was a world. . . or was it all a dream?
The latter line immediately seemed false: it just didn't sound like the sort of thing Homer would 'write'. I checked the Greek and found nothing to correspond to the phrase. So I thought I'd email Fagles and ask him why the hell he'd put the phrase in; but I never got around to it. Recently I was thinking about the issue again, so I returned to Fagles' text, found the line, and went to check the Greek again. Sadly, I discovered that it was there after all, line 180:
δαηρ αυτ εμος εσκε κυνωπιδος ει ποτ εην γε
Samuel Butler renders the whole line: 'brother-in-law as surely as that he lives, to my abhorred and miserable self', while Walter Leaf renders it 'And he was my husband's brother to me, ah shameless me; if ever such an one there was'. So it turns out that 'ει ποτ εην γε' is Homeric; my instincts were just plain wrong. I do think the insertion of 'There was a world' remains a little heavy, though. In his 1900 Commentary on the Iliad, Leaf notes:
this phrase occurs in five other places, viz. 11.762, 24.426, Od. 15.268, Od. 19.315, Od. 24.289. It is always, except in Ô and ô, preceded by some form of einai ['to be']. It is commonly taken to mean ‘if indeed it is not all a dream,’ si unquam fuit quod non est amplius, i.e. si recte dici potest fuisse quod ita sui factum est dissimile ut fuisse nunquam credas, G. Hermann. The doubt would then be a rhetorical way of emphasizing the bitter contrast between the past and the present.


Anonymous said...

Agree that the Fagles translation sounds too modern, and the Greek goes right to the "existential" question to express what we might use Freudian language for.

But I'm surprised you didn't go after Helen calling herself "dogface"! Another aspect of two incompatible worlds.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I was going to add a note, but thought better of it. Lewis and Short gives 'dog-eyed' as better. It is telling, though; perhaps we might translate it as 'bitch'...?

Anonymous said...

Fagles uses "bitch that I am" in Helen's mouth in another context. Here he probably thought it excessive. The line gets its force from the esthetic contrast of Helen's face (or eyes) with a dog's as indicative of a rift between two worlds.


Conrad H. Roth said...

A better reader than I, gentlemen.